How to succeed as a creative long term: know your C.O.D.B.

There are four letters out there (an acronym to be exact) that have the potential to literally shape your future as a creative, and to determine whether or not you will be able to stay in business long term.   

As simple as this formula is, and as basic as it will appear to you once I explain it, I am constantly surprised (shocked to be honest!) at how few people pay attention to this simple number.   Even veteran freelancers don’t seem to know what their daily C.O.D.B. number is.    

C.O.D.B stands for "Cost of Doing Business."    Basically it’s a number that represents what it costs you to operate your business for every day that you work. 

On a basic level, you add up all of your purchases and expenses to run your business, as well as your salary (I suggest you add your salary, but some people don’t)  and divide that by the total number of days you expect to work each year.    That will give you a number that is the MINIMUM you must make each day to BREAK EVEN.    If you make more per day on average than your C.O.D.B., you are profitable.   If you match your C.O.D.B but work fewer days than what your expected, your business is in the red, and your on a path to being out of business…

What has amazed me time after time is how few of my colleagues know what their number is, and how that in turn makes it very difficult for them to grow their business over time – let alone what to charge their clients.

You should know this number by heart as it should help you determine the minimum rates you need to charge your clients on a job per WORKING day, to stay solvent as a business.   Keep in mind that if you get paid per SHOOT day – and don’t get paid for treatments, conference calls, research, prep and post – you need to cover ALL of those days in your SHOOT DAY FEE of course.    In other words, if you get paid 3 shooting day rates, but you actually worked a total of 12 days between pitch, prep, shoot, and post – you need to QUADRUPLE your DAY RATE (or daily C.O.D.B. day rate) to break even for those 3 shooting days you are actually being paid for.

So here’s how you calculate it:

You can start on a spreadsheet or with a simple piece of paper, or here’s  a link to an Excel Spreadsheet I’m putting up for you to fill out on your own with your own expenses, categories, and desired salary.

Start by listing all of your business expenses per year, your cell phone service, the gear that you buy, the repairs, the insurance, etc.     Think about EVERYTHING you buy for your business on a yearly basis.   And if you buy a camera for example, divide that by the number of years you expect to have it in service, the same goes for a computer, and add that final number to your spreadsheet.

Then don’t forget to add the salary you pay yourself – this is critical.   The salary is something that should be able to cover your rent, clothing, utilities, etc.   Oh and don’t forget about taxes on that salary you’re giving yourself.    If you need $3,000 to live on a month, remember that that’s AFTER taxes.   Depending on your tax bracket you should add the correct tax percentage on top of that to determine the salary you need to pay yourself each month BEFORE taxes.  

Once you get a little more advanced, I suggest you put some additional categories in there:  such as retirement money, and savings.   We’re leaving that out for now – but you shouldn’t!   Oh:  and while freelancers don’t generally pay themselves when they take vacation time… consider taking that into account at some point too…

This might be getting a bit complicated for some – so below is a visual breakdown that I put together.   I added a bunch of categories on there, many of which you may not have/use in your own business, but I wanted to err on the side of adding too much so that you can see how quickly things can add up.   I also picked a "standard" salary and expenses (there is no such thing) for someone working in a mid to large city in the U.S.

To some of you these will be exorbitant numbers, to others this will be very low.   It’s all relative.   Frankly I made quite a few up.  As long as you get the principle we’re good.   $70K is a darn nice salary in many parts of the United States and definitely the world.   If you live in New York City on the other hand… it’s difficult to live on such a salary for many due to the high costs of living and exorbitant real estate.  If you have a family with children  $70K is difficult in many parts of the U.S.   It seemed like a good salary goal to use here for those reasons.

The numbers below assume you work 200 days per year.  The average full-time person works 260 days not counting vacation/holidays (5 days a week times 52 weeks.)   But very few freelancers work back to back 5 days a week – 200 is more realistic.    That’s what the "daily total" is based on in the chart below.    Truth be told… when you consider the amount of days we DON’T get paid for on a project… 100 days a year of "paid" day rates is probably more realistic for many of you… so you can go ahead and double most of the numbers below if you find that that applies to you.

The graph assumes you buy yourself a professional video camera that you will use over 2-4 years (depending on the price) before it becomes outdated, as well as lenses, accessories etc.   It’s very difficult to guess what everyone spends – but the point here was for me to add as many categories of things we tend to "forget."   We are all well aware of our big purchases, but we tend to forget how small purchases and monthly expenses quickly add up.   We easily forget about CF cards, cables, hard drives, subscriptions let alone business meals.

I’ve added a salary of $70,000 a year here, and I also snuck health insurance in there as well (this will most likely be part of your PERSONAL not business expenses of course but I’m trying to keep everything as simple as possible for now.)   That means that you’d have just under $4,000 per month to live on depending on your federal, state and local taxes which vary of course.

I’ve added little things like holiday cards, stationary, and the costs of promotion in there as well such as cutting a new reel every year.   I’ve also added a personal project in there that you do once a year, just to give yo an idea of setting money aside for that as well.    I’ve also gone ahead an assumed you have a business vehicle in there.  You obviously will have to deduct only part of the vehicle you use for business and what part you use for personal if this not a vehicle purely used for business of course.

CODB copy

So what does this mean?    Well, if you work 200 days a year, and you charge $500/day and your expenses and salary are equals to those listed above – you’re losing money.   (You need to charge the extra $145/day to bring the $500 rate up to your $645 C.O.D.B. number [two lines up from bottom right of graph above] to break even.)       If you make an average of $750 per day – great!   You’re making money!    But keep in mind the numbers above are your cost numbers.    You won’t actually be making that extra $250/day – as you’ll have to pay taxes on that (let’s say 33% for now, leaving you with a net profit of $165 for that day.)  

If you make $400 on average and work 120 days a year… you’re in real trouble.   The solution:  work more days, get a higher rate or… buy less gear, spend less in general, and/or pay yourself a smaller salary.    

But here’s where it gets interesting.   If you have a bad month or year (or a normal one depending on how much you work!) or perhaps you get injured or sick, and only work 150 days per year – your daily C.O.D.B. jumps to $859.60.

So why does this matter?

Well let’s say a client calls you and says they can only pay you $1000 for a job that involves 3 days of shooting and an edit.    Based on the numbers above you need to make $1,935 to break even right?   You’re short $935 on this job and are actually LOSING money on it…  you’ll have to make it up on future jobs which is hard.

But think about it some more:   they want you to edit it right?   And you’ll likely have to do a minimum of one day at least of prep right?   In fact the reality is that you’ll do a few days of phone calls and e-mails back and forth to write a proposal and budget and to talk things over with the client.   Let’s say 3 days for now.    You then shoot for another 3.    And then comes the EDIT.  And that takes your 2 days.   But after two rounds of "revisions" with your client in terms of small changes,  you’re up to a total of say 4 full days for the edit.   You’re spent a total of 10 days on the job now.   You should have billed $6,450 dollars for the job – but only got pay $1,000.   

And now you find yourself having to make up $5,450 on your OTHER 190 work days left for the rest of your year!   You LOST MORE THAN 5 GRAND ON THE JOB!    

And God Forbid… you break a piece of equipment on the job and have a $500 deductible…  add that to the mix.   You get the idea…  

This is how freelancers are getting burned every day.  More often than not:  they’re doing it to themselves!  And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to counsel new freelancers on this fact… maybe a few dozen times.   And they’re always so shocked to hear the numbers once we go through this exercise.   They inherently know they’re not making money on the job after they get to the 1st round of "revisions" on their edit.   But they have no idea that they subsidized the job with $5,450 of their own money…

When a client asks you to shoot something "as a favor" for less than your C.O.D.B. rate, consider it carefully.   Sometimes it will lead to future jobs – it absolutely might – and so you can decide to go for it!   Another way to look at it though is that you’re setting up to be the person they go to for that type of budget forever…   It might actually be better for you not to charge them anything at all – explaining to them that you’re willing to do a simple job for them in the hopes of getting a larger campaign… so that you don’t set yourself up as the "cheap"person forever.  This is a complex concept and dangerous and I’m not going to dive into it now.   I just want you to think about it…   

Another good way to look at this is for example, is the cost of a Camera.    Let’s say you buy a fancy $12,000 camera package for a DSLR, filters, lenses, etc etc.     You expect that it will last you 4 years.    So you need to make $3,000 with that camera package every year, or $15 per day (on a 200 work day year) every day you take it out to shoot with.    If you make any less, you’re going to need to make that up somewhere else…   But keep in mind you should be generating a PROFIT with that camera – so that you have enough money saved up (after taxes on the profits are taken away by Uncle Sam) to buy a new one in 4 years or less…  This is another unfortunate mistake people make.

Therefore when you buy that $2,000 MacBook …  if you know you’re realistically going to use if for 2 years because you like to upgrade regularly…  you’ve got to make $1,000 a year with it minimum to pay it off  - or $84 per month just to cover that cool little laptop.   Ask yourself: do you (or does your business) REALLY need it?

The most important thing to take away from this is that you need to be a responsible "professional" if you will, and know your C.O.D.B. when bidding on a job.    

The truth is, everyone’s C.O.D.B. is different – and that’s absolutely fine and that will always be the case.    

The irresponsible thing is no knowing what your number is.  

Why?

When another colleague of yours bids $6,450 for the same job you’re being asked to shoot for $1,000,  and you accept it, you are not only doing yourself a disservice, but also the fellow freelancer you are bidding against – not to mention the industry.   

This isn’t a discussion on setting higher rates, or what rates "should be,"  those will always be different for people of different levels of experience and skill levels.     This is a discussion on being responsible enough to know your own C.O.D.B. so that you are making good decisions on what to bid on jobs and when you’re actually losing money on a job, versus making a profit.

One key factor to leave you with:  your C.O.D.B.  is your break even point.   If you add your salary in there it’s the base number you need to make per day to cover your personal living expenses as well as your business expenses.    Consider it a starting point – not a goal.    Your goal should of course be to MAKE A PROIFT above you C.O.D.B. so that you can invest in more equipment, hire more employees, promote yourself more effectively,  have some padding to take more creative jobs that can’t meet your C.O.D.B. because they truly don’t have a budget,  and put money in savings – to GROW.

To that point I personally add categories in there for "retirement," growth, and savings – that is part of my C.O.D.B.    Because once again, remember that on every dollar of profit you make beyond this, a nice chunk of it will go to taxes of course.    

Hopefully the next time you get asked to shoot something for $300 for a day,  you’ll realize that it’s not $300 of profit that you’re making, but actually a $345 LOSS on the day on your job if you want to keep your business running long term with the budget set above.    

So find out what your C.O.D.B. is … respect it, and you should be around for years to come.

I hope this helps a few of you out there!   I can tell you that if we all know our C.O.D.B. and educate our clients on what it costs us to stay in business, we’ll all benefit in the long term.

Here is another C.O.D.B. Calculator from the NPPA and I recommend you read John Harrington’s Book "Best Business Practices for Photographers" to find out more about business related information that applies to most freelancers out there.