In which love bests money

Crossing the Rio de la Plata after a week-long “holiday” in Uruguay, I realized how much the way I spend my money has changed. Now that I no longer need to steal film from the grocery store or calculate the exact per-grain price of a loaf of bread, I find I’m more willing to spend a little bit more money on things. For example, I’ll no longer buy a pair of shoes that retails for less than $100, although I’m almost insistent on only allowing for new shoe purchases when the aforementioned shoe is on sale. I’d also rather pay a little more for a direct flight, or a faster ferry, or even the convenience of a cab to the airport. While I’m sure this isn’t surprising to most people, I’ve always been perpetually cheap. It took some time before I realized that price and value aren’t always as directly related as I thought.

The first website I ever built, as a graduated professional, cost my client a whopping $300. I wish I could say I was sixteen when I did it, but I was twenty-two, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side. Looking back, it’s no surprise when my first year of business after quitting my job landed me in debt. I’ve always had a policy of keeping my expenses as low as possible, but charging $20 an hour simply didn’t cover such non-tax-deductible necessities as “eating on a daily basis”.

When I first started out, my biggest mistake, bar nothing, was charging too little. My intentions were good—I wanted to save my clients money, and I wanted to provide quality design for a low price. What I failed to realize, of course, was that would become a difficult task when I quit my day job to run my business full-time. Sure, my clients were happy, but I was broke, overworked, and stressed out.

A street corner in the pretty, but expensive (by South American standards) Colonia del Sacramento. I could make a convoluted effort to make this relevant, but it isn't really. It's mostly here for decoration, and because I mentioned Uruguay.

The result, of course, was burnout. I suffered from burnout for years. But it wasn’t just me who suffered: my clients, too, paid the price. They may have been paying bargain-basement prices for their websites, but, in all honesty, the customer service and attention to detail just wasn’t there. And of course it wasn’t; I simply didn’t have the time or energy to devote to simple tasks like answering emails in an expedient manner, or ensuring that files were properly error-corrected and everything was done to as high a quality standard as I would like.

These days, I charge more. I’m open about telling my clients that I’m not the cheapest option. Graphic design is competitive, and there’s always people willing to design a website for $300. I’m no longer one of them for a few reasons:

  • If I’m doing work at a lower rate, I need to take on more projects at a time. I used to have ten to fifteen projects on the go at any time, but now I try to keep that number under six. Fewer projects mean I’m more focused, more efficient, and the overall turnaround time is drastically reduced.
  • Charging more for a project means that I can spend more time on it. I work faster now than I used to, of course, but I also spend more time on the details. Cheap design work cuts corners. Unless you’re living off a trust fund, or in your parents’ basement, this is unavoidable.
  • In order to truly compete on price—without eschewing the basics like costs of living and sanity—you need to be a huge company. Ultimately, a one-person-shop simply doesn’t have the resources to make this work.

Ultimately, I’d rather give my clients a high quality product and great customer service than a cheap price. As I’ve switched to doing higher quality work at a higher price, both myself and my clients have become happier. The people who choose to work with me don’t choose me because I’ve given the cheapest quote—they choose me because they care about their businesses and they realize that great design is an important part of their success.

When you market yourself this way, you’re using love, rather than price, as a measurement of worth. It’s the difference between Walmart and Apple. Both companies are hugely successful, but I can’t imagine there are a lot of people who have fond feelings for Walmart. In a market where we often feel as though big companies just don’t care, the benefit of being a small business is that you can really connect with your customers. If you care for them, they’ll care for you. When you charge a decent price, you can provide a better product. With a better product, your clients will be happy. Everyone wins!

So charge more. And unless you’re a massive conglomerate, stop competing on price. You can’t beat out the companies who outsource. Instead, make the highest quality product you possibly can and give great customer service. Compete for your clients’ love.

A quiet street in Montevideo.