A simple trick to get past freelance estimate anxiety

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estimate anxietyYou know the feeling when you estimate projects for new clients: You run the numbers, and then run them again and maybe once or twice more. And yet your cursor still hovers over the “send” button on the email. I’ve been at the freelance game long enough to know there aren’t many constants, but estimate anxiety is surely one of them. When your mousing finger freezes up, it’s time for a reality check: “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Your instant response might be “I don’t get the job” or “They want a discount” or “I get ghosted.” Sure, those are a bummer. But they’re not the worst.

The worst is that you get the job at a price that makes it a bad deal. Not enough compensation for the workload or the deadline constraints or—let’s face it—the handholding required for a given client. That makes you unhappy, and it’s also an opportunity cost. And that makes it harder, maybe impossible, to deliver an excellent product for your customer. That makes it a bad deal for them, too.

Obviously, you can always raise your rates for the next project with that client. That comes with its own challenges, though, because it’s darn difficult to un-anchor a price expectation.

Reducing Estimate Anxiety: It’s a Mindset

Sometimes you need to trick yourself into action. It’s not cost effective to spend hours tweaking the price by a few bucks up or down, and it makes even less sense to waste a lot of emotional energy in the process. Asking What’s the worst that could happen? functions as a final reality check to verify you trust the numbers you’ve crunched. Given the facts you know and the gut feelings you have, do you believe you’ll be happy if the client responds “Yes, let’s get started”?

An example: I recently received an inquiry from a potential freelance client to work on speeches and compile books in a topic that’s a significant professional and personal interest of mine. In a few back-and-forth emails, we had terrific rapport. As a rule, I don’t get too excited about projects or clients until a deal is signed, but I’ll confess this one had me buzzing.

My first estimate wasn’t accepted, partly due to weakness in the currency of the client’s home country. Bummer. So we negotiated a bit on price and the list of services. Still no, as it was after one more round of negotiations. I’d reached the point where it just wasn’t going to work, no matter how I penciled it out nor how cool the projects were going to be. I told them thanks and to keep me in mind when they had the budget, or even when their currency firmed up. (It hasn’t.)

The feeling of hovering your cursor over the “send” button when you estimate projects is part of the business. But from a productivity perspective, you need to create a system that gives you the confidence to get past estimate anxiety—and let the chips fall where they may.

Hello, Providence! I’ll be heading to ACES 2019 next week, presenting on a few of my favorite topics: how to identify and deal with red-flag clients, and a joint presentation with Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing on the freelance feedback loop—a.k.a., how to use pricing and other data to improve your business. Hope to see you there.

NAIWE News: I’m honored to have been named “The Freelance Expert” on the Board of Experts at the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). Check out the NAIWE site for lots of great training opportunities and how-to articles on everything from the fine points of writing and editing to building your business and career.

Share your thoughts in the comments: Do you agree or disagree that the worst that could happen is getting the job at the wrong price? What’s your favorite trick to overcome estimate anxiety?


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    Excellent post! I *just* went through this earlier this week! A long-ago client came back into my orbit and we got along great. He asked me for a quote for a very short, but extremely precise piece of copy that requires a lot of niche experience (that I have) to get it just-right. It’s not super time-consuming, but it is very, very specific to a niche market. My quote for the one-time piece was $200 – and I actually was going to quote $250, but did a mental “discount” because I like working with the guy. He came back with “Oh, I thought I’d get a writer for $100 or $125.” While I might be willing to negotiate a bit — not gonna halve my price and be p-o’d over it.

    • says

      When I had a potential client — who was a surgeon — say something similar to me, I pointed out he was paying for my specialist knowledge. I said his fees were based on his years of experience and specialist knowledge and so were mine. He wouldn’t expect people to ask him to lower his rates, would he? I also offered to point him to resources if he wanted to find someone else for the job. This client is looking for someone with a particular area of expertise. You have that expertise and that’s worth paying for. Good for you for knowing your work’s value and sticking to it!

  2. says

    Agree, agree, AGREE. I had a situation in which I’d accepted a job, then just a few days into it realized there was a massive gap between what I estimated the job at and what the client’s idea of what the project scope was. When it happened, I alerted the client immediately, and politely — “I think we have different ideas of what the work involved will be” and I countered with a different price. The client said it wasn’t a price he could handle with the budget he had, and we parted ways amicably.

    If I’d kept the job without saying anything, I’d have been paid the equivalent of 10 cents a word. That’s a far cry from what would have been $1 a word given the original understanding of the job.

    • says

      Hey Lori! Yep, we all draw the line in different places, but you sure have to know where your own line is or you ain’t gonna be happy. As you say, best to do that amicably and early. And thx for the tweet, too 🙂

  3. says

    Great post, Jake, and this is an issue I’m sure every freelancer deals with from time to time. I was recently approached by someone who was looking for editing for a translated work, and when I sent my quote, the person wrote back, “Unlike USA authors, authors [from this country] are not rich. To invest this amount for editing, [the author] will think twice. And we know that return on the investment is not there. Who will buy this book in USA?” I guess I was supposed to write back and beg to do the work for much less … but I would have been resentful to work for less than what I quoted. I’d also be unavailable for other work that might come in for which I *could* earn that amount.

    • says

      Thank you, Candace. As much as it would be nice (theoretically!) to be able to help every author who contacts us, the deal needs to make financial sense. Same is true for the author, as far as calculating their ROI—but that’s not *our* challenge, it’s theirs 🙂

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