The summer I was 19 years old, my friend Tom and I moved to Boulder and got jobs selling windows door to door. We’d canvass the most depressing tracts of residential housing outside of Denver, trying to sign homeowners up for predatory in-home estimates on their windows and glass sliding doors. We were just kids, didn’t know any better, and it was the only place hiring at the time.
Sometimes we’d play this game called “bigger or better,” which went like this: You had to start with something in your pocket. A pen, a bottle cap, a crystal (we were hippies). You’d then knock on a random person’s door, deliver the scripted pitch, and once it was predictably declined, you’d offer the item as a trade to the homeowner for something “bigger or better.”
This process was then repeated, constantly trading up (a pen for a marble, a marble for a baseball, etc…) until you compared your haul with your opponent at the end of the day. The biggest thing Tom ever got was a single ski. We were the worst employees ever.
In the end, “Bigger or Better” is all about negotiation. It takes a lot of moxie to try and convince a stranger in his own home to trade you junk for junk, but the game taught me more about business than selling windows ever could.
Better Than Bottlecaps
As a freelancer, learning to negotiate is important. But many people feel awkward doing it and will rarely ask for more money for a gig, even if they know they’re being undercut. Sometimes we all take lower paying jobs because we flat-out need the money. But I’ve found that it’s almost always worth it to negotiate a higher fee when presented with an offer that feels a little slim.
Pricing your time is super tricky and it takes a while to get it right. Once you decide upon a reasonable amount an hour of your life is worth, try to stick to it and keep going after bigger clients amidst the inevitable rejections. People inherently see value in things that are more expensive. However, it’s a balancing act to not overprice yourself.
Determine a fair rate for your services based on your experience and an honest assessment of your own skill level, and don’t drop much below that unless the fridge is empty and rent’s overdue.
Value Clients Who Value You
Most of the time, if a client is offering money for a job, they are genuinely interested in your work. If it’s a lowball offer and they won’t budge, they probably won’t be great clients to work with anyhow.
In every U.S. state except Montana, employment agreements are “At Will”, which means that an employer can legally reject a counter-offer and pull the job off the table, no questions asked.
But again, if you’re dealing with the type of client who would do that, is that really the type of person you want to get involved with?
The Best (Negotiating) Policy
So the following tactic might seem foolish, but bear with me. Some business folks will laud the importance of hardline, FBI-style negotiation tactics. But not me. I try to be as honest as I can, whenever I can, in matters of negotiation. I’ve been successful at asking for more money by laying it all out on the table — especially in a scenario where the person with whom you’re negotiating has a boss in control of the budget, such as a marketing manager who’s soliciting your services for a specific project.
Here’s how I see it. The person at the other end of the table likes what you do, and wants to work with you. But they are bound by certain financial constraints, and based on these, they will make you an offer. If that offer is in your sweet spot, then go for it. If it’s a little low, then tell them what your normal hourly is. That person is a human being, and they will know if you are gaming them or if you are countering with a fair offer. What’s more, that person has likely been in your shoes in some way in the past as well.
Take No for an Answer — Sometimes
The next step is to appeal to them to ask their boss for a higher rate, but also tell them that you will not walk way if they can’t get it for you. Weird, right? But the truth is, people find this sense of honesty refreshing. Also, the person hiring you has a vested interest in getting the highest-quality product they can, so they will often go to bat for you if they think you’re worth it.
But here’s the thing: You better be worth it. This sort of approach only works once, and if you’re awarded a higher rate, then the onus is on you to deliver. Armed with this vision of your wealthier self, go out there and do the best work you possibly can. Next time you might not have to negotiate in the first place.
Incidentally, the winner of “Bigger and Better” was always the guy who was honest about being bored at a terrible job, and this transparency was more likely to elicit a sense of empathy in the perplexed stranger standing at the door. He’d been in our shoes, and by offering up a snow globe from New Mexico in exchange for a dirty baseball, decided to go to bat for the underdog.