How to determine contract rates and other tips for media entrepreneurs

By Hayley Slusser

May 17, 2022

Navigating the ever-changing media industry can be tough for anyone. But for rising media entrepreneurs, running your own business, experimenting with different ideas, and securing the resources to execute your goals can feel daunting. 

The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange entrepreneurs sat down with Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of WURD Radio, Philadelphia’s only Black-owned talk radio station, and co-founder of URL Media, a decentralized network of high-performing Black and Brown media organizations, and Emma Carew Grovum, founder of newsroom consultancy Kimbap Media, to learn more about their entrepreneurial journeys and what it means to be your own boss. 

The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange, a joint program of The Lenfest Institute and The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, which is also supported by the Independence Public Media Foundation, is a community-grounded accelerator supporting BIPOC media entrepreneurs through training, one-on-one coaching, and grantmaking. 

This conversation was part of the Founders Exchange’s Friday workshop series, where participating entrepreneurs meet with leading media professionals to discuss business strategies, the media industry, and more. 

Here are the key takeaways from their talk:

Don’t sell yourself short

One of the crucial challenges to overcome for media entrepreneurs or freelancers is knowing the value of your work. When you’re setting your own rates and compensating yourself, it can be difficult to determine how much to charge clients. 

Carew Grovum shared advice for calculating your hourly rates. There might be a rate you think you deserve, but it’s often better to start out higher. This can help you compensate for where you might have lowballed yourself in the past, but also makes managing other expenses easier.

These expenses include employment taxes, health and life insurance, your retirement fund, and vacations, many of which are typically taken out of your paycheck when working for an employer. While there are a number of ways to calculate your rates as a business owner or freelancer, experts advise you to put at least 40% of your paycheck away to cover these costs and benefits, according to Harvard Business Review

Carew Grovum also said it is important to set a range for rates in order to negotiate with clients successfully. Know the lowest number you are willing to work for, your median rate which you are aiming for, and your highest, ideal rate.

“To get your highest, highest rate — your pie-in-the-sky number — go with the biggest number that feels comfortable coming out of your mouth and negotiate down,” Carew Grovum said. “Never let anyone tell you you don’t deserve that kind of money… if they’re going to say no, they’re going to say no, but don’t ever not ask.” 

Communicating the value of your brand is key 

The Founders Exchange entrepreneurs are at different stages of their careers, many of whom are working on their start-ups while still working a day job to support themselves. 

“It’s almost like a ‘catch-22.’ It’s hard to get the resources when you’re not fully committed, but it’s hard to be fully committed without a revenue stream,” Lomax-Reese said. 

But in a media landscape where even for-profit companies are increasingly reliant on grants and philanthropic support, seeking out and pursuing all potential investment opportunities is key to growing your business and turning a passion project into a full-time job.

To get started, Lomax-Reese stressed the importance of having a clear business strategy and budget, since financial acumen is valuable when looking to secure grants. 

Being able to submit a grant proposal, secure funding, and bring that project to life shows funders that you are reliable and that your business is worth investing in. Both Lomax-Reese and Carew Grovum stressed the fact that successfully managing your first grant can lead to additional opportunities from either the same funder or even new ones.

“Grantors are very ‘me too’ in the sense that if Ford sees that Lenfest is granting you … it’s almost like an endorsement,” Lomax-Reese said. “As you get different grants, definitely put that in your grant applications.” 

When it comes to approaching funders or applying for grants, do your research, since each funder often has their own unique priorities. Understanding what is being funded can help you tailor your messaging to show how your work aligns with those priorities. 

Lomax-Reese also advised attending journalism and media conferences, which provide opportunities to network and build relationships with potential funders or advertisers. 

While grants can be useful tools, Carew Grovum said there are still disparities in who gets funded, with people of color facing more obstacles. Being able to advocate for yourself and your business is a key skill to work on in order to make the most of any opportunities you come across. 

She advises: folks should be ready to pitch their idea to new contacts they meet; and added funding is like reporting: it is relationship based, not just purely transactional. 

“You want to be ready — this is what I’m looking to do, this is why I do it, this is who else funds me. Have your business cards ready, be ready to give people stuff so they know how to get in touch with you and give you that money.”

Pivoting is part of the process

For media entrepreneurs, the path to success is rarely linear — and that’s okay. Both Lomax-Reese and Carew Grovum shared stories of not only their successes, but also their struggles, which helped them get to where they are today. 

Prior to taking over WURD Radio and transforming it into a multimedia company, Lomax-Reese co-founded a Black health magazine earlier in her career called HealthQuest: Total Wellness for Body, Mind, & Spirit. After publishing its first issue in 1993, the publication shut down in 2001, when economic issues stemming from 9/11 made it difficult to continue. 

“It was heartbreaking. As you all will recognize as media entrepreneurs, you put everything you have into that work,” she said. “I have a constitution that’s like ‘never say die’ — I just always assumed I would figure it out at some point and it would all sync up and we’d be off and running.” 

In Carew Grovum’s case, Kimbap Media was born out of a crisis: She was abruptly laid off in January 2019. After spending her career working at different publications, this event caused her to rethink her career path and ultimately become an entrepreneur.

While figuring out her next steps, Carew Grovum took the time to update her resume, portfolio, and other assets, network with new and old connections to find opportunities and potential clients, and develop a pricing model. Embracing entrepreneurship also allowed her to lean into more mission-focused work. 

Giving yourself room for trial and error is important, Carew Grovum said, but knowing your limits and taking a step back when necessary is just as crucial.  

“For me, I was always like, ‘If I go six months without a paycheck, I have to get a real job.’ That was my guiding principle in year one and year two — if we go a couple months without a paycheck, we start to panic. If it’s six months, we pack up and we go home,” she said. “That was very helpful for me in terms of runway.” 

Carew Grovum said when facing unexpected setbacks, it can be easy to become disheartened. But it’s important to make space for yourself and to view these challenges as an opportunity for positive change and personal growth. 

“Your job can be taken from you at any time, but what I’ve learned over the years is your career can be whatever you make of it,” she said. “Your career is the story you’re going to tell about the things you can do, the things you can’t do, and the lessons you’ve learned along the way.”

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