Should You Raise Your Rates and Only Take Paid Speaking Gigs? Not So Fast…

Over on Mastodon, SparkToro CEO Rand Fishkin and Seer Interactive CEO Wil Reynolds were chatting about the blind advice of “Raise your rates!” and “Don’t speak for free!” They floated the idea of a co-authored blog post, and I (SparkToro’s VP Marketing Amanda Natividad) promptly chimed in. This blog post was written by all of us, with quotes from those of us who most strongly hold specific opinions. (And by the way, if you still haven’t joined Mastodon feel free to use my invite!)

Wil Reynolds, Rand Fishkin, and Amanda Natividad

“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but it’s time to raise your rates.”

“A word to all event organizers: Pay. Your. Speakers.”

“Speakers: stop accepting unpaid gigs! You deserve to be paid.”

Here’s a confession: We don’t wholly agree with those statements.

Do we think people should get paid fairly? Of course. Should they knock on the doors of opportunities that might give them more money? Absolutely! And if they’re great at their jobs, should they seek the maximum possible payment? YES.

But there’s a lot more nuance here.

The problem with following the “raise your rates” and “get paid speaking opportunities” advice? It oversimplifies career goals and market opportunity. And you risk prioritizing short-term money over long-term value.

(TL;DR: Be honest with yourself about your marketable skills vs. the competition, regularly test the market, and remember that value doesn’t always come in the form of money.)

How might I think about asking for a raise or raising my rates?

Let’s assume you have proven experience, and are objectively good at your work. Does that universally mean  you can tack on 30% to your rate sheet and have it go over well with new and existing clients?

No. Because unfortunately, you’re not worth your raw skills. You’re not even worth the value you provide to your customers. You’re worth what the market is willing to pay you.

If you’re an in-house employee:

Amanda once had a heart-to-heart with a fellow tech worker friend who was unhappy with her salary. “It just isn’t fair. I’m 29 years old. My friends make so much more money than I do. I know I’m worth at least double!” She said.

“Are you?” Amanda asked.

“Of course I am. I know my friends make twice what I make.”

“I know you’re amazing. But are your friends in the same industry? In a similar role? And in a similar sized company? Is this really a fair comparison?”

Amanda and her friend hashed it out a little more and in the end, she encouraged her to test the market, interview for new jobs, and see if she could give herself a raise. If she could come back to her current employer with a competing offer, she might be able to negotiate a big raise. Or she could just take the better competing offer.

(For the curious, this friend is now in a much better role, in an industry she’s passionate about, and she makes a great living!)

If you’re a freelancer:

You could be the savviest, wittiest, pithiest copywriter in your country. But if no marketing team is willing to pay you $300 per hour, well… you can’t charge them $300 per hour. Unless you don’t want to work.

Your rate is dependent on your skills, the market, perceived substitutes, and the job itself. The way Amanda puts it: “Maybe I can tell everyone my rate is $100 per hour for marketing advice but I sure as heck can’t charge my neighbors $300 for holiday cookies just because I spent three hours making them. (For the record, that’s not my rate and I don’t sell cookies.)”

Here’s how Amanda thinks about her rate:

  1. I think about my own proven experience.
  2. I look at jobs within my industry that best match up with the scope of work AND that I qualify for.
  3. I research salaries for those roles then calculate the hourly rate.
  4. I double that rate. The doubling accounts for things like supplies (computer, internet, software) and health insurance (if I’m a full-time freelancer, I’m paying for my own insurance). That’s my freelancer hourly rate.
  5. And then I multiply my freelancer hourly rate by the estimated amount of hours I’d spend on a given project. That’s my estimated project rate.

Anchoring your price point to a relevant role helps you answer the question of, “Is this a fair price for an employer to pay an employee who’s qualified to do this job?”

Another approach, per Rand’s recommendation: Try to find 5-10 of the most similar substitutes for the work you offer. That could be other freelancers, agencies, even an in-house hire. What’s the average cost to a potential client? Do you have the network, reputation, and demand to charge in the top 30%? The top 5%?

So… now what? How and when should I raise my rates? Take a look at this decision matrix:

A decision matrix to help you determine whether to raise your rates.

Raise your rates: When the demand for you — and you specifically — exceeds the amount of work you’re able to do AND your competitive options are cheaper, you absolutely should raise your rates. People clearly want you instead of the cheaper options.

Another scenario in which you should raise your rates? When the demand for your expertise exceeds the amount of work you’re able to do AND your competitor options are more expensive. There’s a clear market need for the work you provide and if your competitors are getting paid more, you too should reap those benefits.

Keep your rates: If your availability exceeds the demand AND competitive options are cheaper, sadly, you should keep your rates as they are. While you may feel you’re worth more, the market hasn’t discovered that yet.

It depends: If your availability exceeds demand AND competitive options are more expensive, there’s a chance you’re underpricing. If that’s the case, it might harm your perceived value. Or maybe you just need to generate more leads. Proceeds with caution here. You may need to work on sales and/or marketing to grow awareness of your value.

Ok, now what about speaker fees?

We always hear about the people who command $10,000 or $20,0000 for their speaker fee.

But those are (most often) published authors or influential creators, usually with proven track records. They’ve built up massive audiences and usually the event organizer isn’t paying for the quality of their hour on stage, but access to their audience.

And here’s where we think the whole speaker fee thing gets lost in translation.

Other speakers think: “Gee, if this event is charging $1,000 per seat and they have the extra $50,000 to pay that celebrity fitness trainer to talk, then surely they can throw $5,000 my way.”

But… it just doesn’t work that way.

Most event organizers are not cut from the ruthless, capitalism-at-all-costs vein that an Elon Musk or Peter Thiel are, but let’s imagine they were. If a ruthless organizer can save $5,000 per speaker on 10 speakers and pocket an extra $50K with an unnoticed impact on their event’s quality… Why the heck would they pay?

“It’s the right thing to do,” is a bad answer here. Yes, it might be the right thing to do (we’ll get to why it isn’t always below), but market economies don’t function on businesses optimizing for the most ethical choice. It’s a competition.

Event organizers, even those with impeccable ethics, are guided by their company’s profit-maximization incentive. If five hundred potential speakers are willing to speak for free at an event, and you’re the lone holdout who demands payment, you’d better be offering something many multiples of what those other five hundred speakers can.

“I’m at least as good a speaker as the people they had on stage last year.”

“I can give a much more valuable talk than that guy.”

“I’ve got way more LinkedIn connections than she does.”

These might seem like reasonable responses, but each has a fatal flaw. Being as good as previous speakers gets you in the running; it doesn’t get you something the organizers don’t normally offer. Giving more valuable talks doesn’t do it, either, unless those presentations aren’t just objectively better, but clearly perceived by the organizers as leading to more ticket sales and/or higher ticket sales in the future. And having more LinkedIn connections (or email subscribers or Mastodon followers or what-have-you) might seem like an obvious benefit, but organizers never know if your followers/fans are the kind who buy tickets or whether that fandom translates to increased perception of the event’s value.

Here’s how Wil thinks about it: “Do you sell tickets or raise the profile of the event? If not, you may have less value than someone else, even if you’re providing similar value on-stage. If you insist on charging to speak, track how many people paid for events through your tracking links or discount codes. Over time you’ll be able to prove to organizers that you pay for yourself and deserve your fee.”

In all of these cases, speakers have to put themselves in the mindset of organizers. Preferably the mindset of ruthlessly bottom-line-driven organizers. If you can imagine that Musky, Thiel-like organizer thinking “Hmm… They’re expensive, but if I pay them, I’ll easily triple my investment and I’m confident they’ll keep the payment a secret so my other speakers don’t get upset,” then maybe you’ve got a shot.

Doesn’t sound very plausible, does it?

Here’s the core problem: Speaking on stage provides its own value.

When Rand spoke on stages around the world during this company’s first few years, he and SparkToro reaped immense benefits. Followers, email subscribers, networking, product-and-message-testing opportunities, and more. It’s fair to say that from a ruthlessly-ROI-focused perspective, Rand might have received so much value for the company that he should have paid the organizers, not the other way around.

Many freelancers, agency owners, and non-business-owning professionals of all stripes earn similar benefits from being on the right stages. Job opportunities, clients, subscribers, press, prestige, new contacts: there’s a reason folks with intense demands on their time are willing to spend dozens of hours traveling in less-than-enjoyable circumstances just for the chance to have a day or two with peers.

That gets-value-from-free-speaking group is your competition in the world of paid speaking gigs. If talented, otherwise-well-paid folks are getting value from doing something for free, can you, too?

How about the selfless, egalitarian, pro-worker, inclusivity position? For example, the folks who say:

“All speakers, myself included, should refuse to speak for free, in order to create a fair playing ground where the work of creating talks, traveling, and presenting, is valued. Many speakers from underprivileged backgrounds cannot take the time to speak unless they’re paid, and to support these folks, we must show solidarity by demanding payment.”

Rand’s take: “There’s nobility here for which I have deep respect. Also, as a contrarian and a Chill-Work aficionado, I love saying no to things on principle. But…”

You’ll obviously bump into the problems we’ve already talked about above, plus the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Still… let’s imagine this reality came to pass. Total solidarity among speakers. Not a one willing to take the stage for free. What happens to the event world? The bar for new events, small events, nonprofit events, low-budget events, events run by less privileged folks, events in lower-wage regions, and the like becomes dramatically higher. A lot of those events probably never get off the ground, never get a chance to succeed, and aren’t even attempted.

In this mental exercise, you could argue that events that cannot afford to pay speakers (or might afford it but are too intimidated by the cost structure to try) don’t deserve to exist. But if DEI goals are your primary objective, it could well be that those less-financially-privileged organizers/events are the ones most likely to give visibility and stage time to underrepresented and/or disadvantaged folks. We’re not sure. But, it certainly creates enough gray area around ethics that there’s no *slam dunk* argument that paying every speaker every time is always better than organizers having the option.

What’s more, value doesn’t always come in the form of money—value is subjective. In the case of SparkToro’s early days, the value Rand received was in opportunities to spread the word about our product, drum up excitement, and recruit beta testers. He got this by speaking for free at events that were relevant to SparkToro’s audience.

Therein lies the conflict of interest for speakers. If you know you can reach your ideal customer at an event, then it’s already mutually beneficial and your “payment” comes in the form of awareness, reach, building relationships, and maybe even deals won. If you’re being asked to speak at an event where your ideal customers aren’t present, perhaps you ask for payment or say no altogether.

Even if business growth isn’t clearly on the table (for example, at non-client-relevant events), you can realize value in the speaking opportunity itself by, for example: improving your public speaking skills. Or by leveraging rave reviews and a filmed session for speaking slots at bigger/more-relevant conferences. For instance, Amanda reached out to event organizers of virtual summits she freely spoke at this past year. In one of them, she learned her talk was the second-most attended out of all the sessions. For another, she drove hundreds of registrations—significantly more than the other speakers. She leveraged these proof points to secure a larger breakout session at a well-known industry conference in 2023.

For Wil, a key reason to speak for free is altruism:

I (Wil) think defaulting to “I should be paid” means way too many people think “I add value” when in actuality you may not. Or at least, you don’t add objectively provable value over those free speakers.

Plus, it’s actually fun to help people solve their problems. This is one of the most overlooked benefits of speaking: the gratification of helping someone. I never thought of being paid for my first 12 years of speaking. I enjoyed seeing old friends, meeting new ones, getting 1:1 time with other speakers in the speaker room, learning from others in my industry, etc.

Tons of people would fly to the Search Church (Seer Interactive’s offices) in the early days for free to speak. That let me, as an event organizer, invite a lot of attendees who couldn’t afford conferences. You’d have to ask those speakers why they agreed to speak for free, but it created a lot of value for me, my team, and my clients. So much so that when we moved offices I rented an entire floor for events, because I could cover the annual rent and we could host more-inclusive, low-cost events. That could be another reason folks wanted to show up to speak for free, when other places paid them.  

Amanda posed the question of speaker fees earlier this year, and one of the best, most concise replies came from our friend Ross Simmonds:

How Ross Simmonds, CEO of Foundation Inc, thinks about speaking opportunities.

Ross’s thinking takes most edge cases into consideration, provides a fair stance for speaking for free, and provides a reasonable justification for requesting payment.

Building upon that, we like to think about free vs. paid speaking opportunities through these quadrants:

A decision matrix to help you evaluate speaking opportunities.

Again, value is subjective. At any given time, value to you might be digital PR. It might be brand alignment. Practice with public speaking. Or just wanting to help someone else support a cause that you’re passionate about. Whatever the case, we hope you’ll find worth that goes beyond the classic honorarium.

-By Amanda Natividad, Rand Fishkin, and Wil Reynolds