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So you’re a solopreneur! There’s no one to tell you to wear real pants or not to go to that 2:00 p.m. powerlifting class—but there’s also no one to make sure you get paid fairly, or even what to charge at all.
And, if the pants-optional work life appealed to you in the first place, you just might be an introvert. Fortunately, negotiating isn’t especially harder for introverts, particularly with the power of technology (that is, hiding your nervousness behind extremely well-crafted emails). Whether you consider yourself a true introvert or just someone who’s anxious or conflict-avoidant, here are some ways to get started and boost your negotiating game.
If you’re already working as a solopreneur, you might think “Well, I mean, I charge what I charge and it works out fine—I don’t really negotiate.” Here’s a wake-up call: If no one ever says no to your rates, you’re undercharging.
A good price for your services is one that doesn’t totally scare everybody off, but that causes clients to value you and take your time seriously—and that isn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel. Everyone needs to negotiate.
(A quick aside about valuing your work: Like anyone in a “regular job,” you’re going to need cost of living increases, and you’ll want to raise your rates over time as your skills improve. To raise your rates on existing clients, the most painless way is to tell them way in advance. As in: “Eight months from now, my rates are increasing from $X to $XX. Just giving you a heads-up, especially in case you want to lock in any projects before the rate change.”)
But what happens when you’re talking to a new potential client and no one has mentioned money at all? It can be pretty nerve-wracking to be the first person to give a dollar figure. Let’s break it down, step-by-step.
Feeling Out Your Client
If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what you charge, it’s pretty painless—in person or over email—to throw out a range and wait for the person’s reaction. For example:
“This is definitely in my wheelhouse! I’d like to set up a call to better get your specs, but off the cuff I’d say this is a $1200-$2400 project. If that sounds about right, please let me know some times that you’re available for a call.”
“Thanks for your inquiry! I’ve definitely executed projects along these lines before (all in the $3,000-$7,000 range), some alone and some with a team.”
In both of these cases, you’ve given a pretty large range, but still have the opportunity to say, “Oh, this is much simpler than I assumed. I can get it done this weekend for $350 if you want to sign a contract today,” or “I can definitely lead this project, but with something of this size I’ll need to bring in an XYZ expert and block off at least three months. Would you like to see a proposal for that?”
And, of course, one added benefit of throwing out a range is that you’ll scare off people who hoped to get you to work for free or super-cheap. That may seem like a bummer when your potential client just stops replying, but if your casual mention of rates shut things down, they weren’t really a potential client in the first place. Better to find out before you waste your time and talents.
Push It to Email
Say you are terrified of talking about money in person, and hate the idea of a spirited back-and-forth over a desk. If you’re ever put on the spot in an in-person meeting, you can push the money discussion to email—with a few caveats.
It’s fine to use email to stall for time a little bit. But by a “little bit” I mean a day, not a week. Maybe even just a few hours. Like this:
Potential Client: “We’re thinking this shouldn’t be more than a few hundred dollars.”
You: “You know, before I give a fee, I always create a project plan with the steps blocked out. Based on our discussion, I think I’m prepared to do that, so let me work on that this afternoon, and I’ll send you the quote in the morning. Will you be available this afternoon if I need any clarifications while blocking out your project?”
Now, what if you need to write a longer proposal?
Proposals Should Not Be Surprises
When I ran a web development company, I had a completely dysfunctional proposal process. First, I’d have a perfect meeting with the client where we got along great and I impressed them with all my tech talk. Yay! Then I would barely even try to close the deal. I’d just say, “I’ll send you a proposal!” This had the emotional benefit of causing me less stress in the meeting, and avoiding almost any possibility of overt rejection.
Then, later, at my desk, I would have massive anxiety and writer’s block. I’d take way too long to do a proposal, like two weeks instead of two days. I’d make the proposals way fancier than they needed to be to “make up” for how late they were. This was not very successful. Do not do this.
Then, I learned that one of my competitors was wining and dining the clients and following up with a one-page form letter proposal where he’d just write something like “marketing campaign, $10,000.” Sure, that’s not really enough detail for most clients, but it’s better than no proposal at all, which is where my approach was getting me.
These days, if I have to do a proposal, I do it as collaboratively as possible. For instance, “I’m happy to put together a proposal for this with exact deliverables, and the soonest delivery date I can wrangle for you, but before I do that I want to check—it’s going to come in somewhere in the $4000-$5500 range, based on what we discussed today. Does that work for you?”
Another approach is to offer an hourly rate, and then sit down with the client, or offer a shared google doc or spreadsheet, in which you list all the components of the project and how many hours they’ll take. Then you can let the client remove some components if they want to lower the price, and you can also upsell by suggesting other cool features, or ongoing maintenance.
You can also schedule a phone call to walk through a draft proposal with the client. For instance, you could develop a boilerplate proposal (with sections for deliverables, deadlines, revisions, and ongoing maintenance, for example) that you revise for each client while you’re on the phone with them, so you’re never staring at an empty screen, or assigning yourself unnecessary unpaid work. Let them make some choices, so they feel ownership over the proposal.
One pretty major benefit of collaborating on a proposal is that a client would have a pretty hard time bailing on a proposal they actually helped write!
Negotiating Can Be Friendly and Low Key
People sometimes have a very Michael-Douglas-‘80s-movie idea about negotiating, as if you need to put on a boxy business suit and shout over a table or it isn’t really negotiating. Not true! In fact, one of my favorite negotiating techniques when working for a multi-person company is to assume the person I’m talking to is on my side. So instead of, “Don’t you see my skills and experience? I’m worth $1,000 on this project! I will argue you into agreeing!”, you can do something like, “Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to do it for $600. But I really want to make it work. Can you ask for $1000 for me?” Maybe the person I’m talking to is—in fact—the decision-maker. But I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt that there’s some other force at work, and we’re beginning our work relationship on the same team.
When You Hit a Wall
Some people are just cheap, or determined to disrespect you. Better to get out sooner rather than later! You can do this without burning bridges. Try saying: “It won’t be possible for me to move forward at that rate. But let me know if anything changes!” If the client doesn’t seem like a total nightmare, you could pass the gig on to a more junior person. Also, things sometimes just take a long time to come to fruition—a client who can’t meet your rates this year might stall for an entire year or two (“My boss’s teenage nephew is pretty good with computers, let him do it!”) and then finally realize they need a pro.
Negotiation is just the process of working through the details with someone to make sure everyone’s happy. That doesn’t sound so bad. You don’t have to have a certain kind of personality to make it happen. But you do want to have a process in place to calmly (and pleasantly, even!) usher your best potential clients into a mutually beneficial business relationship.