Rates in a Bad Economy & Tracking Hours

Cougar, Grey Wolf & Grizzly Bear Skulls

My early work was largely done by hand. This piece, depicting three types of carnivore skulls (cougar, grey wolf, grizzly bear), was painted with acrylic. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

Rates in a Bad Economy

Ideally on this blog I’ll talk a little bit about my work, giving you a behind the scenes look at the process that goes into creating my art. Along the way I’ll also offer some advice, although sometimes it may fall under the criteria of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Tracking Hours

I’ve just spent the last hour recreating my calenders for the past week,because I didn’t do a good job tracking hours as I went. This happens far too often. Luckily, I can keep a pretty accurate record by going through my email history and  when I opened and saved different files–but that process needlessly wastes time and isn’t really the point of tracking hours in the first place…Why am I being so lax?

Laziness, that’s the easy answer. If I really fess up to my crimes, it’s not so much laziness, as much as avoidance. Avoidance of tracking my hours. Sounds silly, huh?

As I’m happy to preach to anyone starting out, it’s REALLY important to track your hours so you can tell if your rates are fair. For most of my clients I charge a flat rate, so it doesn’t make a difference in my final billing–but it should make a difference to my future estimates and billing.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t/hasn’t. I haven’t raised my rates in years, partially because of timing: when I went out on my own it coincided with the economic sky falling. I feel lucky to have survived as a new, full-time business owner in this climate, but it’s also meant I’ve been afraid to try to move up my rates.

Now here is the real rub–and the reason I don’t like examining my hours–my ‘official rates’ may not have changed, but if I actually compare my estimated hours vs. my actual hours, my rate has actually fallen dramatically. I’m working more for less money. Which isn’t smart business-wise–but then I’ve never claimed to be the smartest business gal–but throw a kid into the mix who sometimes doesn’t get as much attention when I’m trying to meet deadlines and make ends meet, and my priorities feel all mixed up.

How did this happen?

Sayo Studios: Growing Life In A Biosphere

Most of my illustrations, like this one of the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, are now drawn and painted digitally, using programs like Eon Vue and Adobe Photoshop. These computer programs open up whole new possibilities for what I can create and they make the editing process far less painful, but surprisingly increase the amount of time I spend on each project. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

I dare say, that part of the increased time is from a change in my expectations.

When I first ventured into the freelance world and then the full-time small business world, I felt confident (as confident as one can) about my venture because I knew I was efficient at my work. How did I know? Because I closely tracked my hours and I was always able to deliver on time. On time: meaning a few days before deadline so that we’d have plenty of time for any last minute tweaks. I felt good about my work and my clients were happy. And don’t get me wrong current and potential clients ;-), I’ll still deliver quality on time, but it’s taking a lot more work and a lot more late nights.

I’ve gone from using physical pencils and paints, to using Photoshop and Illustrator, to using the 3D-program Eon Vue and Photoshop/Illustrator, to my current arsenal of Photoshop, Illustrator, Eon Vue, Cinema 4d, Zbrush, Modo and the occasional Poser. The list has become long and there’s always more to learn. I thought using 3D programs would help me speed up, but instead I’ve found my own expectations of detail and intricacy keep increasing with each new tool, and so does the time spent! 

So where do I go from here?

Try to be more efficient? Easier said then done. Or do I just have to accept that my rate has decreased? In the following months I’ll try to follow-up on my quest to improve my efficiency while continuing to keep my work fresh, and keep you posted as I do.