What I've Learned From Doing Free Work for Family & Friends
In this article, I want to share some of the things I've learned and experienced after almost nine months (at the time of writing this) running a web business, and many years doing freelance corporate branding.
In a very, very short amount of time, I've already encountered several situations during which extended family, friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances have asked for a favour in the form of free design work.
Granted, when I first started my business I offered free websites to my favourite people and local businesses to help me build a portfolio, and my offers were met with either rejection or luke-warm interest at best.
As it turns out, I'm decent at what I do, and over the past few months, I've been sharing completed projects via social media. Suddenly that luke-warm reception has shifted.
If you're a designer or do any type of freelance work, see if any of these scenarios sound familiar to you.
Here are a couple (of many) of my favourite messages received this year:
"Hey, I’ll take you up on your offer for hitting me up with a new site now! I’m getting bored of mine." (His current subjects bore him. Finally, the privilege of working for his highness is being bestowed upon me. Golly gee!)
"Hey handsome (flattery), hope you're well (Do you? We haven't spoken in ages, that's so nice). Haven't seen your handsome face (more flattery), and wanted to say hello (how convenient). I was also thinking of you because [insert ask for design favours here]."
— The new partner of an ex! (srsly!?)
The person in the second example claimed not to be asking for free work after a couple follow up conversations, but really, how would you interpret a message like that?
Anyone who works in a creative field knows this story well. No matter what the ask, "it's just something small" and "it'll only take you a couple minutes" because "you're so good."
The Problem With Working For Free
Against your better judgement, you may accept one of these "small" jobs after receiving a cacophony of compliments and other miscellaneous flattery.
I (not so recently) accepted one of these projects from a group of friends that I love dearly and for whom I would do almost anything. At the time of writing this, that was nearly nine months ago—long enough for a website that I built under a 6-month trial to expire, close, re-open anew, and sit unused again.
No matter what I'm being paid, I have a mark of quality that I leave behind in all my work. I refuse to attach my name to something I consider to be sub-par in any situation.
Over the past nine months, I've worked hard to move toward confidence in my work, processes & workflow, and I'm still learning to attach reasonable value to the work I do.
All of this experience and confidence building is completely negated when you do work for people you socialize with and doubly so when you do that work for free.
In a perfect world, your friends and family would realize (or at least pretend to realize) the value of the service you're providing.
It stands to reason that they have likely already looked around at pricing for whatever it is you do, and that's how they settled on complimenting you into doing that work for free.
Because you're a professional, you handle the work in a job-like, professional manner. As a result, your new "client" becomes the 'I-can-do-as-I-please-because-I'm-the-client' person, who:
Probably won't get back to you, even though they said this project was essential to them;
Said they'd get content to you yesterday, but today it'll be ready next week—which actually means a month from now;
Saw your email, but didn't read it or respond to any of the questions, concerns, or agreements it contained;
Pretends there's not an outstanding project getting in the way of scheduled projects for paying clients when they see you in the context of ordinary social discourse.
Has nothing to lose (like a deposit, for instance) because if nothing happens, all that's lost is an immense amount of your own time and effort which would have otherwise netted you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
Here's What You Can Do:
Does your neck hurt yet from all the agreeable nodding you've been doing?
I've been in these situations many times, so have you, and so will you be again. But, each time you get a little better at dealing with it.
Here are a couple things I've learned I can do when I feel myself getting entangled in the favour trap:
Stop it Right From the Start by Saying "No"
You are allowed to say no, and you can do it in ways that leave your relationship intact:
Tell them that you're totally swamped and simply can't take on any extra work right now. Whether it's true or not, it's an entirely reasonable explanation. Just remember not to talk about how slow business is the following week.
Explain that you've decided against doing work for family and friends as a matter of policy because of the complications and relationship strain it has caused in the past. Another completely reasonable explanation.
If either of these explanations are met with animosity or anger, just imagine what it would have been like to work with that person. If your relationship is strong enough, they'll understand.
Ask About Their Budget
You know they're asking for free work. Ask what their budget is anyway. This is a great way to telegraph that the work you do is worth real dollars, not compliments and flattery. One of two things will happen:
They will give you an actual number that they may be willing to actually pay, or a fake number to end the conversation and never bring it up again;
They will tell you that they haven't thought about it. After hearing what your pricing is like, it will not be discussed again.
So, maybe you've consented, and now you have to create a logo, a poster, or a website. Whatever it is, don't just do it overnight to get it out of the way. If you throw together a logo in a day, it tells them that a logo only takes a day to make.
If a logo only takes a day to make, surely a revision or two—or seven-hundred can't possibly take that long.
It's important to explain that paying clients will take precedence over whatever free work you're doing. If that free logo is going to take several weeks, your friend might just realize that the favour they've asked of you is not as insignificant as they thought and the waiting will either make them think twice about multiple revisions or look elsewhere for free/cheap design services.
Remember, the work you do has value. If other people had your design sense and skill, you wouldn't have a business, and people wouldn't be clamouring to get their hands on your services for free.
Turn the tables and imagine what would happen if you asked your architect friend to design you a house real quick, or your accountant friend to look at your business taxes for a minute or two.
Turning down free labour is ok. Saying yes means doing all the work a paying client would demand, and usually more because there is less of a barrier for friends and family to take advantage of your kindness.
Do you have a strategy for either doing or turning down free work? Leave your suggestions in the comments.
Until next time. ✌🏽