Financial Clarity for Entrepreneurs

How To Set Prices

The folks over at FreelanceSwitch have a slick Freelance Hourly Rate Calculator. I say slick, because it’s a nice piece of software, but I think it gets the order of things backwards.

It’s actually pretty common for small businesses (and consultants and freelancers) to attempt a cost-plus approach to setting prices. It’s easy to add up all your costs, put in a profit percentage, and voila!, you have the price you want to charge. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t always co-operate.

The price you can charge your customers is limited on the upside by “value” and competition.

Value is a slippery concept, but even if your customer doesn’t have a firm number in mind, they do have some notion of what your product, service or time is worth. Whether or not this is enough to cover your costs is of no concern to them.

Think of it this way: if a prospective client approached me to do several months’ worth of backlogged bank reconciliations and I quoted them a rate of $175 an hour, I doubt very much they’d engage me. Bank reconciliations don’t have a “value” of $175 an hour.

Which brings up the second price limitation: competition. The prospective client could certainly find someone else to do bank reconciliations at a much lower hourly rate – maybe $20 or $25 an hour. Even if they’re not as efficient at bank recs as I am, their total cost will still be much lower.

So, your price is limited by both the value of the product or service AND by your competition – you get the lower of the two.

But, maybe your value is very high and you either don’t have much competition or they charge high prices. Why would you want to limit your income to some cost + profit level when you could possibly charge more?

I can see two bad results from using the cost-plus approach. Either you price yourself out of the market and don’t get enough business, or you underprice yourself and leave money on the table. Neither one is a good result.

That doesn’t mean I think the calculator is a bad thing. It’s a useful tool to see if the prices you plan on charging are enough to cover your expenses. If not, you need to rethink your business.

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