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Money

Career-Propelling Money Advice for Creatives

From negotiating a better rate, to wrangling the important (but not so fun) parts of your freelance business — we combed the 99U archives to find 8 timeless tips to help make you more savvy when selling your work.


The most important thing someone working in a creative business needs to remember is that it’s still a business. Just because it’s characterized as “creative” doesn’t mean that it should be fundamentally organized or run any differently than those in “serious” fields like financial services and accounting.

And yet, all too often creatives, whether they’re freelancers or managing their own design firms, approach the business aspect of their profession with a sense of trepidation, nonchalance, or both. It could stem from the fact that since creatives make what they produce, they feel it’s a direct reflection of them personally and are more insecure about asking for the full value of the product. In other cases, creatives eyes glaze over when contemplating things like contracts, invoices, and project fees (because none of these are nearly as exciting as taking photos in the African bush or designing a brand’s identity from scratch.)

But creatives need to remember that they are business people whose particular craft is illustration, graphic design, or whatever other art form it may be. Since we make a living from selling – not producing – our work, there is no separating art from commerce. In that spirit, we’ve rounded up 99U’s best money advice for creatives from our past interviews and insights.

Never work for free

There are some people who say that the best way to break into the creative industry is by initially working for free to gain experience. However, others vehemently oppose that idea because they believe it harms a creative’s ability to make a fair income down the road. Texas sign painter Norma Jeanne Maloney weighs in on the debate: “I really have a huge amount of disdain for people who say that an artist can hang their work in a coffee shop, or whatever the business is, in exchange for “exposure,” says Maloney. “That is the biggest cop out for not paying people what they’re worth. In retrospect, when I look back on my career, I wish I would have drawn a harder line in the sand. I won’t work for free now, and I do not encourage anyone I know to do that. Giving your art away for free is a serious trap, because people will say, “You did it for them for free, why aren’t you doing that for me?” If you bank yourself as someone who works for less than nothing, you will never be able to charge what you’re worth.”

“Giving your art away for free is a serious trap.”

Don’t charge less for work that comes easy to you…

When something comes naturally to you, it can seem wrong to charge a large amount of money for it, writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders. The more you do something, the easier it becomes, causing you to think about charging less to, say, design packaging that now takes you two hours to complete rather than the four it took when you were starting out. But don’t discount your skills or experience level when factoring your rate. Something that takes you a short amount of time might be impossible for your clients to create on their own. Plus, many professionals, from doctors to plumbers, are paid certain going rates, regardless of whether their job was easy or difficult. Similarly, you should be compensated for the value you contribute, rather than by calculating how simple the job is for you.

…And consider what your client gets from your work and factor that into the rate

Too often we set our rates for our work based on certain standards, like the price per hour or project. The problem with that approach is that it only takes into account what you put into the project and not what your client gets out of it. Instead, look at yourself as a creative problem solver and ask yourself How much is it worth for your client to make their problem go away? “This is going to help you create a compelling proposal that’s much more than ‘here’s a list of what I’ll do and a price,’” writes Brennan Dunn. So if you’re designing a brand logo for an international company that will be seen by people all over the world, certainly factor that into your rate, as the job is decidedly worth more to you and your client than if you were designing a brand logo for a local restaurant.

Look at yourself as a creative problem solver and ask yourself How much is it worth for your client to make their problem go away?

Negotiate on your terms

When a big company that could change your career comes knocking, it may be tempting to practically do the job for free. But stand firm and let them be the first ones to name a payment figure (which is also true for salary negotiations).

Photographer Adrian Wilson always begins rate negotiations by asking the client what their budget is, rather than giving his day rate. So when Oakley emailed him in 2012, the company said they had a budget of $34,000 for Wilson to shoot 10 to 12 retail stores in different states. If Wilson could make that work, he was told he had the gig. Wilson said he could and earned his day rate and then some, all because he let Oakley name the first number. “Clients don’t get to choose to pay me less, but I get to choose if I accept more,” he says.

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By Ryan Choi at the Noun Project

Address how changes to the project will affect your fees

Even when you’ve clearly defined the scope of work, clients will sometimes change what they originally asked for, notes Vinay Jain. This can lead to them expecting you to do additional work for no additional money, a situation where a clear written agreement can really help.  State in your contract that changes to the scope of work will lead to additional fees, the process for doing so, and also how many rounds of revisions, if any, are included in your base fee. You can even specify what you will charge for additional rounds. If you think there’s any room for doubt in your client’s mind about what constitutes a “round” or a “revision,” spell out what those terms mean to you. Here’s a basic example:

“Designer’s Fee includes 1 round of revisions, provided that such revisions do not require work exceeding the Scope of Work as defined in this Agreement. Designer may decline, or charge additionally for, work that Designer reasonably deems to be beyond the Scope of Work.”

Maintain your leverage until you receive payment  

When Behance member Mustafa Aslan gives client his payment terms, he notes that he will first send a low-res preview of the finished work, for the client to approve and accept. Once the client has accepted the work, Alsan requires that they send payment before he releases the original file. It’s a clever way to conduct the transaction, especially when dealing with a new client. “This method is like the optimal way to secure a payment,” says Aslan. “It creates trust, because every time you get paid, you send them a proof about the work done.”

Pay yourself the equivalent of a salary, so you have a year-round income

For those whose earnings ebbs and flows throughout the year, it can be impossible to count on a regular income. So once you have built up a steady roster of existing clients, pay yourself a monthly “salary” that is one-twelfth of your annual earnings. A predictable pay structure allows you to work and live with the predictability and structure of a salaried employee.

JUCO Photography co-founder Julia Gardo and her co-founder Cody Cloud—whose clients include Target, Lexus and Apple—use this system at their two-person agency. Incoming checks are distributed among the various JUCO business expenses—including agent fees, taxes and overhead—and the rest is put in a compensation account. Gardo and Cloud then pay themselves the same amount every month, whether they did a $10,000 or $50,000 job that month. “We can’t have less than $40,000 in the account,” says Gardo. “That is so we know we are able to pay ourselves out.”

Sweat the small, nitpicky stuff related to money

Contracts, invoices, tax forms, expenses reports, budgets – no creative truly likes pouring through these kinds of documents. But think of them as the glue that holds your business together. As such, you’ve got to both continuously review and properly store them (and no, shoving them into the back of a drawer doesn’t count as “storing” them.) I like to use Friday afternoon when I’m tuckered out from my creative projects to firm up all of my loose financial ends – sending out invoices, tracking expenses, and combing through my contracts to make sure all is well and fair.

Of all the meetings you take, the recurring one focused on keeping your finances tidy is the arguably the most important. At least once a month sit down and review your finances so you’re aware of what’s coming in and going out. And, if you’re like me and you need an assist in the numbers / legal departments, you can always hire an accountant or lawyer to do it. That way you both protect your financial and operations flank, while freeing up your time for your creative pursuits.

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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