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The Money Taboo

Over the past few days I’ve spent a lot of time in 1:1 coaching sessions with first-time clients. It’s been a very diverse group: Independent graphic and type designers, studio owners, a media company executive, a university instructor, and a couple of people from the engineering side of things. What a terrific experience it’s been!

Through these consultations, one topic has emerged consistently. More than any other, I heard my clients struggling with an issue that was impeding their ability to achieve their business goals. An in some cases, it may have even interfered with my ability to communicate effectively with my clients! I’d like to share with you some thoughts on that matter.

Money Talk

There’s a powerful taboo against talking openly about money, finance, and business. I would say this is a cultural taboo, but I’ve been talking to people about it for several months, and so far I haven’t spoken to anybody who knows of a culture where this does not exist. It seems to be universal. Let me know if you know of any exceptions.

I’m not an expert, but I think this taboo is rooted in shame. I think it comes from wanting to avoid the appearance of seeming selfish, greedy, or low-class.

I think the reason you feel queasy about going into your boss’s office and asking for a raise is not because you’re afraid of your boss, or because you don’t know how to ask. It’s because you don’t like how the act of asking might make you seem in your boss’s eyes.

When I go to buy a car, intellectually I know that it’s completely normal and expected to negotiate over the price. But I still feel queasy about it, and I still have anxiety over it, and I go around in my head about a hundred times over how I’m going to be perceived when I finally spit out my offer.

When I finally do propose a figure, I’ll try not to give one that the seller perceives as being too low — even if that’s in my self-interest — because I don’t want to be perceived as cheap or unserious. It’s really pretty ridiculous when you think about the dance that’s being done to avoid an honest conversation about the price we’re both willing to accept.

This is the money taboo working its whammies on us. And I think there are many moments in the life of a creative person that trigger this taboo.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • Proposing a higher fee to a client for our services

  • Asking somebody in the industry to collaborate with us on a project

  • Asking for more money when we’re asked to do more work

  • Trying to secure a raise or promotion

  • Looking for compensation when the client extends the timeline for a project, deliberately or through their own inaction

I know from experience that these conversations are difficult for many people. In fact, I have found that many people find it awkward to even bring the subject of money with me, their business coach. It’s really that charged for many of us.

Business Goals

Our goal should be to reduce the stress associated with these conversations, so we can have open and honest communications about business. In a conversation about a car, it is possible to say “Would you consider offering me a lower price?” When talking about freelancing, it’s possible to say “I’m going to be charging a slight higher rate on this project than I did on the last one.” These things are possible!

Having effective conversations about money is something I work on with many of my clients. And developing that skill can take a little bit of time. But briefly, I want to share two important tips for trying to disarm the taboo whammies and putting you back in control of these conversations.

First and most importantly, you should acknowledge that the money taboo exists and that it affects us all. If you feel awkward or uncomfortable when you talk about money, finance, or business topics, it’s quite likely that part of what’s happening is the taboo is having its way with you.

Recognize that this is a common, normal, shared experience. Trust that it can be overcome with some focus and some practice. In the type industry, some leaders like James Edmondson are sounding a clarion call by sharing information about their own business and inviting questions and discussion. Seek out conversations like this about your own business, and take the time to engage with those whose minds are already open on the subject.

Second: Realize that this impediment to being able to communicate openly about this important business topic is harmful to your ability to achieve your business goals. There is no field of human endeavor that an inability to communicate about makes easier! Whether your business goal is to get promoted, grow your freelance practice, find more collaborators for your Open Source project, or get better at presenting to clients — all of these goals call for you to be able to communicate openly and honestly about a wide range of topics with minimal impediment.

Let’s to Business

As someone who has done both things for a living, I can tell you that working with money is a bit like working with fonts. Many people think they’re terrible at it, but you probably know more than you think. The most important thing is to try. It only takes a little bit of practice to sound like you know what you’re doing.

There are concrete things you can do to make it easier on yourself. One thing that works for some people is to phrase a money proposal as a question: “Would you consider paying a higher rate on this project?” or “Could you agree to a reassignment fee if this project delay isn’t resolved by October 1?” What’s the worst that could happen?

Many questions from my clients boil down to whether it’s ok to ask their clients for more money. My answer is often the same: There’s no harm in asking! Be thoughtful, reasonable, and direct. When you are asking for money, I suggest you do so right at the top of the conversation, not at the end of a long explanation about why you deserve it. You’ll relieve your own anxiety about the conversation, and probably the client’s also. Nobody likes suspense.

Another sound tactic is to talk with your peers, colleagues, or your coach about whether the business position you’re advocating for is reasonable, customary, and appropriate. Having an opinion on that from an knowledgable and informed third party can really arm you for a difficult conversation. However, choose carefully whose opinion you rely on. This is no a topic to take to the local Happy Hour or, heaven forfend, to Facebook.

Know that you’re tackling the same kind of problems that millions of others are, and just do your best to get yourself communicating openly and honestly as early and as frequently as possible.

Use your words, and it will turn out fine. If you’re having a hard time talking about a financial topic, talk about it to me! Get in touch, there’s no obligation. I’ll be happy to help you out.

—Matthew

Matthew Rechs