Q: Since I started freelancing (and I’m doing pretty well), my friends have started asking me to do work for them, largely for free. What do I do?
A: Offer them money to spend with someone else.
When I was young and strong and I owned a ute (that’s a pickup truck for those of you reading in America), friends would often ask me to help them move house. I’d go to their place, help them lift their fridge or couch or steamer trunk full of what I always assumed were sex toys, and put them in my truck and drive them to their new house.
Then, at the other end I’d help them carry all the same stuff up countless flights of stairs, help them repositition their kink-box (I am almost certain that is what it was), and be paid with a beer and a slice of pizza.
Over the years, I don’t know how many Saturdays I burned helping my friends move house, but I do know this — it ruined me, and it ruined my truck. My vehicle got scratched and dented, and I forever had a sore back.
Yes, I know. Poor me.
Then one day I saw a truly amazing exchange. Someone asked a friend of mine if he’d help them move house. He didn’t say a word, but opened his wallet, pulled out a $50 note and offered it over.
“Removalists cost $500. That’s my contribution. Get all your other mates to chip in and and none of us has to lift anything.”
They didn’t take his money, but nobody ever asked him to help them move house again.
As a designer, you have a skill that is desired by many but deliverable by few. Because it’s largely a cerebral skill, using tools that are now readily available and inexpensive, it may seem like the work comes at no cost to you.
It does not.
Every minute you spend doing work for free is time taken from the work you could be doing for clients, the administration work you keep putting off, and the self-promotion you hate doing so much.
This time is not free. This time is Opportunity Cost.
Every hour I spent lifting furniture, I could have been spending on more important things. Every flier you do for free, every logo you swap for a case of beer, every website you don’t charge a friend for is a website you cannot do for someone else. This is economics at its most basic. What’s worse, when you do accept that case of beer you have accepted (and therefore helped set!) a low value for your work.
Remember that time you sent a proposal to a client and they laughed in your face and said “my cousin has photoshop and she’ll do it for free?” There is another designer in your town who has heard that. Their client was talking about you.
It is entirely possible to work with friends. I’ve done it plenty of times, to great success. I’ve even made it work with family (but that’s another article). But the key is that you each need to give one another the respect that real friends give. They pay you what you’re worth, and in return you give them in return the very best work of which you are capable.
So when your friends ask you to work for free tell them what you really charge. If they offer to pay you, great! But if they don’t, give them $50 and suggest another designer with whom to spend it.
That said, if you work out how to do this with relatives, let me know.
Ross Floate has the biggest beard at Floate Design Partners, a damned good design firm in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his friends and hopes they’re not angry with this article because he is a big softy at heart.