Sarah Masci of Day Rate Mastery joins me to talk about how graphic designers can increase their profitability by charging day rates instead of hourly rates or value-based pricing, and how she went from charging $50 per hour to $10k months working only a few days a month.
Sarah Masci is the CEO and founder of Day Rate Mastery®, an online company that teaches expert service providers how to work less and make more with a streamlined “VIP Day” business model. Years of running a traditional design business filled with scope creep, inconsistent timelines and overlapping client projects eventually resulted in classic burnout. That became the catalyst that sparked Sarah’s desire to create a better process.
Since its inception in 2019, Day Rate Mastery® has helped thousands of freelancers rediscover joy in their work and the freedom they’d lost along the way.
Colleen Gratzer: In this episode of Design Domination, I’m joined by special guest Sarah Masci to talk about day rates and how designers can benefit from them.
Welcome to the podcast, Sarah! I’m so excited to talk to you today.
Sarah Masci: Hey, Colleen! Thank you so much for having me. I can’t wait to dive into all things day rates with you guys today.
Colleen: It’s going to be fun. So a couple of important questions, of course, and that is: would you rather show up at a party overdressed or underdressed?
Sarah: Definitely overdressed!
Colleen: I think I would agree with that.
What is your fave decade for music?
Sarah: This is a hard one for me but I am going to age myself and say, the 80s.
Colleen: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: I feel like I can just relate to every 80s song. Whereas, all of the other decades, it’s like I don’t always know every single song I hear.
Colleen: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I like the 80s. I grew up in the 80s. But I also grew up in the late 70s, so I do like the 70s too.
Sarah: That was going to be my second choice, too. So we must be the same age.
Colleen: Yeah, we might be.
So before day rates, how were you charging for projects in your business?
Sarah: I was doing mostly not project based, I was like charging Ala carte for things.
I really started my design business doing logos, so I was charging, $99 for a logo and $150 for a postcard, stuff like that. It was all very Ala carte and then I would just add up everything they wanted. That’s how I would come up with like a custom proposal.
Colleen: Why did you start charging day rates?
Sarah: Well, obviously, that $99 for a logo was very cheap. As everyone knows, a logo should be more than $99. It takes a lot of work and there’s so much strategy and everything that goes into it.
So I actually did the transition from charging that way from… just to kind of back up, I started my design business—my online business—in 2005, and then I really started designing around 2010, so it’s been a while.
I evolved from those cheap $99 logos into doing more digital strategy and brand strategy with my clients. At that point, that’s when I learned that I needed to be charging more for the value and the strategy that was going into the process of branding.
I then evolved into $500 for a brand strategy, and that included the logo design, and then from there, I evolved into web design. I was charging based on the number of pages they wanted, all that kind of thing.
I guess the big idea though, even though I evolved from Ala carte to projects, I was still not charging enough. I did not have strong enough boundaries in my business that would have helped me keep projects on track.
All these projects were dragging on and on. They were supposed to be 12 weeks and they turned into 12 months.
Colleen: Oh my God! Right?
Sarah: I quoted $2,000 for this project. It was supposed to be done in eight weeks or whatever. But here we are eight months later and I’m still working on this $2,000 project.
When you do the math, it felt like everything was taking forever and I wasn’t getting paid enough.
I would add on more clients to kind of fill in the gaps for all those delays and so then I would end up with 10 clients at any given time, and then, all of a sudden, every client needs something the same week and you’re scrambling.
It was just that curse that happened over and over and over again that led me into burnout and finding a better process. One day in 2018, when I had all those clients, and I had a previous client come back to me and she asked me for just a handful of punch list-type things that she needed to be done.
Normally, I would have said, “Okay, well, this is going to take this long, and this would take this long, and this…” and I would have added it all up and given her a custom proposal. But honestly, I didn’t even have time to do that proposal process.
So I said something like, “How about you just pay me for a day and I’ll do all of it in a day.” It was just like this random thought that came to me on a whim. I just threw it out there. She agreed to it and we did it.
It was truly the best design experience I had ever had with a client and so from that point forward, that’s what I did. I just kept pitching those VIP days.
Colleen: Well, we can all relate to all of those stories, right? I mean, first of all, designers are always giving away brand strategies for free. Always charging for time and not value.
You also always get like, “Oh, we need it by a certain date.” But when we get that stuff done on time they decided to drag their feet and then change the deadline all the time. So yeah, it gets crazy!
Sarah: I just felt like I was out there looking for new clients to fill in where those other clients were delayed, and it was just creating total chaos in my back end—in my systems.
Colleen: It never fails that they all want everything at one time.
Colleen: How did charging day rates change things for you and your business?
Sarah: Well, it was like instant boundaries. We have one day to get everything done, they paid for their day and, of course, I had to iron out all the kinks over a period of time.
When I was just starting off my first VIP day or day rate, I charged $500 because I didn’t factor in the time to do the onboarding, offboarding, and all of those various parts. That really didn’t go into the actual hours spent during the day but it still was administrative time.
I had to learn and I had to build up the confidence to be able to charge more and over time I was able to do just that. I was able to charge more and more and more.
I would raise my prices every few months, so over time, I saw a huge increase in my profitability because I was still only working one day, and I was charging $2,000, $3,000, etc, for the day.
It really put those boundaries in place and that allowed me to not feel like I had to be working every single day. I didn’t have daily deadlines.
Now it became like, I have to work with this client on Monday, and this client on Wednesday, and then on Friday is like admin day, making sure things are all ready to go for the following week.
Eventually, once I started doing these VIP days over and over again, I saw a lot of the same things happening. I was doing the same things and so I figure I can automate them. I can turn it into a workflow.
I was able to productize a lot of the offer and automate so much of it that I was able to really removed myself from the administrative side of my business. I was able to remove a VA from my team who was helping me with a lot of administrative stuff before the day rate method.
Colleen: What you said about you had to develop more confidence to charge more. I’ve been in that situation so many times, and so many of my listeners too.
When charging more, we’re always like, “Oh, is the client going to be accepting of that?” or, “Are we going to have their approval?”
It’s not about that, it’s, “What are you charging? What do you need to charge to be profitable? Is it even profitable for you to charge what you’re charging?”
Because if it’s not, then don’t be in business because you’re just losing money, right?
It’s funny that you’re saying that because well, we are usually the problem, our own problem by not just stepping up.
You can’t just say I’m going to be confident and like it happens at the flick of a switch. Obviously, it doesn’t happen. It took me many years to get over a lot of issues to get there.
It’s usually us putting that obstacle in front of ourselves. It’s not usually the client saying no. But it’s that fear.
I saw the other day in this graphic designers group where someone was in awe because I had mentioned that I have charged $700 or $1,000 for a simple flyer because it was a rush job.
It already had an existing design I had to follow. I already created that. But I had to do the work and I had to sit there for the day, and pretty much be on call to make any edits because it was an urgent job. They needed it done by the end of the day.
These other designers were like, “I can’t imagine. You might have just spent two hours on it or something.”
Right. But I was available to them. I had to be available to them and they needed to pay for that.
They said, “I don’t see how you could justify charging that.” I said, “That’s the problem because it’s all up here and I used to think exactly like that.”
You can’t think like that. You have to stop thinking about time. You have to stop thinking about this is just whatever because then you’re not going to be as profitable. You have to get over that and like what you’re saying charge a day rate—charge value.
Sarah: Yeah. The day rate is so different from the value-based pricing or the hourly pricing, because yes, you’re charging for your time, but it’s how you value your time. What would make this a win-win for you?
When I first started, I said that it was $500 a day, and my coach was like, “You need to be charging double. You need to be charging at least $1,000,” I thought she was crazy!
I thought there was no way anybody was going to pay me $1,000 per day. That was just way too obscure in my mind to even comprehend that anybody would think that my work was that valuable.
So then I jumped up to $750 a day. I had a bunch of clients booked me at $750 a day. It was like that whole process of starting low and then incrementally raising it, with every increment, clients would still pay me.
They would also send me these raving testimonials. And I thought, “Oh, okay, so people are totally valuing me at $750 a day.”
So why not just try $950 a day? I was thinking once I hit $950 all the clients will stop. There won’t be any more clients and then I’ll just have to go back.
But sure enough, when I went to $950, clients still kept paying me.
So by having those little small incremental raises or increases in your price, it builds your confidence little by little that you are worth charging, that you are that valuable, that the work you’re providing is that valuable to your clients.
It’s not about value-based pricing and saying, “Well, this project is going to be worth $10,000 to you, so I need to charge you $10,000.” It’s not about that. It’s about like how you value your time, your skills, and your expertise.
If you are brand new to design, you’re still slow, you’re still Googling things, you’re still YouTub-ing things, and you’re still trying to figure things out, then maybe you’re not in a position to charge $3,000 for a day.
But if you are a designer who’s been doing this for a long time, you have amazing testimonials, you do quality work, and you’re able to work quickly and efficiently, then people will pay thousands of dollars for that speed and efficiency to get their work done from you in a day.
Colleen: It’s also that convenience you’re offering them too.
Sarah: Yes, exactly. That speed and they’re going to get high-quality work. They’re going to get it fast, as opposed to high-quality work that might be slower and take six weeks or longer. So it’s so valuable.
Colleen: When you first brought it up to that first client and to other clients, especially ones that you had already been charging differently in the past, how did they respond to that? How did you explain it to them? What did they say about it?
Sarah: I was still charging pretty low to all of those previous clients. That $500 client shoot, it was a no-brainer for her. She was like, “Sure, yeah, no problem.” So that was great.
Then a few more clients after that were clients that I had worked with. I had designed their website on Squarespace or Weebly, way back when I first was only doing branding and I didn’t know how to do any code or WordPress.
I just was creating these websites on Weebly, then over time, I learned WordPress and I learned how to build, and design better on WordPress.
I would have these old clients come back to me and say, “Can we move my website to WordPress?”
In my mind, I was thinking, “Okay, well, I already built it on Weebly and they don’t have any problem with the way it looks, they just want the WordPress platform.”
I can easily recreate their website on WordPress in a day, so I think I offered those at $700. There was no new design, it was just really rebuilding their site on a new platform. $700 no-brainer. They all said, yes. I think I did two or three of them at that price.
From that point, it started to become new clients. I did have a few return clients come back to me asking for updates. I would usually pitch them in the $750 to $1,000 range for a day. But anytime a new client would come to me, they were not aware of what I had previously been charging.
So when I would say it’s $1,000, or $1,250, it was like a no-brainer for them as well. There were all of these layers of old clients coming back and me trying to meet them halfway at the old rate versus what the new rate was.
But also letting them know that this is a new way I’m working. It’s 100 times more efficient than the old way. You’re going to get your project done in one day. There’s not going to be any back and forth.
You won’t have to be answering emails for six weeks and we will literally get it done in a day. Those clients saw value in that and booked it right away.
Colleen: Did any of them say, “No, This is not for me.”?
Sarah: None. Most people were like, “This is genius. Why aren’t more designers doing this?”
Sarah: Because in 2019, there weren’t that many designers who were offering that one-day process. So on many discovery calls, when I would explain how I would do it or in an email, they were like, “This is genius. I just love how you do this. I wish more designers did it this way.”
That’s what sparked my idea to go out there and see if other designers wanted to learn the process.
For a long time when I was really the only one, it also helped me stand out when someone would post in a Facebook group that they were looking for a designer and you would see 30 or 40 designers offer their services and a link to their website.
I would go in there and say, “Yes, this is exactly what I do. I can help you. We can actually get it done in one day, as opposed to waiting six weeks or eight weeks.” Many of those posts resulted in clients. It helped me stand out.
Colleen: You started at $500 and then you went up incrementally, but how did you initially figure out what to charge for the day rate?
Did you look at your expenses? Did you do any analysis of things? Or did it just come out of your head? Was it based on the type of work? How did you figure out what to charge for the day rate?
Sarah: I based it on an hourly rate because for that first client, I estimated that it would take me about 10 hours. So to be truthful with that it was $500 for 10 hours.
I think instead of doing it all in one day, we did two five-hour days. So it was like five hours one day and five hours the next day.
It’s so hard to remember that exact day. But I do recall basing it on an hourly rate of $50 an hour and allotting 10 hours towards the project.
So that’s how I came up with that first price. But I didn’t factor in the pre-intensive like the onboarding or the kickoff call.
I do a kickoff call with all of my day rate clients, so you have to really factor those things in.
The way I teach the pricing model is in a couple of different ways. But the original way was to take your hourly rate, figure out how many days or how many hours you’re going to work during that day, and then tack on about three to four more hours at the beginning and at the end for that pre-intensive and post-intensive support, and then multiply that by your hourly rate, and then multiply that by 150% to make up for that efficiency tax of like getting done in one day.
Colleen: Oh, nice. So does this work better for certain types of work? Or would you say this will work for this or that, but maybe it won’t work for certain types of projects?
Sarah: In the design world, I feel like it could work for anybody who can compress their work into a block of time, as long as you have everything you need ahead of time and you can sit. Because some people may have disabilities that don’t allow them to sit for an entire day and focus on one project. So then maybe it wouldn’t work for you.
But even in that type of situation, we’ve had students who have health issues that prevent them from being able to sit for extended periods of time and so instead of doing a VIP day or a day rate they do, they will sell half days, or they’ll do like a VIP week and they’ll take the same general concept but spread it out over several days.
I think that’s a big thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about day rates and VIP days. It doesn’t have to happen in one day.
It’s more about creating that container of time and that VIP experience that’s going to get the transformation or the result to the client and a much faster turnaround than what it normally would have taken in a traditional model.
Colleen: What about when you have projects where a client needs to give you feedback—it could be branding—because you would have the punch list, so they’ve already got requests ready for you to bang out on the website.
But something where you need to get their feedback, like on branding, or some other kind of work, are they usually making themselves available to respond to you right away?
Sarah: Yes, so that’s the biggest part of the design day VIP day is that you are working—we’re not on Zoom and we’re not doing a face-to-face during the day. But I do need the client to commit to being available all day through a communication app of choice.
Whether Voxer, Slack, or Messenger. The client needs to be available to you, so as you’re creating things, and you’re sharing those concepts, proofs, and iterations of whatever, the client can give you feedback right away.
It really comes down to setting those strong boundaries and setting the expectations with the client ahead of time that they’re going to need to be able to make quick decisions.
The more changes and revisions they asked for, the less we’re actually going to get done. Because when we get to the end of the day, we’re going to do as much as we can in one day. But when the day is over, the day is over.
That kind of leads me to the whole next thing we can talk about, which is promising deliverables. But to answer your question about feedback, yes, you want them to be there available.
If they’re not available, sometimes you can’t keep going. A big thing that would happen is they would give me their logins for all of their different platforms. What if a login doesn’t work? Or what if it requires two-factor verification?
So I need to be able to say, “Hey, what’s the six-digit code that you’ve just got in your email, so I can type it in and get in?“ If the client isn’t there to respond to me right away, then I’m just going to sit here for the next however long, waiting to hear back from you. Because I can’t move on until I get into your WordPress website or your email app, or whatever it is.
Colleen: Yeah, I didn’t even think about those kinds of things. That could really put a wrench in things.
What do you do then if you’re not done that day, but they’ve only reserved and are paying you for one day?
Sarah: That’s where it comes back to, especially in the design space, or any creative service that you’re offering that does have feedback and revisions.
You have to be very firm in your boundaries that I cannot guarantee we’re going to have every single thing done today. Because, yes, I can work fast. I have done this in the past. I’ve done a full brand in a day for this client and this client, and this client, but those clients were available to me all day.
They were 100% responsive and they didn’t ask me for hours of revisions and changes throughout the day. So I was able to keep moving forward.
Whereas if you get a client who books you for a day, and they’re super picky, and they ask for all of these little tweaks and changes, then you’re not going to be done because you kept having to make changes.
One example of this was when I was working on branding and there were three people on the client’s team, and they all wanted to weigh in on the colors for the brand and they could not agree on one color.
They went around and around between the three of them through Messenger saying, “Can we see it this way? Can we see it this way? Well, what about this? What about this?”
Almost two hours went by, and I told them we can’t move forward with any of the collateral. So we got to the end of the day, and unfortunately, they did not get as many pieces of collateral as they would have gotten had they just been more decisive at the beginning of the day.
Colleen: In that kind of situation, do they just need to reserve another day at some point?
Sarah: What I like to do is typically an hour or two before the end of the day, I will let the client know, “Okay, we’ve got an hour left and we’ve gotten these things done. But there are still a few more things on your list. I don’t think we’re going to be able to get to all of it, so out of all these things left on the list, is there anything that you want me specifically to focus on?”
Then I’ll say, “If you want me to finish everything, we can absolutely do another half day together. Here’s the link to book a half day, or a full day.”
You want to be transparent about that upfront when they booked the day. You want to let them know that you don’t guarantee deliverables. You have a track record of completing all of this stuff in a day.
But it’s really up to the client to make sure that we get as much done and I let them know that they can always book more time with me.
Something like, “Yes, I have a hard stop at this time. But we can do it another day.”
Colleen: One of the questions that someone in my Facebook group had asked me to ask you was, he said, “Should a day rate be associated with a retainer agreement?“
But it sounds like since it’s not an ongoing thing that it doesn’t. It doesn’t need to have that. Is that right?
Sarah: I do have students who have retainer clients who book one day a month.
Maybe you have a retainer client right now who pays you for 10 hours a month and then right now they’re coming in and spurts. It’s like an hour here, two hours there, half-hour here and you’re doing all that multitasking and juggling.
You could go to those clients, the 10-hour-a-month client or the 20-hour-a-month client, and say, “I’m changing the way I’m working, I’m going to be working in half days or full-day sprints going forward. So let’s take your retainer and turn it into one day a month or two days a month.”
I’ve had a lot of students with retainer clients who just had day rate retainers.
Colleen: That’s interesting.
Well, another designer told me that his experience with day rates was that the client just wanted to get a cheaper hourly rate. But it sounds like you haven’t had a response like that for many clients
Sarah: No, no. Because you’re always getting way more. So if you think about it, I went from that $50 an hour to that $500 to $3,000 for a day.
I don’t know what $3,000 comes out to when you look at the hours, right?
Colleen: A nice chunk of change!
Sarah: It’s like $280 an hour or something. You really are getting paid a lot more for your time as you increase your prices and then you can work fewer days.
If you’re charging $3,000 for a day, and your goal is to make $10,000 in a month. You only have to work four days a month, not even, right? You only have to work 3.5 days to get your $10,000 goal.
That’s what happened to me. I was able to scale way back on the done-for-you service, the day rate clients, and focus my time on creating my courses and my digital products, which then allowed me to scale beyond done-for-you services.
Because that $3,000 a day just freed up so much time in my schedule that I otherwise would not have had and I wouldn’t have been able to spend creating courses.
Colleen: I can totally relate to that because I’ve been creating courses now over the past two years.
It’s a whole nother business and going back and forth between two businesses is a lot.
Sarah: Yeah. I always knew I wanted to create a course and it was just trying to squeeze in those pockets of time and trying to get it done.
Colleen: That’s great.
Do they normally pay everything upfront, or do they pay 50% upfront, and then they pay the rest at the end? How does that work?
Sarah: I give my clients the option to pay either in full right at the beginning, or they can do a 50% deposit and then pay the balance. I personally have mine pay on the day of the intensive like it’s due on that day.
But a lot of people will say it’s due the day before or it’s due one week before just to make sure they get paid before they actually start the intensive.
Just kind of going back, way back to the beginning, I always had boundary issues and so I was like, “Oh yeah, they’ll pay me,” and they did, they really did.
I never had a client not pay me the balance of their intensive. I had one client who took four days to get me that balance. But otherwise, everyone, they respect you, they respect your time and you’re working with them all day. They’re not just going to disappear without paying you. You know what I mean?
Colleen: Yeah, I used to have lots of boundary issues. I can relate to that. I had lots of them.
This has been really insightful. I’m sure everybody’s going to find this extremely interesting. I’m fascinated by it. I need to take some of these lessons and put them into practice.
How can designers get started charging day rates?
Sarah: I think the best thing to do is to not overthink it as I did—that very first one. It was just very random. It was on a whim and I didn’t plan anything ahead of time. I had no systems in place. I had no automation or workflows or any of that.
I literally just said, okay, you know what, she wants this. I do not have the time to create a proposal, “So how about you just pay me for a day and we’ll do it in a day?” That’s how it started for me.
My message to everyone is to just start. Do it messy, put the offer out there, don’t overthink it, and don’t worry about having everything figured out. Those things will fall into place as you do more and more of them.
Be honest with your client and tell them I’ve never done this before but let’s try.
You can also say, “I don’t have any availability to do a project for the next several weeks but I could squeeze you into one day. If you want to try this, it’s a new offer, why don’t we give this a try?” Just be honest and don’t worry about perfection and having everything figured out.
Colleen: Yeah. That can be difficult for many of us.
Sarah: Yes, designers especially, and I know we’re all perfectionists. We all want everything to be just like this perfect. The perfect everything.
But once I cut through the idea of perfection out the door, that is truly when my business just took off. Things became so much easier for me and I was able to rediscover that freedom and all of those things that I set out for at the beginning of my business.
Colleen: That’s wonderful! This has been really great! Where can designers find out more about you and how you can help them?
Sarah: They can go to my website it’s sarahmasci.com. I have a free checklist and I have a free master class. The best part is if you opt-in for one or the other, you will get the other one as well.
You can find all of those right on my homepage at sarahmasci.com.
Colleen: Great! Well, thank you so much, Sarah! This has been awesome.
Sarah: Thank you, Colleen. This has been great! I appreciate it.