The harsh truth about working as a creative

I apologize if I sound like a jerk and this post offends you, but it is the ‘harsh’ truth. Let’s dive in.

Ah, the life of the creative. Whether you are a designer, photographer, animator or comic artist, you are living your dream. While in school, you dreamt of working your own hours, doing what you love and making a living off of it. With bright eyes, you take the first step towards your dream. You take a deep breath and put your work out there. It’s not easy but you know it’s worth it.

Your first client shows up and you are thrilled! You have big ideas and they encourage it. After many hours and revisions, you have the final product ready, and they love it! You feel amazing. You send the invoice. And then, awkward silence. (This is why sending a quote first is always better, but that’s for a later lesson.)

The harsh truth about working as a creative is that it takes a lot of work for people to understand the value in what you do, and for them to accept that it is not free. They assume that because your work is “fun”, that you are okay with not making much. Sure, money isn’t everything. I am with you on that one. BUT. You still need to make a living. We can’t all live as vagabonds.

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And so, after the quote or invoice is sent, you will find yourself dealing with 1 of 3 clients.

The ‘No Big Deal’ Client

This video sums it up pretty well. This category includes up a couple of different approaches, but basically this is the client that wants you to work for free. They are careful though because they will never say “I want this done for free.” That would just be rude!

What they will say is:

“This is a great opportunity for you.”

“Can you just do this little thing for me? It should be no big deal for you.”

“It will benefit both of us.”

“Lots of people will be reaching out to you after you do this for me.”

This is especially difficult to respond to if it’s a friend or family member. I am 10000% guilty of saying Yes. I am a people pleaser and physically can’t form the word ‘NO’ when someone asks for something. Even if I am screaming ‘No No No Noooooo’ in my head like Micheal Scott, the words that exit my mouth always manage to form ‘Sure, I can do that. No problem! I’d love to.’ Are you freaking kidding me, Kirsten!?!?

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There are certainly times when I really am happy to help out or do something for free. If it’s a fun project that involves a hike or adventure somewhere, than chances are I will say yes without my inside voice saying otherwise.

However. If a stranger asks me to film their kid’s soccer game for free (or little to nothing), then my inside voice will always say No. I’m not trying to be rude but at the end of the day, that will benefit me in all of no ways. If I wanted to get into shooting kids sports games, then I would willingly agree that it would be a good opportunity for me to work for free, or not much – in the beginning.

At the end of the day, this is my job and I do need to support myself.

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Photo courtesy of: Lynette Mason at MasonPhotography.ca

The ‘I’ll pay, but not that much’ Client

This is the client that is up for supporting and paying, but not that much. They usually say something like:

“I’m happy to pay you.”

“I’m sure we can figure something out that is fair for both of us.”

You discuss the details of the project with them. They love your work and seem genuinely excited. Then comes the money talk and you immediately see their guards go up. It doesn’t matter if you quote them $100 or $1000, it is always more than they hoped. I did a workshop for Entrepreneurs and the key lesson I learned was that someone will always complain your prices are too high and nobody will ever complain your prices are too low. In my experience, they might even tell you your prices are low and you can charge more. But when you raise your price, they stop hiring you. *Slap in the face*

I learned a harsh lesson early on to get a quote approved first. I responded to an ad that a new company was looking to hire a videographer for an event. Everything was great until after I delivered the final video, and then sent an Invoice for all of $250. After a few days of silence, I received a reply that said something along the lines of “Everyone else volunteered their time. I didn’t think the video would cost that much.” I immediately melted into a puddle and apologized for MY misunderstanding. I got a “free” sweatshirt out of it. I do still wear the sweatshirt but that’s besides the point.

Pricing is one of the hardest things for a creative person. While there are some general guidelines, there is no standard for the industry. It completely depends on the individual. Personally, I have spent many hours reviewing my prices. I have extensive spreadsheets that breakdown my expenses and time. Trust me when I say, I should probably be charging more but I am not in that position yet. I have been working in my field as a professional for 5 years and am still struggling to break even. This is mostly due to the fact that I have been undercharging for most of those 5 years. My reality is that I will continue to have to do so until I am able to find the next type of client. It’s a bit of a catch 22 where I either charge what I need to charge, and have no clients or I undercharge to ensure I get work, but am then making the bare minimum for 3 times the work. So yeah, it’s the harsh truth.

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The ‘One Who Gets It’ Client (aka the Dream)

Ah, and then there are those rare clients that ‘get it’. These are your dream clients. The one who understand the value of work they are asking for AND are willing and ready to pay. When you find this client, hold on tight and don’t let go. They understand that snapping one quick photo involves much more than just the push of a button to produce a beautiful, fully edited image in all of the formats they require. They even recognize that the equipment you need to do your job costs thousands of dollars. They are beautiful beings that will bring sunshine and rainbows to your life.

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Photo courtesy of: Hannah Hamilton (The Momoirs)

I truly believe nobody ever intends to be rude when it comes to payment. Everyone wants to feel valued and get what they believe they are paying (or not paying) for. In my experience, it simply takes a bit of educating for clients to understand your prices. They may not always be able to pay but at least they will understand that you aren’t simply trying to rip them off.

As a creative, how do you deal with clients not wanting to pay?
As a client, have I offended you?

8 thoughts on “The harsh truth about working as a creative

  1. Great article! I think giving a quote upfront is a necesssity for any project or event and eliminates most of the problems right out of the gate. I use Adobe Sign to get digital signatures to make sure I get paid the agreed upon amount. I think this weeds out the first two types of people you wrote about. I also think we are starting to see a generational and lifestyle swing where creatives are valued highly. Stuff means less and memories and experiences mean more. This is great for people like us 🙂 Keep up the great work in everything you do, Kirsten!

    1. Thanks Jeremy! I absolutely agree. It takes some hard lessons and confidence to learn how to handle pricing and payment properly. You are right, things are looking up for people like us!

  2. Kirsten nobody understands this more than me,and I am in the type of business doing renovations and such where most things never go as planned and there are many hidden things along the way beyond your control. Quoting and communication is absolutely essential and that never goes perfect no matter how hard you try,and when your talking quotes and projects that number $300000 or better like I do …. we better get it right. However Humans are….well humans and money is ….well money. Thats where the line in the sand is drawn and sometimes there can be deafening silence and the stress can kill you. And its real wise NOT to work for family. If you are depending on family for a living you may as well get your cardboard box under the overpass now. Truth is its best to have a great relationship with family,its the haven of rest and understanding you can run to when things are not going too well sometimes. If you do work for family its best to quote like normal,and write down family discount in the quote maybe,I dont have all the answers cause your probably a lot like me and want to be just nice and helpful…to a fault.. Keep it on the straight and narrow. Stand firm on your prices,quote first and have a signed contract specifying what you will do for the money,if you dont get it well it was meant to be. Never apologize for being good at what you do and dont regress to suit somebody. Your better than that

  3. Yesssssss Kirsten!!!! As a client, I am NOT offended, I am proud of you! It must be so discouraging not to have your (incredible) value recognized, and it would take strength to be assertive about it. Good on ya, mate! As clients, we learn this from professionals educating us. So thank you 😊

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