Billable Time – A Creative Hard Target

Billable Time - A Creative Hard TargetI remember the first time I got burned. No, not on a stove, but by a client who wanted the world for peanuts. I had done quite a bit of freelance work out of school and started up a design company with the steady client base I had formed. I later moved to Atlanta to broaden the client base and took on a new project that a friend had handed off to me. Little did I know this client was a pain in the neck to work with. My first job with them was rebranding a youth summer camp. It went pretty well. The pay was about standard for what I had charged other clients–maybe a little less since I was trying to build up my database. After the summer was over the client said it had been the best received camp to date and he wanted to start on others ideas for the next year.

The Issues Began
We met and discussed the ideas and themes for the coming year and everyone was in agreement, or so I thought. I got back to work and designed numerous thumbnails and comps. We kept meeting and going around and around–he never seemed satisfied. After a time the client quit returning my calls. I had sunk a lot of time into the project when the client finally called back and dictated exactly what he wanted (which was a step back into the “dark ages”). I knew his audience would not like it but he was the boss, and as the saying goes: “the boss is always right”.

A Learning Process
In the past I had typically billed for time on, what I considered, “real work”. That is, work on tightening up the final/approved comp, the color samples, the final design, and the finished art. That was a mistake. I never had billed for creative thinking and conceptualizing, which in this case was a considerable amount of time. So, I included Concepting in this particular invoice.

The other mistake I had made was not having a contract up front, setting the expectations for the client. Letting them see all the items that would be billable and any penalty charges for late payments.

In the end, the client would not pay for the time spent concepting and then drug his feet on paying out the remaining invoice. Ugh, this was a tough learning experience.

Lessons Learned From A Starving Artist
There is nothing romantic about being a starving artist. On one hand I have heard some students and new professionals say, “But I just love my work and want to create my art”. On the other hand, I have also heard from students and new professionals that think they should be making a Creative Director’s salary shortly after graduation.

Several things I learned from these early mistakes were the following:

  • Set up an initial meeting to understand the scope of the project.
  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Have a contract that lists out how payment for this project will be expected (i.e. one third to begin, one third at approval, one third at final delivery; 50% now, 50% at finish; all monies payable at the end).
  • Explain your pay rates: hourly or per project.
  • Be sure to competitively price yourself. Too little and you’ll be barely paying your bills. Too much and you’ll not be paying your bills.
  • Document all phases of work and time spent.
  • Communicate any issues early and often (especially if it looks like you’re going over budget).
  • Include as much of this information as desirable on your Web site. Create pages that give your rates like Mangoville did.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a “Kill Fee” for time spent on projects that are later dropped.
  • Don’t be afraid to add any increases for out-of-scope or change-of-scope work.
  • Let the client know up front about your Past Due policy. Most large company finance departments pay within 30 days. Feel free to add a late fee for any payments over 45 days old. This is usually not an issue for larger companies but can give incentive to smaller groups to cut you the check quickly.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “No,” to a project or client.
  • Talk about usage of the final art. If you’re creating a logo, remind the client that this will be their brand and identity for years to come. Then bill accordingly.
  • Don’t be afraid to raise you prices from time to time as the cost of living increases.

Related Links
Punchy Time
Graphic Artisits Guild
Web and New Media Pricing
The Freelance Forum (Google your local area for such gatherings)


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