Updated: Oct 26
The art of doing business has its learning curves. As professional service providers and business owners, we sometimes encounter situations that challenge us to consider our value, to know our currency of worth, and to recognize and honor the value and expertise of others. As global business spins dizzyingly on its competitive axis, and the COVID pandemic impacts us all socially, economically, and emotionally, it is incumbent on us to pause and reflect:
Do we appreciate and ask appropriate compensation for what it took for us to get where we are and what is required to constantly refine and hone our craft?
And just as we would not want to undercut ourselves by underpricing our professional worth, are we appropriately sensitive and compassionate at this time in our history and able to recognize, respect and honor that same worth in others?
How many times as a service provider have you been asked to either trade services or to work for a startup on highly demanding projects with minimum to zero fees in exchange for equity? Conversely, as a business owner, have you ever hired "free" interns with the understanding that the experience and privilege of working for you serves as their "in" to the industry? Have you ever dangled your startup carrot in front of someone and asked them to join your cause and work for free, or promised a professional service provider more work later if they offer you heavily discounted pricing now? And as a job seeker, have you encountered endless rounds of interviews with management, with the caveat of you performing spec work (1) as a way to convey your expertise, but only to feel in your gut that you have been manipulated/used into doing valuable work for free? And now, in the era of COVID, with so many out of work and desperate, has anyone asked you to do a large amount of free work as a way of testing to see how badly you want a job?
These are essentially corner-cutting strategies that mask as common business practices. Whatever short-term gains they net, their long-term impacts negate their viability as they merely serve to undercut trust, devalue talent, erode business ethics, foster false starts, and undermine the spirit and authenticity of true collaborative endeavor. And today, with a pandemic in progress and countless unemployed people desperate to make rent and buy groceries, such practices can border on cruelty (2).
Knowing your value, and the worth of what you bring to the table for your clients is essential for being able to ask authentically and unapologetically for fair compensation in monetary form. Compensation is not simply a measure of the time required to provide a service. It incorporates the years of education, training, and practice that brought you to your current level of professional expertise. After all, talent does not “happen.” It is painstakingly cultivated over time.
Some real-life experiences of artists like Pablo Picasso and James McNeill Whistler aptly illustrate the lack of understanding around how to value the work of a master. When Picasso scribbled an impromptu commission onto a napkin for a woman, she balked at the price he quoted her arguing that it only took him seconds to create it. He countered that what she failed to consider were his 40 years of artistic training. In kind, James McNeill Whistler defended in court the price he charged for artwork created in two days noting that it was the product of a lifetime of knowledge.
“Worth” is a living, evolving entity. It includes the time, money and resources you consistently invest in yourself to increase the value of your intellectual property. Having an awareness of how you continuously learn, grow, and refine in order to meet your own objectives and keep pace with the value aspirations in the market is crucial to being able to appropriately assess your worth and benchmarks for compensation.
Knowing your worth shapes not only how much compensation you require, but also the form you would prefer the compensation to take (money, promised shares, or trade) (3). I have never been a believer in the practice of swapping or exchanging services. When I first started my business two decades ago, I sometimes was approached by potential clients who wanted to trade their services for my services. I engaged in that method of exchange only once, in 2003. I will never barter services again.
Let’s be real. We are not back in 9000 BC trading cattle. We live in complex times, and ours is a global business with global clients and a global impact. The system of exchanging goods and services can never suffice for the multifaceted work that we do. Never apologize for preferring pay over barter. I decline to exchange services for several reasons, including accountability and equivalency. I put my passion and my reputation in my work. I hold my team to high standards. We typically exceed the expectations of our global clients as we diligently optimize the quality and value of our deliverables. We measure the impact of our work and stand behind everything we do. We are accountable for the strategies and execution of our ideas. All our effort is bound by written contract – our code of conduct. It requires commitment, work, time, resources, talents and tools to execute. Then there is equivalency – putting an adequate value on talent or professional expertise.
In free enterprise societies, talent is never free or for trade/barter or even donation. Money is the only appropriate medium for compensation.
So, how do you honor your real value by asking for what you are worth? You can begin by surveying all the many ways you invest and contribute to your professional expertise. You can peek at the rates others in your field command, weigh your talents and distinguishing attributes honestly, and then confidently set your price.
If you are still having difficulty owning your worth, it might be helpful to take time, go within, and drill down to your very essence. Everything you do in life begins with you.
Consider these tips for maximizing ownership of your worth:
Explore, identify, nurture and express your signature strengths.
Stay open to new ideas, new opportunities and activities and new ways of seeing the world around you.
Compose your own “Rule of Life,” your own “Manifesto,” citing your life principles, vision and values.
Find a way every day to spontaneously offer some of your joy, talent, and presence to the world around you.
Develop a daily meditation practice. Meditation can help to quiet the mind so you can discover who you are at your core and align everything you do with that person.
Establish a practice of positivity. State positive affirmations to yourself several times a day reinforcing that you are talented, determined, insightful, kind, imaginative, happy, and enthusiastic about life and great opportunities. Words have power. They carry an energy, and help reconfigure your brain’s patterns so that you are seeing yourself in new and positive ways, thinking more positively, and feeling more inspired. Affirmations can lead you to that place where you can say authentically and resolutely what you are worth and why.
You must recognize and feel confident in your own value before you can expect others to agree without reservation. People are insightful. They will know instantly whether or not you believe what you say about yourself. You must exude your own value autonomically. It must flow from you as naturally and unconsciously as breathing in and out. You do that by stepping fully into your own skin, stepping into your power, and knowing yourself as the confident, capable driver of your own destiny. Boxer Bernard Hopkins once said, “If you don’t know your own value, somebody will tell you your value, and it’ll be less than you’re worth.”
If clients and customers can see and be impressed by the value and competitive edge you bring to the table and unflinchingly pay for it, that becomes your rate. Publishing client testimonials on your website is one way to reinforce in the minds of potential clients the value you offer. If only one customer pays the rate you set, and other potential customers balk in hopes of getting more for less, then your rate does not show consistency and you need to either re-evaluate or reposition yourself to offer greater awareness around your merits and worth. It is helpful to establish two figures to work between: the lowest rate you will accept, and the rate you prefer to charge. Never undercut and undersell yourself. That leads to resentments, second guessing, self-doubt, and the temptation to exit the arena.
Understanding your own worth speaks volumes about how you view people and products in general, including your own employees. Just as honoring your real value empowers you, it is also essential to be fair with others and in turn empower them. As business owners, we do the right thing when we pay our people what they are worth. When we quantify and qualify their input, output, time and expertise, we put our money and esteem where our mouth is. If we can’t position them, pay them, and engage them in ways they deserve, then we must learn to do for ourselves.
Bartering and “I OWE U’s” don’t feed children, pay for mortgages/rent, pay for medical bills, or cover health insurance. Living in today’s world costs money. Adulting costs money - period (4).
Sometimes people offer to work for pennies or for free as “interns” just to get a foot in the door. Resist this indentured servitude and insist on paying that person. Even if you can’t offer a lot, it’s important to offer something. And it will be appreciated. Listen, if someone gives you a dollar, it may not seem like much, but if it’s their last dollar, it’s everything!!! Fair compensation is an absolute part of treating employees, vendors, partners, and consultants with dignity, kindness and most importantly respect.
Forget the Popeye/Wimpy expression of “I will gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today.” There is no startup that is that sexy. It is important not to make empty promises or make possible future “opportunities” sound like a pathway to heaven, especially now, in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, where so many have already lost so much. Allowing someone to work for “free” is akin to asking someone to date you, where you can claim to love them without ever committing to them in a meaningful way. Not only is this practice dishonest, it is bad business.
Know your value, honor your worth, and respect yourself and others. These are foundational to both personal growth and developing solid and fair business practices. Invest time and energy in your own personal development, cultivating self-awareness and self-respect. By doing so, you will build your confidence, advance your wisdom, and raise your own currency of worth. People will sense your inner strength and take you seriously. You will attract quality friendships, high-quality clients, projects, partnerships, and amazing experiences. When your essence, your very core, is grounded in authenticity, beauty, truth, fairness and your personal talents and skills, you will naturally command respect. At that moment, the world is your oyster. Live, work and enjoy.
What is Speculative Work? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speculative_work
The unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% in April. It doesn’t fully capture COVID-19 job losses. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/05/08/covid-19-april-unemployment-rate/
A Guide To Startup Compensation https://generalassemb.ly/blog/a-guide-to-startup-compensation/
Weekly Global Economic Update https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/economy/global-economic-outlook/weekly-update.html