Before co-founding FreshBooks, I ran a small design agency. I felt like I was on a treadmill, billing by the hour, and not earning as much as I thought I was worth.
So I rethought everything.
The result was powerful: In 2004, I only worked 19 days, and made over $200,000.
The strategy change I’m about to talk about gave me the funds and the time to work on my startup. That startup would later become FreshBooks, which we were able to grow to over 5 million users.
So, how did I do this?
I wrote a book about how I did it (you can get the book for free) but essentially, I moved from billing by the hour, to billing based on the value I delivered to my customers.
Sounds like a simple enough change, right?
The truth is that value-based pricing did not mean slapping a bigger price tag on the services I delivered.
It meant thinking about my design business in a whole new way, and changing the way I worked with my clients.
Here are five ways I changed my thinking and the way I worked.
Don’t Present Price Up Front
Most clients want to know what your prices are up front, and a lot of service providers feel obliged to give an answer.
But I found that starting the conversation with the price leads you down a bad road.
Why? It puts my needs ahead of the client’s. It emphasizes what I want out of the relationship, not what they want.
Not a great way to build trust.
Presenting the price of your services at the start also means you aren’t able to really get to know the client and what they need help with most.
So, instead of spitting out my rates at the start, I would tell the client that I first needed to understand what they wanted.
Doing that earned their trust because it showed them that I was interested in understanding their unique problems and crafting them customized solutions based on what I learned about them and their needs, rather than trying to hawk them cookie-cutter solutions that I sold to all clients.
Find Out What the Client Really Wants
With the question of pricing off the table for the time being, the client and I would begin to explore what they wanted.
I’d probe for opportunities to improve their business with my help — specifically their biggest pain points because those would be the things they’d be most motivated to solve.
I’d try to get at their serious challenges. Are their sales trending downward? Are they facing new competitors?
My objective was to make sure we were both clear about what results they’d like to achieve.
A lot of the time, we would end up talking about a project that was more involved than what the client first had in mind.
For example, I would often redefine a project from simply a paint job for their website to transforming their site into a marketing and selling engine that could help them hit revenue targets. If we had talked about price up front, we probably wouldn’t have gotten there.
When clients have your fees at the top of their mind, they’re not likely to be as open, boundless, and creative with their thinking and vision for the project.
Position the Price as an Investment, Not an Expense
If you start the conversation by throwing out a price, you’re just an expense.
Nobody likes expenses, so clients — typically entrepreneurs and businesspeople — try to keep them as low as possible.
By following my process, I was able to position my fees as an investment rather than as an expense.
That’s because the price would be directly connected to something the client wanted to achieve — it would be a means to help them get results.
When you position your price this way, the client merely wants to know that the investment is a sound one.
As an example, if I was proposing to build a website capable of creating an additional $100,000 of profit annually, I would ask the client to make an investment of $40,000 in their website.
Essentially I based the price on the expected value to my client, not on how long it would take me to do the work.
That’s a great deal when you think about what a new site is going to deliver for the next several years, for most businesses.
You might be wondering now what you can do if the value of the project can’t be measured in dollars.
When that’s the case, try to connect the price to a tangible, measurable benefit.
You’ll probably get some helpful information if you ask questions like What does success look like to you? and How are you going to know you’ve achieved what you want?
I often used the question How much is a new customer worth to you? This question made sense because SEO was often part of my design services, and frequently, the value they gave was more than the cost of my services.
So if I could help the business get even one more new customer, it was a good investment to hire me.
But sometimes the client didn’t know how much a new customer was worth to their business. That then opened the door to a project to help them analyze their marketing channels and get some key metrics to measure performance in place, which in turn created more value for them. Yes, this would cost more, but it was also a fantastic investment for the business.
Present Several Options
If you give a client a single price, you’re asking them to accept or not accept your price. The discussion becomes a simple "yes/no" ordeal. Instead of just giving my client these two options, I’d present my project proposal like a menu or a pricing table — with multiple components that had distinct prices.
Some components were optional, but some were required because they were fundamental to the project.
Together, all choices would address the business needs and goals they shared with me during our initial conversations, and I’d offer different solutions at various depths.
I wouldn’t haggle on price. If a client wanted to pay less, they had to choose to have less value delivered.
That put the clients in the driver’s seat where they could make an informed decision — one where they were clear about the trade-offs.
Create a Virtuous Cycle
Following these news ways of working and thinking had a number of positively profound effects on me and my design agency.
For one, in order to help my clients solve their big issues, I would often have to learn new things and develop new skills, which increased my value in the marketplace.
For another, I was no longer competing with other service providers on price. My clients stopped seeing me as a commodity, someone with an hourly rate that they could compare to somebody else’s.
Instead, I was competing based on distinction; on the unique, customized ways I could help my clients reach their goals.
I should add that you have to be careful not to get in way over your head by over-promising and under-delivering.
If I felt my agency couldn’t deliver the full solution, I saw that as an opportunity to partner with another service provider. I would pay them for the work, developing a lasting business partnership along the way. And in the process, I’d learn about their area of expertise to get better at both selling and delivering it to my clients.
I also learned that it was okay to say no to clients who don’t see the value I presented. Clients who want to grind you down on price only lead you to other low-quality clients. It’s a vicious cycle that lots of web professionals get trapped in.
One way out is by focusing on clients who are willing to pay for the value you deliver, because they’ll lead you to other clients who have other exciting projects, thus creating a virtuous cycle for your design business that will take you upmarket.
The five key concepts I discussed helped me earn more as a designer, and ultimately they enabled me to focus on FreshBooks and get it off the ground.
If you’re interested in learning more about value-based pricing, the book I mentioned earlier is called Breaking the Time Barrier: How to Unlock Your True Earning Potential, which saw 87,031 downloads in the first month.
You can read the book for free here.