Putting a price tag on your services is a hurdle all small business owners face when they’re just starting out. We don’t want to ask too much and risk seeing all the good jobs go to cheaper “competition” - but at the same time, we need to live and feed our families!
Virtual service providers can be virtual assistants, web designers, social media managers, graphic designers or something totally different; the main idea is that we work for clients from wherever we want (location independent), whenever we want. That’s real freedom, right?
We’re confident we can get the job done, but how much money is that worth to us, and to our (future) clients?
What’s a good rate to put on our services? To calculate this, there are a few basic principles we need to take into account.
Pricing Like an Entrepreneur, Not an Employee
If you were working in a similar line of work for someone else before you started your business, it may seem logical just to keep the same rate when you become self-employed. However, the cost of an employee is more than just their hourly wage. Your boss had to pay extra costs - insurance, holiday pay, sick days, maybe education expenses and more. He or she was probably also the one providing you with tools to work with - an office, computer, and software, perhaps a phone and more.
When you become self-employed, you’ll need to cover all of those costs yourself, so it only makes sense that your rate will be (significantly) higher than that of an employee.
Pricing Type: Hourly Rate, Packages, Retainers and Usable Hours
In this article, we discuss two main pricing types:
Your hourly rate will be the base rate for all other pricing types. If you work for an hourly rate, you tell your client what your rate is - and after completing the work (or at the end of the week or month), you present them with an invoice for the hours you worked. You can use free time-recording software like Toggl or MyHours to keep track of how long you’re spending on each project, and don’t forget to let your client know you’ll be rounding your time to the nearest 15 minutes, or whatever works best for you.
Simple, but the riskiest way of getting paid. Often, freelancers who start out with an hourly rate will switch to packages after a client stopped paying his bills.
Packages are the simplest way to present your clients with a clear financial forecast.
There are three different types of packages:
Project-based: you can have packages for a particular project to be completed (like developing a website, designing a logo or organising an event). Like Mellissa at Mean Designs.
Task-based: a package that includes specific tasks to be performed for a certain length of time - like managing social media, keeping a website safe and upgraded,...
Hourly-based “retainer” package: this includes a set number of hours, to be used within a certain time period.
What to Include in Your Rates
When you set your rates, the most important thing to remember is that the amount on the invoice you send is NOT the profit you make from your business.
You’ll need to deduct several costs, like
Taxes: in most countries, it’s safe to hold back 30-35% of your income for taxes. Talk to a tax professional before setting your rates, so you know what to expect. Here in Europe, most businesses also charge VAT - which they will get a refund on afterwards though.
Software and office supplies: software licenses, access to tools you may need for your business (think of apps like Tailwind, Adobe licenses, Zoom, BeLive, MS Office, and so many more)
Your computer, phone, and other tools. Now you may think “I have a laptop already, so no need to calculate this in my rates,” but what happens if/when your computer breaks down? What if your phone gets stolen? Without a business, you can wait a bit and save money to buy a new one, but if your income depends on you having access to a decent computer, you may need to buy a new one right away.
Necessities: phone, internet, maybe insurance or other requirements.
Networking: you may want to join a group that can help you get more clients or readers. An association for other professionals in your niche, a membership where your ideal clients happen to be members as well, or maybe a convention you can attend.
Education: as your business grows, you need to grow with it, and acquire more knowledge or certifications.
Setting Your Hourly Rate
When you set your hourly rate as a VA, the simplest thing to do is work backwards. Calculate how much you want (or need) to make every month, and how much time you want to allocate to make that money.
Let’s say you’ve calculated what your monthly expenses are (business and personal), what you want to save up for future investments or holidays, and you’ve decided you want to make $3000 a month. Depending on where you live, that’s not bad at all for a startup entrepreneur. Sounds good? Let’s continue.
As we described in the last section, you’ll need to add certain costs to that. Let’s just add 30% for taxes for now: 30% of $3000 is $900 - so that means you’ll need to make $3900 each month to meet your monthly income goals.
Now, let’s establish how much time you want to spend on your business.
Don’t underestimate this. Thinking you’ll want to work 50 hours a week or more as a standard can be a recipe for disaster. On more than one occasion, things will go wrong, and you’ll end up working way more hours anyway.
Also, you’ll find that working 50 hours at an office for a company is not the same as working 50 hours from home for your clients. When you work at home, you won’t bill your time getting coffee, taking bathroom breaks, having a chat with a coworker or checking your emails. Nor can you allow for catching up with Facebook, making a phone call, or quickly hanging up the laundry (just because you can!) So let’s go for 40 hours for now ( that’s 8 hours per day on weekdays). This works out at around 160 hours per month that you can spend on your business.
Now, subtract 15% of these hours as “non-billable time”; this is the time you’ll spend working on your business. Talking to potential clients, working on your website and social media, sending invoices and doing all those other things that just need to be done.
We’re now left with 136 hours to offer to clients every month, and you would like to make $3900 in that amount of time. So what should your hourly rate be?
$3900/136 hours per month = $29 per hour.
How much do you want or need to make every month? And how many hours do you have available to make that amount of money?
I can’t ask that much!
Yes, you can. Besides, you need to; this is just the minimum rate you need to earn your target monthly income.
If you really think it’s too much, you’ll need to either lower what you aim to earn each month or work more hours.
Take a look at others offering similar services (your competition) what are they charging? Would you be charging more?
How do I compete with cheap virtual service providers in other countries?
As you can see from the above calculations, your hourly rate depends vastly on what you need to make in a month to cover your expenses. And those expenses just aren’t the same if you’re living in London, Paris or NYC - or in India or the Philippines.
If you calculated you’d need to earn $35 an hour and work your butt off, how can you compete with somebody asking for $2 an hour?
Very simple… you don’t.
Stop seeing the whole world as your direct competition.
There might be several reasons why a client chooses you over (much) cheaper options abroad.
Because you are in the right time zone
Because you’re a native speaker for their language
Because you’re good at what you do
Because you specialise in their niche
Because somebody else referred you to them
Because you’re great to work with!
Another Way to Calculate Your Hourly Rate… If You Can Afford It
If you have another source of income (or some money stashed away) and are just starting out as a virtual assistant, chances are you won’t be able to justify higher rates just now. Maybe you have no idea what you’re doing (yet), have zero experience working with clients, or just need to build up your confidence.
Don’t start out at anything below $15 an hour. If you were thinking of starting out even lower than that, scroll down and read why a lower rate doesn’t necessarily get you hired!
Once you find your first client at $15, raise your prices by 10% for the next one. Every time you get an additional client, increase your rates by 10% for the new client. This will allow you to get the experience you need (and the testimonials, don’t forget about them), but doesn’t keep you stuck at that same low rate. With every client, you add more experience and knowledge, and you’ll start getting better and more confident at your job until you start making your desired rate.
Indexing Your Hourly Rates
Make sure you include a clause in your contract that allows you to raise your rates from time to time. Inflation means that things may become more expensive where you live, and there’s nothing more frustrating than being stuck with a rate you can’t raise!
Announce your rate increases to your clients in a timely manner - give them the chance to get accustomed to the idea and adjust their budget, or (worst case scenario) if that means they can no longer afford you, it will allow them the time to find somebody else.
Converting Your Hourly Rate Into Packages
In many cases, clients like to work with packages. And in most cases, that’s the easiest way for us virtual service providers to bill our clients as well.
The advantages of package rates
The perks of working with packages (instead of just charging hourly rates) are:
For the client: they know exactly how much you’re going to cost them that month
For you: you know exactly how much you’re going to make that month
If you make those packages recurring (working on an ongoing basis, e.g., social media marketing or email management), you have a reliable source of steady income
How to set your packages
To build your packages, first write down exactly what’s included (in detail).
For instance, for Facebook page management, this would be:
Sourcing content to post on the page
Creating content to post on the page
Making a plan, so you know what to post when
Writing copy to go with the content
Scheduling the content to Facebook
Engaging with followers
Inviting people to like the page
Gathering reports and statistics
Meeting with the client about strategy
Time spent emailing with the client
Then, for every single one of those, write down how much time it will take you to do this per month. When in doubt, round it up a bit; you don’t want to allocate too little time to do the work, because that means not getting paid for all of it!
Now you already know what your minimum hourly rate is, so multiply the amount of time you think you’ll spend on this by your minimum hourly rate.
Is that it? No, it’s not.
Account for discounts and extras
Sometimes, you’ll want to give clients a discount. Because you know them, because they’re good clients and you want to give them a little extra, because you made a mistake or dropped the ball somewhere. Or maybe you want to advertise your packages on your website, but give a discount to people who contact you for a personal proposal.
However, giving a discount on your minimum rate would mean you wouldn’t be making your income goal this month.
Instead, make your packages more expensive than your minimum rate. Whether that means adding 10%, 20% or 30%, that’s your own choice - just make sure you have a little leeway when you need it.
Coaching and Consultancy, Courses and Memberships
Coaching and consultancy rates are a little different; with these, you don’t want to just get your hourly rate for a one-hour one-to-one coaching call. When you calculate your rates for this, don’t forget:
You need to prepare for your coaching call
You’ll probably follow up on that coaching call
During that call, you’ll give valuable information away - if you weren’t coaching your client, they would have resorted to taking a course and learning the material themselves (or getting a different coach, of course).
Again, you’re giving valuable information away: maybe instead of that coaching call, they could have hired you to do the work for them.
Courses and memberships are not one-to-one services like coaching and consultancy; they’re products that can be bought more than once, meaning you don’t need to set up a different course for every single student.
We’re not going into pricing for courses or coaching sessions in this article, as this is most likely not what a virtual service provider who’s just starting out would be offering.
Last Note: Why a Lower Rate Won’t Get You Further
Of course, the first reason you shouldn’t advertise really low rates is that it won’t help you make your income goals for the month. There are plenty more reasons though:
Potential clients will often think that because you’re cheaper, you’re less experienced or offering lower quality services.
You will start resenting your job, knowing that others get way more for the same work, or knowing that other clients are paying you more than this one.
Clients who hire you because you are cheap (and not because you’re great at what you do) are somehow often the more difficult and needy clients, the ones that don’t pay their invoices on time (or at all) or appreciate the amount of work you’re doing for them.
The general advice here would be to start out with a reasonable rate, but certainly not too low - as a really low hourly rate won’t get you anywhere.
How did you price your services?
Now it’s your time to share!
What type of services do you offer? Do you work with hourly or package rates? Are you undercharging or do you feel like you’re overcharging some of your clients? What advice would you give to others who need to set their rates?