How to start charging for what you make

A summary of a short talk I gave at Tribecon 2011
By Taylor Davidson | November 22nd, 2011

We’re all here today to talk about taking our passions to create big ideas to release to the world. 1 Making stuff is easy and important; it’s hard to start to get yourself over the hurdle, to get over the fear of putting yourself out there, but it’s important to do it: making stuff because you can and because you want to can lead to great things.

Just as making stuff is easy and important, so is charging for it.

Here’s a couple key things to keep in mind when charging for what you make.

The biggest barrier to charging is cultural, not technical.

The technological tools to create and share are abundant, easy to learn, and incredibly inexpensive. The tools to charge are surprisingly similarly abundant, easy to learn, and amazingly inexpensive. Start by thinking about what you do and what you want to get paid for: want to get paid for consulting? Put yourself on the web, use social media to share and promote what you do, use free tools to collaborate and communicate, and get paid using simple time, expense, and invoicing tools, and use PayPal, Amazon Payments, Authorize.net or others to process payments. Want to get paid for writing? Release an ebook or write a [paid newsletter][2]. Want to sell what you make? Launch a store using Etsy, Shopify or E-junkie and start selling immediately. Want to get paid for developing software applications? Create and release an app, sell it on the App Store. Want to share your skills? Teach a class on Skillshare.

In each of those cases, you can get started creating and charging simply by saying yes to yourself. You don’t need anyone to verify you (mostly) before you can start charging. Let the marketplace “verify” you by paying you.

Yes, it’s hard to get people to pay for things, but it’s not that simple. The culture around paying for things is hard to understand. So let’s dig into that.

There’s a difference between fans, users, customers, and patrons, and each should be treated differently.

Customers pay you, so it’s important to understand how they are using your product and what they are saying about it. But they’re not the only segment that matters.

Fans may not use or pay you: but they are key to spreading the message.

Users may not pay you, but they are key to spreading the message and important for helping you understand how people use your product. Users create an enormous amount of valuable data about how your product works, and they help you figure out the points most valuable for users and customers.

Patrons may not use your products, but they will pay (or donate) to support you because they believe in what you’re making or doing.

Each segment has it’s own characteristics and needs, and the key isn’t necessarily to convert each segment to paying, but to leverage each segment in their own way.

You have to make it obvious, clear, easy to understand, easy to spread, easy to believe in.

The biggest barriers to charging for something isn’t technical: it’s cultural. But it’s not about how difficult it is to get people to pay: the real problem is creating something valuable enough to get people to pay for, finding those people, and making it easy for people to believe in the product and pay for it.

How?

  • Have something to support, have something to spread, have something to charge for, have a way to donate. You won’t get paid if you’re not selling something. Make the ask.
  • You can compete against free. Kevin Kelly’s “Better than Free” is probably the best on the topic: there are “generatives”, uncopyable values that can help you compete against free products and services.
  • Make it obvious. Don’t make someone hunt to figure out what to pay you for or how to pay you.
  • Make it clear what they’re getting. Give someone a peek behind the black box to understand what they’re going to start getting: videos, screenshots, photos, how-tos. Help people find the help and discussion forums about your product before they’ve bought it. Offer free trials, free months, and freemium versions to allow someone to get a peek inside. The peeks are important. The best paywalls are sieves; they let some content slip outside the paywall so that people can understand what’s behind the wall, and they become important marketing touchpoints. The leaky paywall is a feature, not a bug.
  • Let them know others think that what you’re selling is great. Build social proof, and display it prominently in every part of the conversion funnel. Show how many fans have talked about you (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Display testimonials from happy users and paying customers.
  • Create a relationship beyond the product. Lead a conversation, start an issue, become known for your viewpoint. Help people believe in something bigger than what you’re selling.
  • Make it easy. Have enough payment options to make sense, but not enough to force someone to make too many decisions. The paradox of choice is that more options isn’t better: make it easy for someone to know which option is the best for them, and make them feel comfortable that they can change their mind in the future. The goal is to get someone from 0 to 1; once they’re over that hurdle, getting them from 1 to 50 is much easier.

Charging forces you to take it seriously. Don’t be afraid to charge.

It’s hard to get over the fear of making things and putting them out there for people to judge.

It’s even harder to get over that fear to start charging, to declare the value of what you’re making and charging for, and to commit yourself to an entirely new level of scrutiny, unable to hide from the shield of “alpha”, or “beta”, or “project”, or “free”.

But there’s something important about charging that makes you take what you do serious. Being subject to public scrutiny to the quality of your work, to questions, to support, to timelines, to competition: these are important pressures that will force you to take what you do more seriously if you charge for it.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.


  1. The post may not be exactly what I said during the talk, but it’s close in content and intent. Originally inspired by a post from 2009, Why we create without getting paid