I don't like counting hours

About 3 min reading time

In the freelance and consultancy business, you often charge per work hour. It’s the rate, and then you estimate the total number of hours for a project. The estimate is … an estimate. Estimates are seldom correct, even for senior consultants. I’m not ashamed to say that I often do an initial estimate, then almost doubling it when responding to the client. One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s immensely better to land a project below the estimate than above.

Anyway: charging per hour. I’ve grown to dislike it. It’s all depending on the project, of course. For smaller, specific tasks where I’m kind of sure how long it will take me to complete the job, I like the charge-per-hour strategy. It’s flexible for both me and the client. Another last minute fix needs to be done? Sure, no problem: just add an hour and pay me.

For larger projects, I believe a better model is needed. For complex systems and longer time periods, the hour charging isn’t working out for me. I sincerely hate watching the account manager dabbling back and forth with big clients about hour estimates and rates. It feels like they’re not paying us for our skills, experience and creativity as designers and developers, but instead buying our time only. For consultants, it’s really lucrative charging per hour for large gigs: it’s not easy to step away from ~$100 per hour. But after some time in the industry, we should be able to decide how to charge something different for larger projects. I’ve tried a mix: charging a lump sum for up to 40-50 hours for a site, then if more has to be done outside the scope, I start charging per hour. It’s a neat trick if you’re dealing with a client who often calls you with “small fixes” without thinking of the cost. If the client goes above the hour threshold, it’s gonna cost him/her.

But we’re still thinking in hours! Creativity isn’t about time! It can be instant, it can take a while. The more skilled and experienced you become as a designer or developer, fewer hours need to be put in for a given problem (hopefully). When you have a firm command of your tools and techniques, things usually go more smoothly than for beginners in the field. But shit happens. As a designer, you may have lost your inspiration. As a programmer, you may have problems with a framework. The hours are counting. The client is getting annoyed. I believe we have to get rid of the concept of “hours” when doing jobs.

What hinders me when working with hours:

  • I have to remember to keep track of how much I work with a clock of some sort
  • I have to give estimates, which usually are pretty rough
  • I get stressed when I get stuck somewhere in the process
  • I focus more on putting in my hours than doing a healthy work day

The client isn’t paying me for “getting stuck” somewhere either. He or she does care if I managed to create a great design mockup in five hours or twenty hours if I’m charging per hour. If I’m not, the concept of “wasting time” is gone, and the client only care about what’s important: the result.

The result is everything. Great clients care about and reward the result. Great craftsmen care about the result and the process. It’s up to us to set a price on hour process as a whole, and deliver great results. When I get rid of the “hours concept”, I often tend to work more relaxed, more focused, and being happier.

Personally I hate not being free to plan my own work day. To me, freedom is so important. Going into an office every day is something I loath. I want to be able to work from my computer from all over the world, and not having to put in eight hours during a block each day. I want to work some hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon, perhaps some more during the night. It fits me. Some days I may work more, some days less. My friends want me to follow along on this great-and-awesome trip one day? No problem, I’ll do my work during the night later. I may internally have some notion of how much time I put in, but in the end I want the client and my team mates care about my result. What I produce.

If I am my own boss, I don’t care how, when or where I do my work: get the job done, and you’re good. Freedom and responsibility are keywords. We are professionals, and should demand being treated like that.