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Productizing Your Services


This week on the show we talk about how to be a better freelancer by productizing your services. On the heels of an article by Robert Williams called Freelance as a Service, we discuss what it means to deliver a service to clients and how to package that up in unique ways. Differentiating yourself with a service-based product can help steer you toward the clients you want, but also away from the clients you don’t want.

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Show Notes


Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Dirt. I’m Tim Wright. And today, I’m here with Mark Grambau.

Mark: Hey, Tim.

Tim: Hey, buddy. I’m also here with Steve Hickey. Hello, Steve. Hello, Steve.

Steve: What’s up?

Mark: Are we talking to everyone out there in radio land.

Mark: Hello folks. Here’s a smooth number from Barry White.

Steve: I just wonder how long I can stare at you before you made it really awkward.

Tim: Oh, you can stare at me for days and then I wouldn’t feel awkward. So I read an article earlier this week on It was called Freelancers.Service, and it thought it . . .

Steve: Who is the writer of this article?

Tim: It wasn’t actually listed on the article. Or maybe it was down at the bottom. Let me just scrolling, life podcasting, scrolling.

Steve: Scroll it, scroll it, scroll. Robert Williams.

Tim: Robert Williams.

Steve: All right.

Tim: Okay. And we’ll link that up in the show notes. But I thought it was really interesting because we’re a consultancy, we have a website, and a lot of other ones. Everyone has a website. I went to freelance work, it’s pretty common, and all our portfolios do suck.

Mark: Every single one of them.

Tim: Most of them suck.

Steve: Viciously.

Tim: And this article was talking about how to make them better. The overall theme was productizing what you have, not just barfing out some case studies or screenshots without any contexts.

Steve: What’s the typical approach? Here’s a bunch of pictures on what I’ve worked on without any attempt to explain the problems you’ve solved.

Tim: Yeah. And here’s my Dribbble, and here’s my GitHub.

Mark: I think it’s especially applicable for artists, for graphic designers, the illustrators, photographers, developers who are working to produce one part of a puzzle, but they don’t know necessarily how to fit in well. But from a UX perspective, this makes sense to us, right? This is what we are preaching to our clients. It’s to understand our users, and to try and make your content fit to speak to your users when in fact, you are not right now.

Steve: Well, I think it serves the baseline which is, “Can we execute?” But that is the lowest level of what we are selling here.

Tim: Coming to our clients’ perspective, nobody wants to say how much stuff cost, because they don’t want to scare away small fish and they don’t want to undercut big ones. They just want to have a conversation to work it up. But that’s like coming from buying a thing, buying a product you. You don’t want that. I go to Amazon. I want to know that my Tuscan Whole Milk cost $350 a gallon.

Steve: Well, if I go in a Home Depot and there isn’t a price tag on something, I’m not going to work to hunt down somebody to ask what it cost. I’m just not going to buy it.

Mark: But there’s a build-in discrepancies there between selling a product and selling a service. We have a very clear association with how much something cost from, “This looks like it cost this much, because I can understand the cost of the materials. I can understand the cost of the research and development. I can understand the cost of the technology. I can understand that they have got to cover their bases, and that’s what this cost.” For a service, it can be much more bigger, because you’re paying a value. You are paying for perceive value. You are paying for expertise.

Steve: I guess that makes sense. It’s hard to look at a website and say, “Oh, that costs $500,000.”

Tim: Right. But you could productize this stuff. We saw one woman, I’ve forgot her name, from Russia whose . . .

Steve: We’ll put it in the show notes.

Tim: Yeah. We’ll put it there. That she has productized being a Creative Director. So I think, for 1,500 each a month, she will be your creative director. You don’t get her full time. You get some design comes. You get directions. You will review your team’s design. But you don’t get full time month, and that’s . . .

Steve: I’m going to start doing that.

Tim: It’s like making it a no brainer. Someone sees that and like, “Oh, she’s really good.” She used the product page for the service. Here’s the cost, the benefits, everything listed out pretty straight forward. At the end, it’s only going to cost me, $15,000 a year to have a creative director. That really is like a no brainer.

Mark: I like that because it seemed like a nice balance between hourly charging and value charging. I’ve always been adverse to hourly charging. I think maybe I started illustration. I did some freelance illustration post college. And so much about that was not about hourly, because you punish yourself when you sell hourly. You are not just a cog in a machine. Hourly comes from the traditional manufacturing world.

Steve: Well, it’s not just punishing yourself too. The way I usually explain to freelance clients when I tell them I’m not going to charge hourly is, hourly either will punish me for being efficient or punish you if the design process takes long because it takes longer because sometimes, that’s what happens. That’s why you don’t want hourly because you have the same risk of getting screwed as I do.

Mark: And in illustration design, there’s this really great book that it always tries to keep up with the time, because it’s released every few years called, I think it’s the AGA. I forget who it is, or the Graphic Artist Skills, Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Book, which breaks out value based on usage, and based on, “What does this mean to someone?”

Steve: This is what we all charge this year.

Mark: So designing a logo is different as designing a poster, as designing a character, as designing letter head because if you’re going to use this thing once within a limited market, not that valuable. If you’re using this thing all around the world, it’s your logo. It’s the face of your company. Even if it’s only three hours of work, that’s massive value because that company relies on it without the graphics. And so hourly can be a disservice. However, it’s really difficult to sell sometimes, and explain usage in perceived value especially when you don’t know much about the project.

Steve: You don’t know what they are going to decide to do with it either.

Tim: Yeah. To me, that’s also what I think it’s really important when you are productizing these things to list out, “This is exactly what you get and this is exactly what you don’t get.”

Mark: Exactly, you can list it out up front.

Tim: These are both equally important.

Mark: With the traditional value service model, it’s more like, “Okay, tell me about your project. Maybe you let me know what your budget is. But it’s really tell me about your project. How are you intending on using this? What’s the scope? What’s the reach?” And then you can say, “Hold on, let me go back to magical numbers factory.” And it depends on the numbers that seem really abstract.

Steve: And really your magical number comes from, “What do I think they will tolerate?”

Tim: Yeah and there’s a trust issue there. And I think if you put the price right there, “Oh, this cost $20,000, and here’s the value of it.” And it’s really worth $20,000. They will say, “Okay, it’s really $20,000.” There’s no negotiation because they have a budget. They wouldn’t even call if they didn’t have enough money to pay for it roughly. There’s trust like, “You’re not going to screw me on price, because I can see that you are charging this.”

Steve: If you’re willing to pay it, is it really getting screwed?

Tim: No.

Steve: That’s the value to you like. . .

Tim: No, but I think there’s a trust factor.

Steve: I will charge double what I would for a freelance project once, because I knew the person was willing to pay it.

Tim: What is does take out is that pain in the ass charge that we all secretly do as freelancers. If we know a client is going to be real shitty. . .

Steve: So you increase the price to either make them go away or make it worth it.

Tim: Right. Then you won’t be able to do that. But the explicit, “Here’s what you get, here’s what you don’t,” may take care of that also.

Mark: I think the “what you don’t get” is so important because what you’re saying up front is it’s not quite out really but it’s also clear that I’m not giving you my life. I’m not going to be running a clock on you. However, you’re limited to a certain percentage of my time for this month, and what you can do. I consider doing this for myself when I was freelancing a few years ago. Is make the up-front package, but then make the add-ons for a 50% additional time or additional. . .

Steve: And add purchases if you will.

Mark: Yeah. For additional rounds of revisions, whatever the analog is for the work you’re doing. Because it’s like, “Here’s the base rate. It is extendable.” And it also makes for you as the freelancer, really easily manage your time because you can slice up and say, “All right, I sell approximate 20% shares of my time, and this person is booked 20% plus a 50% upgrade.” That’s worth a 30% of my time and you can block things up without ever feeling too over your head.

Steve: I actually think it’s a really good way to fight scope creep, because I don’t think scope creep is actually intentional on the part of a lot of freelance clients. I think unless you define what you are not going to do, they’re going to keep asking for stuff because it’s just their natural urge to get something done the best way possible and that involves, “Hey, can we do? Hey, can we do that?” They are not really thinking about, “Oh, I’m sucking more value out of that person.” What they are thinking is, “I want my project done.”

Mark: This is the freelance analog to this discussion we had with Anthony Amadoras from Fund Size a few months ago when they talked about their flexible scope retainers. Where you are basically you’re getting us, you’re getting these designers for whatever batch of time you are willing to take, and they’re yours within that scope. There’s a flexible grid in there. I want to also talk about another part of this article that he brings up which is linking to your portfolio elsewhere, linking off to your work on Dribbble, linking to your work on GitHub.

I agree and disagree on this. He brings up the point that if you have a site,, and then you are also linking out to this other site like Dribbble where you’re showing off your work there, his argument is, “Does Amazon link you to Best Buy and Walmart?” You are sending someone out to see your work in a market place full of other designers, full of other artists, full of other coders. Is that really helping you? I want to hear what you guys have to say about this.

Steve: Or if your argument in the first place is that those marketplaces don’t accurately display what you can do, then the question isn’t whether it’s a good idea to link to Dribbble because your competition is there. The question is, is it a good idea to link to Dribbble at all?

Tim: I think the reason you will put something up on Dribbble as a freelancer wanting clients is because other people are linking to it, or someone might go straight to Dribbble, and then browse around and say, “Hey, I like that,” and then go to your site. I think I would put it up on Dribbble, but maybe don’t link to it from your site.

Steve: I don’t mind Dribbble at all. I’m not going to be one of those jackasses that sit there and say Dribbble is ruining the designs because it’s not.

Tim: Well, it’s the quality if there’s a different issue.

Steve: I wouldn’t use Dribbble as my portfolio. If I link to it from my website, it’s going to be a small link and the about or the homepage or something, but not a, “Here is where all my featured work is.” It’s part of my ecosystem.

Tim: I think it’s probably a one way. I don’t know if I would link to Dribbble from site if I was trying to get freelance work. But I will let Dribble link to my site.

Steve: And I guess I’m not trying to get freelance work, which is why I don’t care.

Mark: But it’s a nice auxiliary amplification of your portfolio. And it’s a way of building community because your site is maybe really trying to target clients. Dribbble, to me, might try and target clients but more often, it’s trying to target the rest of the community, and you’re trying to build your role in the community, your face in the community because inevitably, part of the reason I take a little of unabridged with this, “Does Amazon link you to Best Buy and Walmart?” In a lot of cases, your competition is not only your competition, let’ be honest. My fellow illustrators [inaudible 00:11:18] these are your peers.

And depending on the level of relationship you have with some of these individuals, that might be antagonizing. Maybe they’re snickering, and they are plotting on how to steal each other’s work. But often than not what I found is if I know I can’t take a job or if someone has asked me to do something, that’s not quite the right fit for me. I’m going to think down my list of friends, and the people I know online and say, “Hey, you know what, why don’t you check out so and so. They are really great and I know they are taking freelance that might be a better fit for your work.”

Steve: This is not a good industry to be in if your ideas, success in life is to crush everyone who does the same thing as you. It’s a really good way to get ostracize.

Tim: And I think the productizing the service stuff can differentiate you enough to where we may be relatively in the same space. But if my primary product is a responsive design workshop, and we’re in the same space but you don’t offer responsive design workshop, you’re not stealing my work. So it’s fine. But the Dribbble stuff, it’s exactly out of context design that we should get away from. Where we maybe use that stuff to support the product or support the service.

Steve: That’s the real issue with portfolios in general. I think portfolios are excellent resources for young, junior designers. People who are simply trying to indicate their ability to execute at that point. They probably haven’t had to make a lot of decisions, because their roles are being cast into art decision making roles. They are execution roles. You take instructions from somebody else and you do it, and you need to demonstrate you can execute, so that people will hire you. As your career evolves, you make more and more decisions. And eventually you need to discover a format better for demonstrating that to people.

Mark: Much in the way that we do on our site or a lot of agencies, we present a case study. You have to move away from, “Here’s the still shot of look at how well I can render, look at how well I can accomplish this,” to, “Let me tell you the story behind this.” Now, the downside is this means that it puts a little more ownness on the designer, on the artists, on the developer to be a writer, to be able to express yourself. But honestly, that’s sort of entry to the door. You need to be able to write about your work. They teach you in art school, even if you are a gallery artist, you need to be able to describe your work, speak about your work. It’s that much important when you’re working for a client because you have to describe what the process was, what the objectives were, and how it met those objectives.

Steve: I think it’s legitimately difficult to be a designer if you can’t write on some level of decency.

Tim: Yeah. I would say that even case study should be able to be supporting material for whatever the product is. We did this thing, we did creative direction as a service, and here’s an example, here’s a case study describing that, what that person got out of it.

Steve: What if we build demos? If we are able to build demos into our products like setup some sort of ghost account that has the same user name or password, and somebody is evaluating something is the case study we say, “Hey, go to the site and enter this information, and you can actually preview the product without actually creating an account or anything.” It just does an onboarding and a quick tour of features. That might be a good way to demonstrate value.

Tim: Yeah. I mean with the actual product?

Steve: Yeah.

Tim: I think you need like some agreement with. . .

Steve: Yeah, you will definitely would but [inaudible 00:14:26]

Tim: Nicolas, you have your own version of it.

Nicolas: Yeah, that’s not bad.

Mark: I think to your point, Tim, is that if you are productizing yourself, you’re representing your work as a service than the case study do work as sub material. And they sort of goes into [inaudible 00:14:39] like testimonial too. You’re bringing your own perspective on, “This is what is was like to approach, here’s the problem, here’s the process, here’s the solution.” And then you bring in, “Here’s the client. This is what they had to say about working with me. Here’s what they have to say about the return on their investment. It cost me $1,500 a month to hire Steve as my monthly art director, but ever since I’ve done that I’m making. . .”

Steve: That’s it? Nice try.

Tim: No comment.

Mark: Well, you’re not full time.

Steve: I know.

Mark: All right, in any case.

Tim: It’s bad for an hour or a month.

Steve: Is it? I’m ambitions.

Mark: I had a whole story going on here. I’m sleepy today and spurned together a nice solid sentence or two.

Steve: Tired Mark tricks easily.

Mark: In any case, you can see the return on investment. In your case, Tim, we are not talking about design, but we are talking about development. If you say that you are selling responsive workshop, your GitHub could be a really nice opportunity to say, “I know what I’m talking about. I am teaching responsive. Your actual life coach examples of responsive things I’ve built.” And also, like we’ve also said, if you are a designer, you know how to design a nice site. If you are a developer, have a well-developed accessible site. If your site champions all of things that you champion, and shows you skill, that’s enough to skill demonstration part and then you can let the rest of it speak about the experience of working with you, and the experience you deliver.

Tim: What I really like about productizing stuff is for people like us who have full time jobs, I don’t really do that much freelance work, but if I decided that I could probably handle a few hours a month, I could put together a product that filled three or four hours a month, and just sell it on my site. Say like, “This is how much I’m willing to work extra month and this is the value of it.”

Steve: So I could put together a product package that’s like, “If you want me to spend a couple of hours a month disparaging the typography of your product team, here’s how much it cost to have me come in and yell for a while.”

Tim: That’s actually a good point. There’s typography for lawyers. Here’s the website.

Steve: Oh yeah, that’s a really good one.

Tim: The only thing it does and I think is the typography of contracts. That’s all they do.

Steve: Yeah, that’s Matthew Bathorick’s website. He’s done some other things too like he has claimed the fame was realizing just how effing awful legal typography is, and trying to do something about it. And he’s a legitimate well rounded typographer, but he tackled that specific area as well and then spread out a little bit from it.

Tim: Yeah, I thought that was really that he could actually build an entire product based on just that small old niche. He did well.

Steve: Yeah, there’s some demand, so good for him.

Tim: Well, we have a small thing to announce. Coming up, I think it’s on the ninth of this month, we’re releasing a HTML like a coded style guide framework called Corkscrew. It’s going to be up on GitHub. If you like a private beta invite until then if you can’t wait. If you can’t, I was going to cost but I didn’t. If you can’t wait for Cockscrew, you can send us a tweet @TheDirtShow with your GitHub credentials, and I will add you to the private beta, more than happy to do that. And if you have any long worded comments, you can send us a note at Of course, let us know what you think about what we talked about how to promote your work or services on your portfolio. We will like to see some more examples of people doing that. That will be awesome. Please review us on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, whatever you are listening to now on unless it’s the website, because you can’t rate us on the website.

Mark: We need a plug-in system that just makes stars show up. All the episodes five starts.

Tim: Everything is a five star, so let’s be fair. Let’s be honest.

Mark: Well, obviously. It won’t be rigged. It won’t be rigged at all.

Tim: So that’s all we have for today. Thank you for listening, and we will try and do better next time.

Author Tim Wright

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