Where most people go wrong when negotiating a starting salary is failing to make clear during the interview process that they know their own worth and are looking to create a business-to-business partnership. You don't want to work "for" the employer; you want to work "with" it--and that means helping the company see (and, get excited about!) the value you can bring. Once an employer really, really wants you, you sit in the seat of power when it comes to salary negotiations. To make that happen, you need to do the following:

Step 1: Assess the Employer's Problem

Before you can determine a fair rate for your services, you need to go on the interview(s) and assess the company's issues. The most savvy businesses-of-one know how to turn a one-directional interview (i.e., the employer asks you questions and you cross your fingers and hope you answered them right) into a two-directional conversation.

Many people approach an interview the wrong way, especially more seasoned workers, who often make this interview mistake.

Interview pros know their goal is to get the answers to:

  • What problems can I solve for the employer?
  • What pains can I alleviate with my unique combination of skills and abilities?
  • Most important, how much money can I save or make for the employer to justify the cost of hiring me?

By looking at the big picture, business-of-one candidates figure out what they might charge for their services. In fact, if you do an amazing job asking the employer questions about the work and what you'd need to do to make the company's life better, it usually impresses the hiring manager. The fact you know to ask these questions implies you have a handle on the employer's problems and how to solve them. This usually leads to the company asking for your salary requirements. At which point you move on to step 2…

Step 2: Offer a Salary Range and Explain Why

Contrary to some advice you might hear, the fastest way to get knocked out of the running for a job is to refuse to answer the salary question. Please, please don't say things like, "Why does my salary history matter?" or "Let's discuss salary when we agree I'm a fit." Employers are the buyers of your professional services. If they ask price, discuss price. Plain and simple. But you can do it in a way that will generate a healthy dialogue and earn their respect. It works like this:

You tell them your salary history (if asked), and then you give them a nice, big range regarding your salary expectations. The key is to force them to ask, "Why such a big range?" In which case you get to say,

Compensation isn't my only factor of consideration in a new position. Other things, such as benefits and the opportunity to grow and work on interesting projects, matter just as much. Trading income for those types of perks is something I always consider."

In doing this, you let them know that if the offer comes, there will be a discussion around their entire employment package and how it matches with what you need to make the partnership equitable.

Step 3: Bring It Back to the Opportunity to Solve Problems

Once you and the employer have had the salary heart-to-heart, move the conversation back to the company's pain points. Remember, it's the customer! Return the discussion to the problems the company has and how you would be excited to leverage your skills and abilities to solve them. Don't be afraid to show your enthusiasm about working for the employer. Given how much it is going to spend on hiring you, it wants to know you appreciate the potential opportunity. This is the time when you get the company to realize it can't succeed without you.

Step 4: Negotiate on the Facts

When you finally get the offer, take time to review it carefully. If you feel you deserve more, build the business case. Why should you get a higher salary? What needs will be met on your end if the company can meet your demands? Then ask to speak to the hiring manager personally and state your case. Never do this by email. It's better to hear the sincerity in your voice. You might say,

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am very excited to work for the company. That's why this subject isn't easy to bring up, so I wanted to chat with you about it directly. I have certain financial needs. I was hoping your offer would come in at $____ so I could be 100 percent confident in taking the role and not be concerned about compensation. I want to see if you could consider raising the salary so that I can start the job without worries around money. I am confident I will justify this payment level in the work that I do and will be happy to set clear expectations and milestones so you can feel good about the increase as well. Would this be something you could consider?

It's important to be clear in both how much you want and why you want it. Employers don't want an extended back-and-forth. And if they can't meet your salary demands, be prepared with one backup request. For example, you could ask for more vacation time to start. Or you could get in writing that they'd do a salary review in six months instead of a year. As long as you can get them to agree to some additional provision that can help you offset the lack of an increase, it will help you justify taking the job.