On the Topic of Worth: Transparency in Creative Entrepreneurship / by Amelia Hruby

Photo of Elise Metzger (and friends) by Kelly Allison.

Photo of Elise Metzger (and friends) by Kelly Allison.

How do we talk about worth?

A few months ago, about ten members of Forth gathered together for dinner and a conversation about transparency. Transparency of fees, processes, and our growth as individuals. Ultimately, it was a conversation about worth. The oh so uncomfortable topic that combines money, time, ego and a whole host of other factors. It’s a theme that comes up again and again, both personally and with other business owners. What are we worth and where does that worth come from? Is it an internal sense of self-worth or a projected fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of worth? Or is worth something generated by comparing your services to comparable ones in your market? How do we talk about worth?

This is for me, as a relatively new business owner, a crazy concept to grapple with. The idea of worth surfaced the moment my monetary value was not assigned to me by a company. The days (even the hard and ugly days) when I could console myself with “at least I see X in my bank account every two weeks” were gone. Without a corporate home, I was challenged not just to consider how much I should make per hour, day or year, but what my sense of self-worth was.

I was challenged not just to consider how much I should make per hour, day or year, but what my sense of self-worth was.

I’m not sure if this surprised anyone else at the table that night, but the expression of self-worth really bubbled up when we began to discuss the cycle of price setting.

The Stages Of Worth

Generally speaking, there are several stages, each with its own drivers and challenges. Your worth is expressed not just in what you charge, but in the process of deciding what you charge.   

Stage 1

The first stage, we agreed, is basically “Say Yes to Everything.” You no doubt need to get your name out there, build your client roster and, of course, pay the bills. But the emotional roller coaster during this stage is...hard. It feels a little like dating, wondering where every first exchange will lead, but hoping each “date” leads to the real thing.

Stage 2

The next stage is “Raise Rates but Lose Some Clients.” There’s no rule book as to when this happens, but when you feel like you are running on a hamster wheel instead of zipping down Lake Shore Drive, it might be time. This also means raising your standards (and potentially losing clients). There’s no HR in freelancing and nothing is fair. When someone treats you in a way that makes you want to run back to corporate life, or eat five tacos or wherever your safe place is, don’t. It’s just not a match, and says nothing about you. Just pass “go” and keep going.

Stage 3

The third stage, lengthily titled “Get Better Projects and Make More Money” is a sweet spot that requires a little extra work, time and perseverance. It doesn’t happen all at once, and getting here is a different path for everyone. But, you don’t get to play in this space until you feel your worth for real. And the transparency factor of this stage is that you just can’t fake it. I mean, I guess you could, but it might not feel nice. How can you ask for better projects and more money if you don’t believe you are worth it?

Getting Over the Self-Worth Hurdle

The ideas of transparency and worth don’t always come up in the same breath. Gossipy questions like “How much is so-and-so worth?” end in Google-stalking a celebrity, while inner monologue questions such as “How much does person-I-know make?” aren’t really open for discussion in our culture, and thus we depend on Glassdoor approximations and lifestyle assumptions to compare ourselves to our counterparts.

Find a Business Buddy

I have two thoughts on how to get over the self-worth hurdle and into the “Cool Projects” zone. The first is to combat the isolation and guessing by adopting a buddy system. Make it your mission to find a trustworthy peer to discuss matters of business and worth.

It must be organic and mutual, but it will be worth it. You don’t need to discuss every detail, but having a “business buddy” has been an invaluable part of my journey of self-employment.

Career worth vs self worth

My second thought is to pry away the death grip that your career worth has on your sense of self-worth. As a dear friend said to me, “You must outsource yourself to yourself.” Self-employment means showing up to work as you would any other job, but treating it with a dose of objectivity that, as a creative, can be hard to come by.  

Self-employment means showing up to work as you would any other job, but treating it with a dose of objectivity that, as a creative, can be hard to come by.  

At that dinner, we had a transparent conversation about transparency, yes. But what I took from it was this battle of worth. Even during the conversation, it felt as though questions were being raised that had formerly been suppressed. You can read a summary of the discussion here. It doesn’t have any secrets, but you may find something in it that helps fill a gap in your sense of worth.

By Elise Metzger.