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How to bid for freelance work in a fog of ignorance

How to bid for freelance work in a fog of ignorance

Have you ever thought that contracting is about the only job where you have no idea how much you should be charging? You go for a job, you talk to the agency advertising it (assuming you can find them at their desk…) and you have a two minute chat about the work required. With a bit of luck (and some smart questions) you will know where the job is based, roughly what’s to be done and what the agency believes the key issues are (there’s always issues in my experience!).

What you don’t yet know, usually, is who the client is and quite probably not even what their line of work is. That’s because if the agent decides you’re a waste of his time, he doesn’t want you calling the client and offering your services directly, so he’s only protecting his own business.

But on the basis of this rather minimal information you will be asked how much you would charge. And that’s where it gets difficult.

Personally I have a clear idea in my head about what I would like to charge. The answer, oddly enough, is not “as much as I can” although that is certainly one of the parameters. I know what I need to live and I know my routine overheads, so I can work out how much I need to earn a year to pay the mortgage and keep the dog in biscuits. Working on the assumption I’ll probably work seven months a year (OK, that’s a bit low, but I’m getting lazy in my old age) I can set a base day rate.

To that you add the cost of getting to the job. Daily commutes are either so many miles at 40 pence per mile or the rail fares. Staying away I usually cost at £100 a day (slightly more in the Smoke, but that’s usually commutable). Either way I add that amount to the day rate; while I do an all inclusive deal for my labour, I also aim to recover all my costs.

Finally I add a fiddle factor, based on the seniority of the role (it costs more if I’m managing people, for instance) and something I call the risk factor, which reflects how hard the job is going to be and how much damage I could do if I get it wrong. Then add 15%: after all, I aim to make a profit at the end of the day.

So then I have a base price. Sadly, so does the agent, driven by what the client tells him the budget is and his own margins. If we’re really lucky the two will coincide. If we’re even luckier, the agent will be willing to beat the client up to what I want, since he gets more money that way as well. These days, though, that’s increasingly unlikely.

One problem is that the clients have a very clear idea of what they want to pay, Unless you are a serious specialist, there is very little chance you can name your own price any more. Most clients have a rate card of their own which they use to cost their own internal budgets: it’s a brave manager who will deliberately put in an overspend on his own budget. Then there are the companies who have no idea, who set the budget by dividing the permie’s salary by 260, who set the rate stupidly high – councils are good at that one – or even do a kind of Dutch auction, asking for three CVs and saying they’ll take the cheapest (oddly enough they are also the ones wondering why their delivery record on projects is so poor…).

Of course it would be good if we could delay the rate discussion until the interview stage, but that would expose the agent’s margin which would never be allowed. Or we could go in with a per diem and a percentage share of any resultant savings or client income growth depending on the role. (Someone I trained did exactly that: offered to do a job for 10% of the first year’s savings then proceeded to save his client £2.4 million…)

But at the end of the day you are having to bid for work in a fog of ignorance. This probably explains why my rate now is usually within 10% of what I was on 15 years ago when I started out.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

Image: vector scuba diving by ?ukasz Strachanowski

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