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TO FEE OR NOT TO FEE…That is the question!

This topic comes up very often. FEES. Should I charge a fee? What should I charge? Will I lose leads because the majority of everyone else is NOT charging? HOW can I charge when everyone is giving away free work?

And this is more target oriented at the “freelancer” and not one employed by a product distributer…but it still applies.

The short answer is CHARGE SOMETHING for your time and creative energy but NEVER less than 500 bucks. HOW you charge reflects your value and how you value yourself, and most importantly how the consumer market values your time and creative energy.

Most people view their value in a time-clock format. “Time is money”, they say. While this is true, if you are selling time, then you aren’t selling “creativity” or value. And when I say “value”, I’m not talking about a ‘good deal’…I’m referring to the value of your creative energy and effort. The value of YOU.

Creativity isn’t based on time

. An idea isn’t better because it took longer to conceive or execute. Creative masterpieces can happen in an instant when everything comes together and just starts flowing, much like in the same way that terrible design with zero creative energy behind it materializes. When we price our work on time our incentive becomes simply to fill in time sheets or punch the clock to demonstrate we are working very hard – not to create impact for our clients or capture a vision.

Clients pay for your skills, your creativity, and your vision. They pay for the years it took to master your craft, not the hours you spend on their design.

In this industry there are the store-front builders with their cubicle lined walls and their time-clock punching employees in a “productivity is based on quantity and not quality” environment that is based on hours rather than QUALITY and creativity of work.

Therefore, we have an industry diluted with a quantity over quality mentality resulting in creative imprisonment, unsatisfied clients, personal disappointments of the creator, and limited creative freedom – because in this environment your creativity is measured in quantity (only) in how much can you produce regardless of if it is creative or not.

I am certainly not suggesting that time is not an important variable in our day-to-day. I use it to avoid my obsessive nature, perfectionism, and OCD, and to prevent procrastination, NOT to determine my creativity, skill OR productivity.

But I get it. It’s tough. 

Especially when you are in an industry diluted with free work based on the time clock. Its free because it is volume, and its free because it isn’t anything of value, much less anything creative or vision capturing. This is the reason why I get leads that call, or email, and they have anywhere from 7-10 pool studio designs, and they complain that no one can capture their vision.

I ask a series of questions and let them vent about how they have been on the market for 5 months and no one can deliver or capture their vision or produce anything that they like. I already know the answer…but I ask anyway – How much were the fees you paid? The answer is ALWAYS, “I didn’t pay a fee”. Then why did you expect anything of value or creative vision?

What do we get for free? 

The answer: things with no value, or things that leave you empty and wanting more. Like that free sample at the market in that little white 30 ml cup, or that little quarter of a nugget of chicken on a toothpick…just nothing.

The best approach to charging for design work in an industry so saturated with free pool studio renders that can’t really pass as design is to structure your fees so that the consumer feels like they’re getting something of great value for their money. I hear it all the time…”I’m wanting the most bang for my buck”, but as previously written, “bang for your buck” and “quality” are never to be used in the same sentence.

What should I charge?

This depends on your consumer market, your skill, your creativity, your quality of work, and how much you value your work. I see pool studio work that charge 3x what I charge with 3x less detail and quality. Just because you value your work at premium prices DOES NOT mean you can charge premium prices, especially when it looks like all the other pool studio work out there. More crap in a model does not equal “design”. It just means a cluttered space and attempt to show that tire-kicker client that you can put stuff in a model.

5 years ago the floor-rate was 500-600 bucks for pool studio ‘designs’. Today it’s like 150 bucks…and in most cases free. If the market is so diluted with 150 dollar “designs” and free stuff, then good luck breaking into this high barrier to entry market trying to charge thousands of dollars for the same stuff the consumer can get for free, that looks exactly the same, and that is literally a dime-a-dozen out there and literally no one knows who you are and you aren’t even close to being established in the industry.

This is the reason we get leads that have 7-10 different “designs” by 7-10 different ‘builders’ and each one has 3-5 (or more) revision videos on their YouTube.

To charge any type of fee, you must show the clients something that they haven’t seen 7-10 times before. You have to establish yourself as one not confined to a style-box, someone who expresses creativity in a form-follows-function consistency while capturing the client’s vision and emotion and adhering to proper design principles that make quality spaces. Your stuff just has to look better than the other 72 people all using the same program and presenting the same product. If you want to separate yourself from the herd, place QUALITY over QUANTITY, and get the notion out of your head that if you produce MORE faster then that means MORE money.

Quite the opposite is true. Because I can produce a QUARTER of that at the highest level of creativity and quality, and charge 3x more while working 3x less. BUT, as stated above, your stuff has to be better than the other players shilling entry level and below average product that looks exactly like all the rest.

I want clients who value my time and my creative energy and effort. I want to attract the type of clients who EXPECT to pay. Do I charge what the tip top industry creative masterminds charge? Not even close. Not because I do not value my work and creative skill in comparison to any other, rather I know that I can make MORE money by offering the same quality product for ‘just a fraction’ less, because consumers are driven by price in relation to value from a consumer perspective even if its 1% less.

If a consumer says “they charge X and I really loved what they created, but you created something I loved equally for a little less”, then I make that money while not selling myself short or under-valuing my creativity and time, because I understand that the consumer is driven by cost. So I market myself accordingly based on market value of like-minded individuals, not based on the dime-a-dozen herd.

The floor needs to be RE-established at MINIMUM 625 bucks for pool studio work. If clients out there get 5 designers and they’re all charging that average then the ceiling will get higher and higher. But if designers continue to de-value themselves as they are doing, the floor will continue to drop as it has over the past 5-7 years to literally free.

Will I lose leads because the majority of everyone else is NOT charging?


“But everyone else is doing free designs”? Well, I charge, so best of luck with your project. If I had 20 bucks for every time I heard that and then 3 weeks later they’re back with their credit card ready to pay for my services, I’d retire. I encourage leads to dive in out there and experience that circus. But an INFORMED client will dive in knowing a thing or two…and when that 3-minute conversation you had with them begins to materialize into reality 2 weeks in, who do they think about? They think about the guy who told them exactly what to expect.

If you remove yourself from the equation the consumer will feel less pressured with a sales gimmick and pitch. I choose which clients I want to work with. Not the other way around. I’ve been down that road. I’m not one to be treated as an “option”, so let me narrow down your list and just remove myself.

The client usually doesn’t like it up front because they feel like I don’t want their business…while this is true, they still find themselves trying to negotiate with me some time later simply because they like what they see in my work and how it better aligns with their vision.

If you are unable to distinguish between a potential client and a tire-kicker then none of this opinion piece here matters.

And as stated above, giving away free stuff for the sake of a sale has decimated the “freelance designer” market because these people have set the floor at literally…free…making it very difficult for anyone to make any real money out there. Blame them.

HOW can I charge when everyone is giving away free work?

Stating again – YOUR work must be better than the other 7-10 designs they’ve seen in both function and form AND visual quality. This is how you charge. For example: I’ve landed those clients that come to us with their power-point design that they refuse to deviate from…this is what they want, they think it’s the best, they aren’t budging…even if none of it makes sense or functions properly.

I usually professionally decline, but from time to time when they bring that to the table and produce a YouTube video of some other crappy pool studio renderings of the same space, and images from 5 other pool studio users, all were half-assed at best, I feel bad for the client even though technically their design sucks, and I say ok…and for the exact same client power-point design that everyone else tried to show them, only mine “looked better” visually, we win the project even though we were 20% more than the next up.

So that being said, your quality of work is going to determine what you can charge based on visual quality alone…and I’m not talking about ‘graphics’ or ‘photorealism’ – I’m talking about details. Is the house model accurate? Did you utilize the clients existing furniture into the design? Are the neighboring plants and trees properly located to ensure in-design privacy from neighboring windows and balconies? Is the design cohesive? Does it function and flow properly? …to name a few. These are the details that capture the emotions of a client. That little detail that you didn’t think was important could cost you the project if the other guy recognized it and incorporated it. And no, I still am not referring to more crap in a space = design.

To wrap it up, never let the client dictate your fees. Your fees are your fees. Never de-value your skill and creative energy because some other entry level designer is giving away 90 minute “designs” for 150 bucks a pop, or free. Be professional with your fee structure. Let clients see that you are professional. If you state your fee is 500 bucks and the client says they can get it for 150 and you lower your fee price to match unskilled labor, then the client will immediately have the power and feel like they are entitled to your creativity since they now realize that you’re willing to devalue yourself to be competitive.

They’ll leech every ounce of creativity out of you for 150 bucks and waste your time like no other, only to take all of your creative energy, skill and time to the cheapest builder possible to butcher all of your hard work and creativity. That’s what happens when you devalue yourself, your work and your skill and consumers will absolutely capitalize on that.

Don’t be that designer.

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