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The Parable of the free refridgerator and more

Bidding on work or services - Science or Art?

The parable of the free refridgerator and more

A client called me last week and asked about the cost of a storyboard for a 22-minute pilot she and her partners wanted to produce.  They were raising money for a 26 episode 2-D series they believed they could place on PBS.  She thought she would first produce a pilot episode to show PBS and other possible broadcasters but needed to first get a budget done in order to know if she had enough for the pilot.

The problem arose when I explained that there was not one set price and that there were a number of considerations to be weighed by artists bidding on the work.  This was not very clear to her and we went on and discussed all the factors that the artists would likely consider before offering a bid.

At the end of the day we got it all worked out and she found the right person to work with at a price she could pay, however this all got me thinking about how confusing it can be to figure out how to form a bid for your services and on the other hand how to evaluate bids you have received.

As I pondered this (yes, I do ponder), I thought back to some of my own experiences over the years and tried to see if there were some deeply buried nuggets of truth I could uncover and share with you…Sadly I came up empty on nuggets but here’s a few recollections that might serve as parables:

A friend told me that he had bought a new refrigerator and wanted to get rid his old one, as he had no room for it.  He didn’t want to just junk it as it was still serviceable so he decided to put it out on the curb in front of his home with a sign reading, Free Refrigerator-runs fine”.

Well, after three days no one had taken it and he was regretting that he hadn’t had the deliverymen take it away when they had brought the new one.  He about to call the city pick-up when he decided to give it one more chance and changed the sign to read, “Used Refrigerator, runs fine $50.00.   When he got home from work that night the refrigerator was gone.

Now you may not think this has a lot to do with animation but you would be wrong. 

A few years back a company setting up a CGI studio in Manila contacted me and wanted to explore hiring me on as a consultant.  I had owned and run a number of studios in Asia, including the Philippines so felt very comfortable filling that role.  I flew to Manila and met with the principal owner and we hit it off immediately.  He was an American attorney from the Bay area and had struck it rich with a software investment and had been traveling around Asia looking for investment opportunities.  He had put a lot of effort to close a telecommunications deal in the Philippines that had fallen through and on a whim decided to open a CGI studio and had a property that he wanted to produce.  As we talked we found out that we had a lot of in common and that he had even gone to the same high school (North Hollywood) for a semester while I was there.  Before I flew back to Los Angeles I had a deal to act as a consultant for the new studio. 

Within two months I found that my new client had his own ideas about how to work with a consultant.  Jeff was a very confident guy and although he had never worked or been involved in animation before, he felt that experience was not terribly important.  When he contacted me regarding anything it was after the fact.  He simply called to tell me that he had hired a new director, was installing new software or had brought a new writer on to rework the script.  It was quickly apparent that he didn’t really want my advice but rather my approval after the fact.  My relationship with the company lasted six months total.  I watched a number of horribly wrong moves made and a large amount of money wasted.  After I left this went on for another two years with even a start-up CGI studio being opened in Los Angeles.

This story does not have a happy ending; Jeff went broke and succumbed to a health problem and passed away several years ago.  The last time I saw him was in Manila perhaps six years ago.  I was coming back to my hotel and I saw him get out of taxi.  We went into the hotel bar and had a drink together and he told me of his misfortunes.  I couldn’t help but ask him why in the world he hadn’t asked for, or listened to my advice years before when he was setting up.  He looked at me and seemed very sad.  He said he was frightened to follow my advice because I had asked for such a small fee.  He had wondered how he could trust the advice of someone that valued their own services so low, when he was investing millions of dollars relying on their guidance.  I told him that in retrospect I was very sorry that I hadn’t tried to soak him, as we both would have been far better off.

So these are my two little stories about pricing yourself and your services.  The truth is there is no perfect guide.  Each job is different as a freelance artist, broker or producer and bidding too low can be as bad as bidding to high.  Clients, like my friend Jeff, can misread a low bid as reflective of low ability.  I had given him a low price because there was not going to be initially a great call on my time.  I was trying to be fair to a guy I liked but he equated price with value and so everything was upside down before we even started.

There is no guide or scale for those working outside a formal employment structure.  There are times you might do very well and other times that you get killed.  If you really need the work you may be tempted to low ball your bid but beware – like that free refrigerator you may end up sitting on the curb.  Or like me with my friend Jeff, you may be judged not on the quality of your work but the price you demand for it!