Why You're Valued at Less Than 50% - 6 tips for beginning freelancers
“Think about the most painful experience of criticism…How does it touch on something you fear might be true about yourself?” ~ Tara Mohr
You know me: I’m that writer scribbling notes on the subway, that introvert who winces at a sneeze. I love the world for its tiny miracles, and love describing them as they unfold.
Dingy dollars don’t belong here---not in my space of color and light. What care do I for negotiations and material possessions? The starving artist is, after all, a productive artist.
So I watched my savings account dwindle and the cracked heels of my feet grow parched; the dream catcher’s feathers frayed in the wind. I bowed to the altar of the Muse while next month’s rent loomed in the background.
I needed to ask for money.
Specifically: I needed to get paid for my writing.
Or more accurate: I was forced to declare my worth.
PEN FOR HIRE
My first few clients were kind. They valued my writing and served as positive references.
The more gigs I accrued, the more courage I collected. Writing assignments could be interesting—indeed fun!—if I approached them with the right attitude. Sure, software blogs were dull but how could I spice them up? I didn’t know much about weddings but I understood mood boards and DIY tricks. Like a muscle, my craft grew stronger the more I flexed it, and I whipped through assignments like my livelihood depended on it.
Because it did.
One night, Paragraph #3 of Draft #4 woke me in my sleep. I pulled out pen and paper, and started to rewrite (again) a sentence I thought my client would prefer. As I wrote, a thought floated into my brain: “You should be getting more for what you do.”
Where did that come from?
X MARKS THE SPOT
In a life where self-worth is measured by serving, the word “get” feels positively foreign. I’m a person who gives and feels grateful, not someone who receives and gets greedy. Those ideas (like my writing and business) don’t mix.
Behold next month’s client—we’ll call her “X”—who requested a complete rebranding. She wanted a company mission statement, tagline, and several site pages. I charged her less than—gasp!—$400 and asked for a 10% deposit (rookie mistake).
The client was new to her industry, and this business represented a fresh start. She was concerned about her newbie status but I believed she could pull off a late-career pivot.
I turned X into a “seasoned professional” who tackles the “strategic, artistic, and administrative aspects of her company.” Her business embraced “modernity” and “resurgence,” all of which tied into her company mission. This copy I vetted with colleagues (all of whom said it was pretty damn good, I might add!), and I submitted draft #1 to my client.
One week passed without a response. X emailed me seven days later to request the copy (“you said you’d have it to me by now”). I explained to X that I sent the copy one week ago, and forwarded her the time-stamped proof. Again, she claimed she did not receive it.
After a few go-arounds, I sent the copy to her personal email address. “I received it. I won't be able to review it until early next week,” she replied, “thank you.”
For three weeks, I made phone calls, sent text messages, and wrote emails to inquire. Was she busy, did she read it, or (worry of all worries) did she hate it? My fears were confirmed through a series of email exchanges:
X: The word [company name] was seriously over used. There were so many things to critique…to be honest I just felt like there was no way to move forward.
(I cried after this first email, then toughened up and responded the following day.)
Me: Indeed, this is unfortunate news; I'm sure it wasn't easy to share this feedback. Thank you for sending. In instances like these, I believe it's helpful to jump on a phone call. We can talk about your concerns, expectations, and evaluate next steps. How does that sound?
No response. I read and reread and re-re-read my copy; was it that terrible? I no longer knew what was good or bad, only that my client hated it. And this amounted to professional failure. I started to believe it was true.
Close associates urged me to send the final invoice. “You still wrote the copy, Julia! How would she feel if she didn’t get paid for a job?”
So I sent the final invoice—not because I thought she’d pay (because in my heart I knew she wouldn’t) but because I felt like it was an important step in declaring my worth.
Here is her response:
X: I thought I communicated it to you that I could not see my self moving forward with you based on the product you delivered… I don't know what else to say, except I absolutely don't feel I owe you a balance! Frankly, I feel insulted, that you can ask.
When people like X come into our lives, they say these folks serve as mirrors to reveal something about ourselves. I have a hard time accepting this teaching.
How could a scattered, payment-evading woman have anything in common with me?
I prayed to my angels and guardians for guidance. Days (and wrenching sobs) later, the answer arrived: I’m scared shitless.
I’m in the communications field without a communications degree. SEO terrifies me and Google algorithms are a track of hurdles. I might know some words but most of them reside in my personal diary. Like a psychic, X unlocked the nastiest belief I feared was true: I’m a bad writer.
Together, X and I exchanged our deepest insecurities. Our businesses rely on “creative talent,” which we both feared were lacking. We were afraid to be seen for what we truly are: complete frauds.
CLIMBING PAST 50%
I cannot thank X for the disrespect I suffered, but I believe the wound needed to be exposed (the wound I’m still treating). And as hurtful as this experience has been, her attack is no match for my mighty salve—that inner voice that tells me to keep going, shrug it off, and say a prayer of gratitude for the lesson learned.
I’ve resolved to get more serious about my business and my worth by creating six CTAs (that means “call to action” in comms speak [see? I’m learning!]):
Write a stronger contract with explicit details;
Charge 50% deposits because my time is valuable (and make sure that 50% is at least minimum wage because some clients will never cough up the remainder);
Briefly allow for sadness when I’m criticized (Psychology Today explains why it's good to feel sad);
Always ask, “What is more important to me than praise or being liked in this situation?” (Tara Mohr talks about this a lot);
Start seeing money for what it is: raw energy, neither good nor bad, but charged with the emotional associations we attach to it (NYT contributor suggests money is a tool);
Start believing I’m worth more than 50%.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Djeke is Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Creative Women’s Lounge. Partnered with this passion project, she writes for agencies and brands from around the globe. You will often find her with a glass of wine or near a yoga mat—either practicing or teaching to individuals and corporations.