Don't Sell Yourself Short

If you don't believe your work is worth it, who will?

Let's talk a little bit about money and self-employment or selling your own work for yourself.

When I left my last day job to go into business for myself -- or maybe as myself -- my Dad gave me some advice in what turned out to be just one of an ongoing series of father/daughter business chats. 

He told me about a friend of his who was a florist and who, in order to compete with the Big Boys, had slashed his prices close to the bone. He was working like a dog, but it was paying off: he was making less money on each transaction but making up for it on volume.

That's a solid business practice, right? I mean, people talk about that as a strategy all the time. Some of the largest retailers in the world work on that principle.

My father pointed out the flaw in this logic, though. If you're not an organization that can work efficiently at scale but just one person, you're not really making anything up, are you? His florist friend was working just as hard for each sale as he would have at a decent price, and seeing less from it.

Or more likely, working harder, because when you have to rush and you don't get a chance to catch your breath, things get harder. You get more worn out mentally and physically. Mistakes get made, accidents happen, and then it's more work to fix it.

If he raised his prices, he'd lose business... but if he could double his profit margin he'd still come out ahead even if he lost half his business, because he'd be making the same money for less effort. More leisure, more room to expand the business as his reputation grew.

And if a price hike lost him any less business, proportionally, than the increase in his net profits... then he's ahead financially.

As a woman of thirty-nine years old who is reasonably successful at whatever it is she actually does, it's sometimes painful for me to watch younger people breaking into business and doing things like setting the price for their work at slightly more than the materials, which they reckon is a profit but which ignores the value of their labor and the value they provide to their customer in assembling it.

Every good is also a service. Every service is also an experience. You're selling more than you sell, when you sell a good or service.

I know, I know... capitalism, right? 

But putting a price on our labor isn't giving in to capitalism. Remember: "Labor is entitled to all that it creates." When you make more money for less work, you are honoring the dignity of your self and your labor. 

When you undervalue your labor -- your time, your energy, your expertise, the wear and tear on your body -- you are reducing yourself to a cog in the machine, even when you work for yourself. 

And it's true that you can't set an arbitrary price and expect that people will pay it. There are some forms of labor that are so habitually devalued that it's hard to get anyone to pay you anything nearly worth the time and effort they take, especially when you're building a reputation.

So do what you've got to do. I mean, that's life, right? You've gotta do what you've gotta do. But do it with an eye towards the future and make sure you're not getting stuck in the mindset that you have to undervalue your work in order to keep doing it. Think of it as a limited time promotion. Heck, tell people that's what you're doing. Set a date for the rate hike and stick to it. 

I mean, if you want to take lessons from how the big companies do it, don't start with "make it up on volume". Use low prices to drum up business, but don't get stuck on them. 

Remember that big companies mainly sell things at a loss in order to have a "loss leader", which only works if it leads to bigger sales. Instead of selling all of your work for too little money because you're unknown, try using some of it to get known so you can sell the rest.

Remember that big companies will inflate the prices of their goods and services to convey the idea that these goods and services are, in fact, worth money. There's not $5 worth of anything in anything you can put in a cup at Starbucks.

I know that when you're trying to sell yourself -- your ideas, your products, your skills -- it can feel like you're fighting upstream through a river of burning hot molasses to get anyone to see the value of what you do and pay for it.

But if you're going to be scraping and scrapping your way along no matter what, isn't it better to do it with more free time and energy? If you can could get four people pay you $5 for a quick art commission or one person to pay you $20... well, you'll do a quarter of the work for the same money, and if you're thinking it will equal less exposure, the exposure you get from the latter will be someone telling others your work is worth $20, as opposed to having four people generating more $5 leads for you.

And at the end of the day, the people who don’t believe that what you’re doing is worth their money… they aren’t your customers. They aren’t even your potential customers. You’re not losing out on anything by not getting their $5 in exchange for hours of your life. You could do so much more with those hours if you let go of the idea of reaching those people.

The lesson here is: don't sell yourself short, friends and neighbors. When you do more for less, the reward is so often that you get to keep doing it.

Speaking Of Selling Work…

This newsletter is now my main way of monetizing my day to day content. You can sign up for the mailing list to get it straight to your inbox for free, but if you want to show your appreciation and help ensure its continuation (and mine), you can buy a subscription for $5 a month or $50 a year.

But speaking of time-limited promotions to drum up business, if you buy a subscription between now and October 7th, you will receive a 20% discount for the life of the subscription. That’s $4 a month (a little less than $1 a week), or $40 a year.

I know some of you are thinking that a $4 subscription fee can’t be worth it to me, and that some of you would sign up for free but you’d feel guilty not paying.

My father and my mother both taught me the habit of thinking carefully about my business decisions. My father through lessons like the one I described above, and my mother by asking questions to make sure I had thought things through as much as I had.

If you’re reading this online in the first place, it’s probably because I have managed to build an audience and a reputation for myself over the years while always making enough of a living to keep going. Small subscriptions, larger subscriptions, and free readers all factor into my plans in different ways.

I wouldn’t do it this way if it didn’t work. Whatever you’re contributing, even if it’s just your attention, I am grateful for it. Thank you!