The asshole rate

What is the cost of being a pain in the ass?

When I started my freelance business six years ago, I took whatever clients I could get. After a year or so, as my reputation grew, there was a steady stream of people asking for my help.

I charged them three different rates.

Some people I could help simply and quickly. I charged those people nothing — provided they were people who were worth helping. The rate for them: $0 per hour. The rules for that rate are: I only work with you if I want to, I decide what to help you with, I set the schedule, and you have to put up with my jokes and silliness along with the advice.

Those people were generally happy with me, and told others I was a good person to work with, but that’s not why I charged them nothing. I did that because it was how I wanted to do things.

A second set of people were regular clients. I charged them the regular rate. (I don’t charge by the hour, but my project fees are based on my estimates of the time I will spend, multiplied by a generous hourly rate.) Regular clients get my full attention. I will put in extra work for you. I will go all out to help you hit a deadline. I will answer questions outside the range of what I am supposed to be doing. I will do everything in my power to make you successful. And if you need something that’s a lot more work than you’re paying for and well outside of our original arrangement, I’ll quote that for you — at the regular rate.

Why do I act like this?

Because you are a client, which means you are my partner. Also, as I work with you, I will become invested in your project and your company. I chose to work with you because you and your project are worthwhile, and in almost every case, my choice turns out to be right — so of course I will help you.

Then there are the third set of people.

They ask for my edits, then ignore them. They miss their own deadlines, then ask you to make up the time. They are mean. They change their minds for no reason. They show no respect for the work. And they pay slowly.

And the stuff they ask you to work on is hard to get excited about — it’s ordinary, it’s lame, it’s questionable, or it’s wrong.

I have charged these people the asshole rate — a rate that is 50% higher than my regular rate. They rarely complain about the price.

I still do the work to the best of my ability. But I don’t enjoy it. I don’t put in any extra effort, or work on a weekend to meet a deadline. I console myself that hey, this is making me a lot of money.

But something has happened. My list of regular clients continues has expanded to the point where I’m quite busy serving them all. As that happened, I have lost the will to work with assholes.

As of today, there is no longer an asshole rate. If you are an asshole — or boring, or working on something that’s not going to make the world any better — I’m just not going to work with you. And I won’t refer you to my friends, either, because they don’t like to work with assholes any more than I do.

It’s not worth the cost to my psyche to work with assholes. I’m saving my energy for the clients who deserve it.

What this means for assholes

Assholes can always find freelancers to work with them — if they can pay.

Consider who those freelancers are.

They are people who are just starting out and are desperate for clients.

Or they are people who are completely motivated by money.

Or they are people who don’t give a crap about the quality of the work.

Some of them — like me, until yesterday — are just charging extra to make up for the hassle and the cost to their souls.

But as those freelancers get more regular clients, they’ll leave the assholes behind.

If you’re an asshole, this is the real cost. The good people — the people who care about the work and about other people — won’t want to work with you any more.

This will leave you with three kinds of workers:

Inexperienced people.

People who are overcharging you and want to leave you.

And other assholes.

Good luck with that.

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  1. Fundamentally, there are three types of people in this world:

    * Those who get it.
    * Those who don’t get it but want to get it. (These are some of my favorite people.)
    * Those who don’t want to get it and don’t want to get it.

    I avoid the third group. I only wish that I could more easily determine who pretends to be in the second group but are really in the third.

  2. So how do you know they’re assholes BEFORE you start working with them so know you need to quote a higher rate? In my experience, these sorts of people are all over you like a rash when they need something from you (i.e. your commitment at the start of the project) but then disappear into the ether as soon as you need them to do something (like send a brief, feedback on the work, pay, etc)

    1. That’s a great question. There are always clues.

      – Where did you find me?
      – Who recommended me to you?
      – What does your project look like?
      – How professional are you?
      – Can I read a sample of what you’re working on?
      – Do you BEHAVE like an asshole?

      You can, of course, still get fooled. But after a while, you develop some sort of asshole radar, purely out of self-defense.

      1. One of the ways I finally knew I was pretty good at my (freelance creative) job was when I realized I could turn away prospective clients because they just didn’t feel right somehow. By the way, your recent education post was spot on, thanks.

  3. Ah, this makes me smile. Years ago, I worked for a company with a particularly annoying client. We added an “aggro” rating to each month’s bill, with the amount determined by how much grief they caused.

  4. Our pain-in-the-ass client rate was approximately double, but like you, we’re at the point where we can Just Say No to asshole clients. It’s a good place to be.

    Love this post.