A tricky topic that most people don’t want to talk about: rates. It can be a personal and touchy topic for even high-end and veteran developers, as if they were going to be judged based on it. The byproduct of this is that rates often go undiscussed by pros in public, leading to newer folks in the field to have nothing to base their business on. I’m quite public about the fact that I cost $1,500 USD a day to work on a project. If you think that’s absurd and I’m robbing people and that no one would ever pay that, you have a right to your opinion, but it is what it is and I get work! But how did I get here? I didn’t wake up with that rate. And a better question: how can you raise your rate and make more doing your work? Let’s dive in.
What is it?
The linchpin of all rates is perceived value. Your perceived value is what people see as your worth, that’s it. The reason is that it’s important is that the perceived value has to have a narrative AND match your asking price. The stories need to line up and make sense. If I just started my career, it wouldn’t be possible to charge $1,500 a day to work on a project. On the flip side, if I went out today and started asking companies who know me for $300 a day, they would be very suspicious and hesitant to give me the gig, because my perceived value in the industry would be way higher than that, so it would raise some flags. It’s essentially the same as being overqualified for something. The same things apply to in our industry.
You won’t just get paid more cause you’ve been doing it for a few years, unless you build a narrative around how your years of experience are a unique value that you’re bringing to the gig that someone else might not bring. The same applies for any aspect of your game.
How to increase it
There are many ways to start increasing your perceived value. The most important step is actually deciding what your value is. What makes you important? What makes you special? Why should I hire you over someone else, rate aside? You need to know why you should even be getting paid to begin with, so that you can then heighten that story to get paid more. What your answers may be could be anything and go in any direction. With that said, there are three areas you can push as a part of your narrative or focus on getting better at which would then help with increasing your rates.
The first way to upgrade your perceived value is to prove/show that you are multi-talented. This mean that you stop calling yourself a “TD dev” and start calling yourself an “interactive experience developer” or something more broad that has more skills attached to it. If you come from a different industry, you should make those old skills part of your new skill set. The idea here being that if you can do the work of multiple people, then you can increase your rates higher and higher. Can you do C4D, After Effects, TouchDesigner, Max MSP, and full stack web all at a pro level (and I mean pro, not just “I’ve done it a few times”), then you deserve to be paid a lot of money if you’re bringing all those skills to a project. This path is really for people who like wearing lots of hats and changing up what they’re working on on an almost-daily basis.
This is the classic addition to any developer’s perceived value. The idea is that not only can you develop, but you can also manage other developers, communicate effectively with everyone working on the project that isn’t a developer, make budgets and timelines and schedules for projects, and anything under that umbrella. This is traditionally one of the main ways you further your career (see caveats below) and generally one of the easiest approaches. Although it does have the downside that then you’ll be expected to do non-development tasks. So if you really love development and only development, then this direction may not be for you.
What do you do if there’s only a few people that can do a specific thing? Hire them. What if they’re expensive? Hmm…tough question. Usually the solution is either hire them or change your plan. That’s how powerful specialising is. If you’re a specialist, and I mean a real specialist, then people will either hire you at whatever price you set or they’ll completely change their plans. If your rates are remotely reasonable and make sense in the grand scheme of things, then you’ll have the gigs doing the thing you’re specialised at for a long time. But you need to be a real specialist. Being a TouchDesigner developer is not a specialisation anymore. It may have been 5-8 years ago, but now there are a lot of developers out there all looking for gigs and only a few real full-on TouchDesigner assassins, and they’re usually busy.
So let’s say you’ve decided that you’re going down one of these routes. What next? Just cause you became specialised in your mind doesn’t mean that everyone else sees it or even knows about it. This is where you narrative comes back in. You need to start creating outputs, showing which path you’ve decided to go down, and that it’s for real. That’s how people will start to even begin to perceive your value. Then you continue down the road and when you’re pitching for gigs, you don’t just talk about your TouchDesigner skills (unless you’re a specialist) or doing only the gig’s scope of work. You start bringing into the play all the extra factors that you’re bringing. Are you multi-talent who knows C4D and TouchDesigner? Don’t just advertise your TouchDesigner knowledge, tell them you’re a master at C4D and you can help their C4D make a smooth transition from their work into your TouchDesigner because of your multi-talent. Now that’s worth something! You keep doing this and commit to it, and if you’re honest about your skills and showing high-quality work, then negotiating higher rates is a piece of cake, because you look like you’re worth it.
Tech industry management
It is a common problem in the whole tech industry where the only way for engineers and programmers to make more money is to transition into management. Bigger companies are trying to find ways of avoiding this by offering better salaries to developers with more experience and allowing that salary to grow without the engineers having to change jobs. So this may be a hurdle you fight where people are hesitant to pay a lot of money for “purely technical skills” just because in some companies there isn’t a culture of well-paid or senior technical talent.
Based on location
All of what I said is true, don’t get me wrong, but location plays a big role in the success of your rate. Different places in the world have different budges on their projects and different amounts of money to work with. Plain and simple. In New York and Singapore, getting my rate agreed upon is not that hard because of the amount of resources and money going into projects. Getting that same rate agreed upon in a country with a weaker economical situation might actually be impossible. So you either need to be open to negotiating or you just need to avoid those smaller markets altogether.
Whether you want to become a specialist, a multi-talent, a tech lead/manager, or something else entirely. The only way to increase your rate is to increase your perceived value. That starts by deciding what your value is! Then building a narrative about it and constantly making sure you’re showing people that value by building outputs that show that value and demonstrating it on the job. From there, people will believe the value you’re presenting them and you’ll be in a much better position to start charging more for your work. Sounds simple? Yup. Easy to accomplish? I won’t lie, it’s not easy, but anyone can do it if you make a plan and commit to the work. Enjoy!