When a Client Can’t Afford You: Why It’s Still Better to Bid High

When Client\'s Can\'t Afford YouA start-up just contacted you — needing brand identity work, web design, marketing materials, whatever. As an experienced professional, you know your services aren’t cheap, and you may be too expensive for a start-up with a shoestring budget.

You want to know what the project’s budget is, but they can’t tell you. Start-ups and small companies often don’t have a set budget for projects like these. They are looking to you to provide a price quote, so they know what they can expect to pay.

Still, your gut is telling you this client can’t afford you. What do you do?

A Case Against Lowballing

In the situation above, you could casually walk in the other direction, saying that you don’t have availability. Or you could refer them to someone else, or simply pretend you never got the message. But if you’re an experienced freelancer, you know that ignoring sales leads, while sometimes tempting, is terrible business.

Instead, if you really want the client, you might provide a lowball estimate, hammer out some quick work at a low cost, collect your twenty dollars and call it a day. But this approach has several pitfalls.

  1. Even a budget client can turn out to be high maintenance. Your lowball client could easily start demanding more than the inexpensive services you plan to offer. Cost factors for freelance services aren’t always easy to clarify, and they may not realize that you are a Cadillac freelancer charging Chevy rates. If things gets out of hand, you could end up spending too much time with a demanding but low paying client – and that’s no way to make a living!
  2. Too much for too little is a big problem no matter who you’re dealing with. Even if the client doesn’t start off demanding much, a client you have lowballed in the past is more likely to become a problem in the future. After getting a logo designed for $100, they’ll probably bristle later when creating business cards costs twice that much. They have put a low premium on your work, and they’re not expecting it to get more expensive overnight.
  3. The client could eventually leave for a more expensive vendor. Once you’ve lowballed a project for a client they might see you as a “starter” vendor and want to “upgrade” to someone more expensive as their business grows. Perception can quickly become reality, and lowballing projects could impact the billable value of your services, with your own clients and within their professional networks.

Just Bid It

Instead of lowballing the project — risking an awkward client relationship and setting the wrong precedents — why not just provide them with a quote like you would any other client? After all, they came to you because they want your professional services and style, and you’re not bargain-basement material.

When creating the quote, make sure it’s balanced, fair, and somewhat realistic for a startup or small company — while also true to what your services actually cost. If you have a bad feeling then don’t spend too much time on the estimate, but still provide something in range of your own professional standards. They’re probably not expecting a glossy, ten-page proposal — but just sending a quick email might look like you’re blowing them off.

Often times, you’ll be glad you bid at your standard rates. Maybe you will get the contract, maybe you won’t. But if you do, it will be on your terms, and for a price you know you’re worth.

If it turns out your gut feeling was right, and they can’t afford you, you might still congratulate yourself — because you’ve made an investment on the future. They may choose someone cheaper, but deep down, they still want you. They may hang onto your business card, check up on your work, and even refer their colleagues your way. And many times, months or years later, they may come back — with a budget you can work with and plenty of respect.