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Don’t Reject Every Client Who Can’t Afford You

In the 90s, supermodel Linda Evangelista caused a media kerfluffle when she famously told Vogue, “We have this expression, Christy [Turlington] and I: We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” Backlash ensued and in later interviews, Evangelista mused that the quote would probably be etched into her tombstone. You didn’t talk about money, especially if you were a woman owning your worth. Especially if you baldly announced it as Evangelista did, free of the cowering deprecation women of my generation were preened to practice.

Unlike the slew of editors who labeled her entitled, selfish, and elitist, I admired her boldness. Whenever I think of Linda Evangelista, a scene from Michael Mann’s Heat comes to mind when Al Pacino shouts at a small-fry drug dealer turned informant, “Don’t waste my motherfucking time!”

Credit: YouTube

For years, I practiced tunnel vision. Commanding five-figure project rates because I was worth it. And if you had any doubts, I had the case studies, accolades, experience, and expertise to prove it. It was until the last few years did I realize how rigid my model had become. My services weren’t agile enough to form affordable products that gave prospects value but still kept my business profitable.

Now, we’re not talking about prospects who believe fair pricing is a race to the Fiveer bottom. You know the nickel-and-dime type. Interrogating you on every line item like they’re a CIA operative and you’re the criminal pulling all the fast ones. Telling you they can get a kid out of college for a fraction of what you cost (you do that, buddy, and come back to me when you want the mess cleaned up).

We’re not talking about people who don’t value and respect the expertise you bring to their business. Or people who place their attention and budget on shiny objects instead of business fundamentals. Trust me, they will be nightmare clients.

We’re talking about people who are unfamiliar with your industry and standard rates. People who believe you’re worth it, but they genuinely don’t have the budget (this excludes startups that spend thousands a month stocking their fridges and mini-bars but can’t pony up a project fee or corporations that constantly feed you their budget sob stories when they know they’re saving more on hiring you than staffing a full-time employee with benefits. I’ve been in this game for a long time and I’ve heard everything).

And we’re also talking about people who are cautious — they like what you’re selling, but maybe they want to buy a little of you instead of the whole kit and caboodle.

Last year, it occurred to me that I was leaving thousands of dollars on the table because I was turning away people I genuinely wanted to work with but who couldn’t afford me.

This, my friends, is bonkers. Don’t be me. Don’t do this. Learn from my epic mistakes.

I like paper. I’m old — what can I say? At the end of last year, I mapped out the services I wanted to offer (i.e., brand platform development, story strategy, customer sleuthing) and then I devised creative ways I could package that offering that gave clients equal value but at varying price points. While also ensuring I wasn’t losing money or devaluing my worth.

I listed all the possible permutations — from low energy, low cost to all-in, premium pricing — and then I assessed and analyzed which made sense for my business.

When selling the varying tiered services, I make it clear what clients should expect in terms of the degree of time, money, and resources they’ll need to invest, which will shift based on their point of entry. More affordable products mean you do more of the work, while premium tiers give you the benefit of saving time but at an incremental cost.

Never make the mistake of selling a DIY product or a DIY/DFY hybrid and then doing the work for them. You’ve devalued your work and worth and have made it clear that you’ll do more for less.

Basic Buy-ins: Low Energy & Cost

  • eBooks, workbooks, checklists, and worksheets: This is for the customer who wants to DIY their work. They know they’re forgoing time in an effort to save money. I’m selling my brain but not tailoring the products specifically for a client’s business.
  • Starter courses (email or digital): Give users a point-of-entry to learning a new topic. For example, let’s say a full course would be on how to build a brand platform. A starter course might center on developing your brand positioning and purpose, which is a component of the brand creation process.
  • Resource library: You can update, refresh, expand upon, and repackage all your existing blog posts into one location.
  • Premium email subscriptions: Substack is all the rage, and I wondered if I could continue my existing weekly email — giving value and insights away for free — while creating a next tier option for those who want to up-level their skillset in brand development, customer sleuthing, and storytelling.

I also considered: “pick my brain” hourly consults, paid challenges, community offers, and online boot camps, but determined they weren’t right for me.

Result: I decided that I’d start with eBooks & a resource library in 2020. I’ve already had two successful eBook launches, have gathered learnings from each, which will help me retool my offering in 2020. People can easily buy-in for as low as $20 because I believe in making knowledge accessible for most.

Mid-Range Offerings: Moderate Time Investment & Mid-Level Pricing

  • 1:1 coaching: Your clients get the benefit of someone’s knowledge and expertise guiding them through the process, but they’re doing the work. I piloted a 5-week coaching model for brand platform development for three clients last year, and I learned ALL THE THINGS. So much so that I’ve spent the better part of this month refining my beta model so as to make it easier and digestible for my clients, but they can still see results.
  • Group coaching & group programs: This expands the 1:1 work to a small group of vetted clients who are hovering in the same stages of their business. I’ve found that if the knowledge and experience base is all over the map, it’s challenging for everyone to get the same level of value — novices may be easily confused while experts might get bored if you’re spending too long on the basics. It helps if you have people who have a similar level of acumen. When it comes to coaching (whether it be 1:1 or group), it’s important to work with people who actually want to do the work. You have to define what’s expected of them so they know the workload going in. And it’s also important for you to know whether you’re better at 1:1 or balancing the needs, challenges, and personalities of a group.
  • Online live workshops: Think of these as webinars that have actual value. You’d pay a fee to learn about a particular subject and have the opportunity for Q&A at the end. I’ve considered live workshops as mini-tutorials on components of the brand-building and storytelling process, otherwise, it’s too overwhelming. For example, I might do a workshop on defining your positioning and purpose, another on how to develop your values, mission, and vision statements, etc.
  • Subscription services: You can offer closed communities where you host weekly or monthly Q&As, tutorials, work sessions or you can offer digital products on a monthly basis based on a particular subject matter. It’s up to you to determine your level of engagement and the range of products you want to offer.
  • Offline personalized training events & hands-on workshops: The majority of work I do is virtual, but nothing replaces the magic of being with a client or group in-person. You’re adapting your online training and education or hands-on work in a 1–to a 2-day format.

Result: This took me months to figure out. Not only did I have to consider what I had the energy for, but I also had to prioritize what would be profitable in the context of my other revenue sources.

People also forget that teaching and doing are two distinct skill sets, and just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have the natural ability to teach what you know. When I was getting my MFA at Columbia, I often found that famous authors didn’t teach as well as their midlist counterparts.

And while I excel at making the complex simple, I had to step back and create a framework that could easily explain what I know without overwhelming people with information. Because I have a tendency to overwhelm others and myself.

I ended up going with a 1:1 coaching and a 2-day brand intensive model in 2020. I’d planned on a week-long intensive, but my brilliant friend Connie, whom I bounce ideas off of during our monthly business bestie chats, said no one will want to get away for a week unless it’s a major, mandated corporate event.

I’m pricing my 1:1 coaching in the $3-$7K range (depending on the length of the engagement and what we cover) and my 2-day at $2500 + travel. And yes, I believe in being transparent about money. It’s not bragging if it’s giving you information.

1:1 Bespoke AF Services: High Energy & Cost

  • DFY (Done For You) projects: This has been the proverbial bread and butter of my business for the past seven years where clients come to me with challenges and I devise solutions. From building their brand platform to an executable marketing plan, clients would pay me a considerable fee to do the work for them. All they have to do was implement, and if they need help on that score I have a list of trusted peers itching for good referrals.
  • Retainer clients: It’s rare for me to take on retainer clients because my work centers on strategy and deliverables instead of execution and ongoing maintenance or work. However, I have a few retainer clients where I’ll create content for them on an ongoing basis (rare because I’m expensive) or they’re agencies that have brought me in to analyze the efficacy of their content strategies and make data and experienced-based recommendations for improvements.

Result: In lieu of the new projects I’m pursuing this year, I’m dialing down the retainer work and being more selective with the projects I take on because balance and work diversification is important to me. It makes me creative, sharp, and full of verve.

My 1:1 work is my most premium offering and prices could range, based on the engagement, from $6K-$50K.

I’ve been a working professional for twenty-three years and a consultant for seven. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that I love building things, but I also love teaching people how they can be the architect and artisan for their own businesses. I’ve found that sweet spot in that Venn diagram you’ve probably seen online of what I like to do, what I’m good at, and what clients want.

I’ve also learned that I can’t only rely on a single source of income practically and creatively. From a pragmatic perspective, I’ve got debt hovering, bills to pay, and a cat to support. On the flip side, playing different parts in the brand development and storytelling process has made me agile. Not only does the work fuel me, but the variety of people with whom I work is the reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

If what you do makes you constantly curious, you can find unlimited ways to nurture that curiosity. You don’t have to be tethered to one type of work if you’re hungry enough to climb out of the box you’ve built for yourself to build another.

Will I make mistakes or fail at some of my new projects? For sure. But I’ve learned that failing forward has brought me to this place of feeling fearless, creatively-inspired, and finally excited to pry open my front door and step out into the world.


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