Natalie Coombe empowers women entrepreneurs to sort out their pricing, allowing them to finally pay themselves what they’re worth.
As a single-mum-by choice and running her own online business, Natalie has first-hand experience of the challenges women entrepreneurs face when setting up and scaling their own businesses.
In this interview, Natalie shares with James some pricing strategies: methods for setting your price, maintaining a network of referrals, and ways we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Tell us a little bit about your business. How did you get into it?
I work with women entrepreneurs, freelancers and business owners to help them sort out their pricing and understand their value, so they can pay themselves what they’re worth, without having to burn out in the process.
I recently spent 10 years living in London doing business transform. In my final couple of years, I went contracting, and loved it. It was great to have the freedom and flexibility to be able to charge more on an hourly daily basis and have more control over how and with whom I worked.
Then, a few years ago now, I decided to become a single mum by choice.
I thought my life wasn’t challenging enough, so I became a mother and moved back to New Zealand to raise my daughter with my family here.
When my daughter was around 12 months old, I was like, “right, okay, we have to make plans, get some money happening, and get back into work”.
However when I looked at going back into the corporate world, and at Auckland’s three hour long commute, I thought to myself: “I didn’t give up my career and life in London to have a daughter and never see her.”
So I changed the way I worked: rather than going into businesses and fixing things for them, I now teach entrepreneurs and business owners how to get their pricing sorted for themselves so they can run a profitable business.
It’s fantastic and I love it. It’s the best thing I ever could have done.
Let’s get into some common trends around pricing. Why do you think people find it so difficult to arrive at a number and put it out there to clients?
I think there are a number of different reasons. For Kiwis, we have what’s called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. We’re taught to not put ourselves on a pedestal. In terms of how much we’re worth, we find it really difficult to go: “I’m really good at what I do, so I’m going to charge x amount of money.” That’s been beaten out of us for generations, and I think our culture makes it difficult for us to put an appropriate price tag on what we do. The US and Australia have slightly different mindsets around that issue.
I think another thing is that we’re not taught how to put a price tag on our value. Where do you learn that skill? It’s not something you’re taught in school, it’s not something you’re taught in university. If you’ve been working in a corporate environment, you have very little access to how your boss figured out how to charge out your time. Then there’s this disconnect, you know, if you’ve been aware of what your hourly rate was, when you were working in employment, there’s this disconnect between how that was calculated, and what your worth is without the overheads and all the other things that go into factoring in that time.
So I think for a lot of people starting out, there’s a confidence issue: on one side, not really knowing how to work out how much they’re worth; and on the other side there’s the practical side – how to price and how to work out how much you’re worth – that no one teaches you.
Without any kind of pricing benchmark, it can be really easy for people to sell themselves short or completely overblow their rate. Where does pricing become a point of negotiation with a client?
That’s a really relevant fear for why people price the way they do: because they don’t want either of those situations to happen. There are four key pricing methods that people can use to figure out how to price themselves out:
The most common one is market-based pricing. Market-based pricing is where we look at what the market rate is, and then evaluate: are you more or less experienced? Can you afford to charge more or less than the market rate? That’s kind of been the standard within the freelance arena.
The challenge with using the market-based pricing method alone, is that you don’t actually know if your competitors are making any money. You know, you don’t know if they’re making the salary that they need to in order to make the work viable for them. And if they are, you don’t know what their personal expenses are going to be, how many hours they’re having to work, how many contracts they’re having to take. So these are all different variables that will influence how much they’re actually able to make.
Out of the four, the two methods that are most powerful are a combination of cost-based pricing and value-based pricing. Cost-based pricing is where you work out the following factors in order to settle on what you need to be charging:
- how much you want to earn
- what your expenses are likely to be
- how you want to work
That combined method is really powerful because it really focuses on you, as opposed to comparing yourself to somebody else. When you partner that with a value-based approach, which is where you focus not just on yourself, but on what you help someone else achieve and how valuable that is to them – that becomes a really powerful combination.
How can a exceptional freelancer factor in their efficiency to their pricing?
So with the value-based approach, a really exceptional freelancer can ask themselves: “what’s the minimum I need to charge for my time, in order for me to earn the minimum salary I’m happy earning, and only working the hours I have available? And how likely it is I’m going to get ongoing contracts?”
So obviously, for freelancers, you don’t want to have to work every single day of the year in order to be able to pay your rent. The reality is that your contracts are going to come in fits and starts: you’re going to have peak seasons and you’re going to have low times, which your rate will need to take into consideration.
That’s why a lot of people, when they start out freelancing, they go: “Oh, my salary was x so I’ll divide that by how many days per week that I’ll work, and that’s what I have to charge.” When I hear people say that I go, no, no, no, no, no no! Your salary was guaranteed, but now you have to factor in the fact that there might be at least three months of the year when you’re not earning. So you’ll need to earn all of your salary in only the time that you’re actually going to be on contract, which is why freelancers are so much more expensive per day than permanent employees, because they factor that uncertainty into their day rate. That’s an exercise that’s definitely worth doing, so that freelancers can understand the minimum they’d need to make.
A really good freelancer will be able to achieve in one day what someone else might take two or three days to do. When you’re dealing with, say, design, if you can encapsulate and articulate the brand super quickly and add that level of quality, it means a client might say yes straight away. That is different to someone who hasn’t got as much experience or may not be pixel perfect, where it actually takes longer to get there. There might be more amends, more redos, because they haven’t quite nailed it the first time around. So there’s a massive difference and cost benefit for the client, where they might have to pay a little bit more for the person with more experience who gets it right, fast, the first time. So for freelancers that take a third of the time to complete a project, they could double their price and still be cost-saving.
It’s such a noisy and competitive market out there. Without a referral, how can freelancers demonstrate their value when they’re just starting out with someone?
A large part of what I used to do was be responsible for hiring contractors, particularly around digital advertising and marketing. If you get a referral – either from someone in your staff who has worked with that person somewhere else, or maybe you’ve worked with them before – you will take that freelancer with you, wherever you go. They’ll be your first port of call because they’re reliable: you know what to get from them, you know that you’ll get the kind of answer you need, nine times out of 10. As a freelancer, keeping in contact with people you’ve worked with before is an incredibly powerful way of both filling your freelance pipeline with work, but also filling it with work where you don’t have to justify your own worth. That’s number one: always make the most of your network. Keep tapping into it and asking people how they’re getting on, just to keep in front of mind. That way, you’re the first person they think of when they’re looking for someone like you.
The second thing is your portfolio. Having an up-to-date portfolio, particularly if you’re in design or coding – areas where you can display your work – having that is really important to ensure that your skills align with the needs of potential clients. When I was looking at working with a new freelancer, we’d ask for referrals but very rarely did we ever bother to follow them up. We just wanted to see that they had some. LinkedIn is great for this now: if you can get past employers or co-workers to write a referral for you on LinkedIn that talks about you and your skills, that’s essentially your CV.
The other thing as well, which is something I used to look for, is to give specifics that align with the different positions at an organisation. The different people who employ you are going to look for different things. The creative director, for instance, will look for different qualities in a hire than an operations manager or a client service person. Understanding what different people are looking for, and being able to give solid examples of where you’ve done the thing they need you to do, is incredibly powerful for them.
Do you recommend adjusting prices based on the opportunity a piece of work represents?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s that saying that long-term, committed revenue is more valuable to you than short-term, higher revenue. So if you can guarantee even three days a week of work for three months, that is more valuable than getting a three day project here, and a two day project there. So there is a benefit to incentivize your client to hire you for a longer period of time by offering a reduced rate.
The main thing to consider there is, if you do adjust your rate, you always want to make sure you’d be happy getting paid at that rate moving forward. What you don’t want to do is reduce your rate, sit quietly in the background, and say, “this is my rate, because I want this job”. Then your client might want to extend your contract for three months, but you hadn’t factored that in. Don’t screw yourself over.
Whenever you’re putting a rate out there, there are a couple things you need to keep in mind. You either want to make sure that rate is sustainable – that you’d be happy to do that on an ongoing basis – or you offer them a special rate.
I’m not a huge fan of discounting, but I think there are situations where it makes sense strategically, like if it’s a great opportunity that would be amazing for your portfolio, or if it gets you in the door for something else, then you can discount. But always let them know what your normal rate is. Let them know you are worth x, but for them in this instance, for this job, you’d be happy to do it for y because it’s something you’d love to be a part of, and you want to make sure you can fit in their budget. Always set the expectation that you are worth what you’re worth, which is usually way more than you charge. But then let them know they’re going to get a discount for this one piece of work, and you can renegotiate on the next piece of work.
Why do you think freelancers and contractors struggle to pay themselves first?
I think in business, whether you’re a business owner, entrepreneur, or freelancer, there’s this idea that paying yourself a decent salary is a reward. You hear it all the time: people saying it took them years before they could pay themselves anything. But the fact is, your salary is just a fixed cost, and you have to factor that into your pricing. You won’t make your salary if you don’t plan to, and the only person that’s stopping you from paying yourself is yourself. It’s one of those big mindset shifts that a lot of people have to make. Plan to earn a salary, and factor that salary in like you’d factor in the cost of hosting your portfolio online or paying for any of the tools or whatever that you need. You just factor your salary in as one of those costs and work it out from there.
What’s the first step contractors and freelancers should be thinking about?
I often ask people about the ‘destination’: what kind of lifestyle do they want to be living? How can their work facilitate that lifestyle? And what do they need to have in place in order to make that happen?
Try and understand the goal – where you want to get to, salary-wise, and how much you want to work in order to generate that salary – and then work backwards to how you can get there. So once you’ve worked that out, then it can be a case of saying: “Alright, so I need to get jobs that pay x amount of money. How do I get jobs that pay that?” And if you apply for them and you don’t get them, ask yourself what you might be missing. Is there a skillset or an area of expertise that you need to brush up on? Then go and make a plan to brush up on that area: either get some additional training or perhaps give someone a special rate for your services, just to get exposure and expertise. This means that next time you can put your price back up again, because you now have that experience.
It’s about understanding where someone needs to get to for freelancing to not only be viable, but frickin awesome. Because that’s why we do this, right? To have a frickin awesome life with none of the grind and all of the freedom and flexibility.
So ask: what do you need to be doing in order to make that goal a reality? What are all the steps you need to put in place in order to get there if you don’t know what that destination should look like? Otherwise, you might tweak your prices a little bit, but you’ll mostly keep doing more of the same stuff and end up burning out or feeling like you need to go and get a ‘real job’ because you need to pay the bills. Then you have that anxiety of thinking you have to have a contract because you have to earn every single month, otherwise you won’t have enough money in the bank. And that’s not a healthy, sustainable place to be for any length of time. Understanding what that destination looks like, so you can take the steps to get there, is really important.
Lastly, have you got any other general advice for freelancers and contractors out there?
Each individual can make different decisions because they have different needs. People’s lifestyles change. What’s important is that you choose a way forward that achieves your goals, and that you understand how that pathway helps you to achieve your goals. That goal could be affording a mortgage so that you can buy a house, or not having to do a morning commute, or maybe not working on Thursdays and Fridays, or being able to travel the world for three months at a time. Whatever your goals are, make a plan for how to make them happen. Your finances, income, revenue, and pricing are a massive part of facilitating that.
Figuring out where you need to position yourself, pricing-wise, so that you might not have to work three months of the year and still achieve your financial goals – that’s the dream. And when you get to that point, you think: “this is amazing, why does no one else do this?”