Finding Bjork in the huge cavernous room at Sydney’s Carriageworks, where she was spinning the decks as part of a special Bjork event at the Vivid Sydney festival, was a matter of following the throng into the corner of the room.
Actually seeing her was more challenging. As everyone stood on tip-toes with their mobile phones stretch upwards to the highest point possible, one needed either to be seven foot tall or find the little ledge between two pillars to hoist yourself into, relocate your kidneys and other assorted internal organs, stare slack-jawed at the woman (wearing, of course, something colourfully obscure), before sliding down and slinking away for the next punter to take their place.
I was happy to be there. Scratch that – I was rapt. Bjork’s Debut was the first CD I ever owned and her music was the soundtrack to some major events of my life. She and I grew up together.
I often refer to Bjork when training groups about branding yourself and the importance of using your surname. There aren’t many people in the world who need only go by a single name.
When her tickets went on sale, I jumped for my credit card. You could call me a fan, and I wouldn’t blush. So what does this have to do with charging by the hour?
For the fans
Allow me to indulge in fandom a moment longer: when I purchased my tickets, I didn’t read the fine print. I didn’t care about the detail. Bjork was coming to Sydney, my city, and I would be there. I didn’t read about what was included or not included. I didn’t weight up how many hours were involved and what the cost broke down to per hour. It was Bjork; I would be there.
Of course, we’re not all Bjork. We don’t all have fans. We can’t hope to command the respect and admiration that comes from many decades performing in the public arena supported by a vast collaboration of creatives, each awesome in their own right.
You may run a humble business with a far, far smaller fan base. And this fan base may be price-conscious. They may tell us about their money woes. And how they can’t stretch the budget to encompass certain purchases. They may speak of your business offerings like a luxury, tinted with a little guilt at the expense.
And it’s easy to listen to these guys and be overly self-conscious about your prices. In the interests of being “reasonable” and “fair”, you may break down your costs, and break them down further still. Until one day, you find yourself charging in minute lots and wondering how it came to this.
The invisible investments of business
When I’m updating a WordPress website, my fingers fly across the keyboard. More than 10 years of working as a professional writer and digital marketer means that I can count character spaces in a nano second, knowing exactly how many keystrokes I need to tap back to get my cursor where I want it. I navigate my way around WordPress, Google, Photoshop and Word to get a newsletter together in double-quick time. My ‘select all, cut and paste’ skills are ninja-level.
More than 10 years of creating content on behalf of businesses large, small and solo, means I almost always know exactly what image will best accompany an article. I can visualise it, and then it’s simply a matter of finding one that best matches my imagination.
Similarly, creative brainstorming, crafting killer headlines, spinning creative storylines and determining how best to pluck the heartstrings of a specific group of people is fun. I’m good and quick at it because I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years now. I’ve gotten faster as I’ve gotten better. And that’s just one reason why charging by the hour is foolish.
Your invisible costs
Years ago, a client complained that I charged more than any of his other staff. He told me he had a new employee who he was paying $20 an hour. This guy was hugely enthusiastic – spending his time on YouTube, teaching himself tech skills. He missed the irony of paying someone to learn skills that I was learning in my own time.
As a business owner, you’re not simply working and charging for an hour. You’re bringing the sum total of your years of experience, expertise, insight, education (both formal and self-directed) and the many and varied associated costs of running a business.
Of course, clients don’t know this and don’t particularly care to know this. Your costs of running a business are not their problem. You’re simply charging a rate you deem ‘reasonable’ and they’re either accepting or rejecting this assertion of ‘reasonableness’.
In actuality, what you deem as reasonable is usually a cursory summation of the industry average, in relation to your self-perception and self-esteem. If you believe you are slightly less than the median expertise, you’ll usually charge slightly less than the median price. If you believe you’re a little better, you charge a little more than median.
As business owners, it’s our duty to understand the value of what we do and communicate this to prospects or clients. When we’re able to do this skilfully, we’re able to help others decide whether or not they really need it.
Without being able to adequately communicate the value of what we do, we’re asking people to take a risk. It’s a long way from Bjork on the decks.
Alternatives to charging by the hour
Before I stopped charging by the hour, I increased my hourly rate several times over several years, losing a few clients in the process. Eventually, I changed up what I offered and how I charged and began creating packages with set prices (which were due up front in full) or I’d quote a set project fee, charging 50 per cent up front.
When you’re a service professional, it feels safer to charge by the hour. We figure we don’t know exactly how long a project will take, how much hand-holding a client will need and how much follow-up will be required, so it seems to make sense to charge for our time.
But charging by the hour introduces friction: clients feel nervous not knowing what the total charge will be; clients feel somewhat invested in the speed in which you work; clients mistake quality for speed; you feel pressured to work faster; because of this pressure you may take short-cuts.
Charging a set amount for a package or a set project fee enables clients to budget for the work. It forces you to better communicate the value of what you offer and keeps you concentrating on creating great work, not the clock.
If we’re to increase word-of-mouth referrals, grow our reputation, build our brand and expand our fanbase, we must stop valuing our time in dollar amounts. We serve others, using our skills, experience, insight. We produce and deliver value with a real world application that brings tangible results, even when it’s as seemingly intangible as counsel and advice.
If we’re to ever hope to touch the edges of Bjork’s body of work, we need to stop charging by the hour and start thinking about our work as assets and experiences.
Minutes and hours aren’t a good measure of quality or skill. A body of great work takes time. Unbinded time. Time to create it, refine it, learn, grow and relaunch. Unless you’re Bjork, who has no need to launch or relaunch anything.
Heading image: by Bertrand – Flickr, CC BY 2.0.