How To Sell Expertise, Not Hours Of Work

I thought it would take you a couple of minutes to do this. Why should I pay thousands of dollars for just 10 minutes of your work?

In this post, I will share my experience of working with clients and billing hourly as a designer. Also, some of the key principles and conclusions I came up with.

Charging per hour is easy and does not require lots of calculations. However, this is not the most efficient way of working for you and your clients. Let me explain.

One of My First Remote Work Experiences

I remember stepping into the freelance game and finding my first design projects in a local agency. The point is that they have outsourced the design work they could not do in-house basically because they did not have enough guys to handle it. The easiest way for us to organize the financial part of our agreement was to define the hourly rate, and we agreed that I would send the hours spent on a project after the completion. This was way back in 2012 if I am not mistaken.

I was a newbie at that time, and to put it simply, this agency defined the hourly rate for me, and I decided to just go by the flow and see what happened next.

I must say that $10 per hour for design work was a super low rate at that time, but I decided to take this offer and learn from my mistakes instead of spending time on anything else. Practice makes you learn fast.

I did not know much about the freelance business since I was working in a company. Things were pretty much different there. In short, corporate life is way more organized than freelancing, or at least it is how it felt at that time.

So pretty much I somehow had to organize my time and work processes. All the creative solutions were up to me as well. Even so, I was provided with some guidance. I was in charge of UX, UI, icons design, and technical parts, such as handing off the design to developers.

We had arguments about the time I spent on the work, and perhaps they just saw me as a resource or tool for reducing their costs and delivering the design at the same time. In other words, create designs fast, and the faster I do it, the cheaper it is for them. So at the end of the day, they can profit more from these projects. The main focus was on the time I spent and deliverables (design is good enough, not much more than that). Nobody talked about the value or even close to it.

Long story short, I would not say it was a positive experience, but still, it was an experience. I have learned a lot working with this agency.

The main takeaway from this experience is that you shouldn't position yourself as a resource under any circumstances, especially if you do creative work.

Normally, you are not just selling your time if you are professional or at least have some experience in something. Eventually, you create value if you do some kind of commercial activity. And the time you spend on creating this value matters less if everyone understands it. Time is a false construct anyway. Moreover, it is cyclical. However, this a topic for another article which I think I am going to write and post soon.

Olympian champions do not just participate for a couple of hours or one day in a challenge. They put themselves in years and years of hard training. Professional boxers don't fight for one hour and get paid millions for just this hour. Designers, developers, writers, and similar folks shouldn't be paid by the hour.

There is another model of billing clients called "Value-based pricing."

The problem with Value-based pricing

Oftentimes, we can't see or understand the value of the results we're going to create. That is the hard part and perhaps a topic for a separate blog post. What I want to say here is that sometimes it's impossible to define the exact value of an end product that you create or even if you are doing let's say just a creative part of work for it. and you don't see any other way to do business with clients.

On the other hand, if you are a client, it can be hard and time-consuming to evaluate the level of expertise or experience of somebody you want to hire. Especially, if it's a one-time job.

What you can do is check the background of a person, seek testimonials, talk to the person and understand his thoughts on how he could help you or your business, and see his portfolio of previous projects. The parameters like this in the value-based model may impact the price quote. And aspects like this play the main role in this model. So, yeah, it may seem complicated already on both sides.

In my experience, clients often do not always need something they enclose in their initial request. Of course, there is always an exception. They maybe saw something that competitors do, or they have a shiny new thing syndrome. Anyhow, you can spend time doing the exact same thing that the client asks you to do, or you can think about it and try to understand the value in it. Perhaps, they need something else so a specific area of their business performs better.

Your Profile As A Creative

Instead of selling your hours, you can invest some time in your profile and build a portfolio to help your potential clients better understand the level of your knowledge and expertise. Unfortunately, this is something that we creatives struggle with even tho there are a lot of ready out-of-the-package solutions to quickly build a decent portfolio or really any kind of portfolio.

But the issue is not with the tools that we use to build a profile that works for us. It is how we approach our activities and understand the value that we can create for potential projects.

To make this concept simple, let's figure out what we actually sell if we provide a creative service like design, for example. Of course, it's not the point of what specialty you have, your position title, or any other awards. Although, the latter usually adds value, but usually not the main point. What matters is the amount of experience you have and how this experience related to the problem you're about to solve. Meaning, if you want to evaluate a new project.

Clearly, if you're a client, you'd hire someone experienced to fix your problem rather than somebody who has a mythical title that he does that. That's a different level of trust and quite often a quality of the outcome.

If you want to sell your experience, then you need to show it somehow. For example, build a portfolio with examples of the work you did in the past. Of course, it's a little bit different if you are a software engineer or, let's say, a consultant. However, I believe everyone can build a portfolio no matter the kind of job you are doing. Maybe a blog is enough in your case, maybe a book or a catalog of case studies. Perhaps, for some, a book with reviews (testimonials) and samples might work. It depends on your case.

I believe everyone needs a medium, a place to share thoughts and expertise with others. Not a random place online, a social media, a portfolio service, but a self-hosted and completely owned by you, website. Even tho it can be harder than quickly posting on social media channels and similar places, it helps you be more self-sustainable. And it definitely, increases your value in the eyes of your prospects. You don't need a fancy one, just a plain site where you can share your expertise and make publications and updates. No matter what are the changes on other platforms it stays with you and serves you along the way 24/7.

Having your online profile or a portfolio is not the only thing but one of the primary selling materials.

A portfolio is not all what we need

I've had the experience of selling my service without showing a single work from my portfolio. And that was the case where I knew the guys for maybe a couple of hours total. We didn't even talk much about our backgrounds. It was so random and fast. We had a conversation and discussed possible ways of making his interface efficient and pleasant for use. There were a lot of technical details, but basically, we just had 2 or 3 conversations before we signed up for this collaboration. It's been fun and productive in a way.

Tracking Time instead of Charging per hour

The fact that you officially decided to stop charging your client by the hour doesn't mean you can't track hours for yourself. Moreover, it can help you to simplify your calculations and to create invoices.

First of all, tracking hours is useful for your business from a logical point of view. And I'm a big proponent of doing so just to simplify things but do it internally. Basically, nobody needs to see the time stats that you spend on the work except you. Sometimes you might not even need to count hours and use your feelings and experience to define the value. Of course, there is a question of etiquette, your inner compass, and common sense. Try to be objective as much as you can. That might help in many ways.

Now, on how it can be helpful for you. Obviously, you can see where your time goes, which activities consume the most of your time, and which activities less and you can better understand how it correlates with your priorities and goals.

In terms of invoicing, you basically, can count the hours you spent on the work and take it as a base of the efforts you spent on a certain project or a part of a project. Even if you charge your clients upfront (invoice first, delivery afterward), you can understand how to evaluate your next projects or milestones better to be financially and time-efficient in the future.

As you can see knowing the amount of time you've spent is a piece of very useful information, but for some reason, it was interpreted and used in the wrong way by the most part of the business world. Perhaps, back in the days, it was the easiest way to pay for labor work in factories and similar organizations that are based on mass production of something and the processes that pretty much involve repetitive actions on a production line. This has nothing to do with creative activities, such as design, development, writing, inventing things, etc.

I do not think it should be applied in the same way in today's business world, especially in any creative field. Soon remote creators will be paid for their work in crypto (I know the guy who does it already). Things change really fast, and we can steer it in a morally right direction so that it works well on both sides of the business.