Freelance or Free Work?

One of the biggest learning curves I’ve encountered with my services-based business is how to get paid for a reasonable about of work performed. It’s very easy to go in polar opposite ends of the spectrum: charge for every little thing, including e-mails and brainstorming; and charging for 1/4 of the actual time spent on a project. Neither way will work for long and will have disastrous results for the business.

Pro-Service, not Pro-Bono

You know you’re in for a reverse sales pitch when a client says they “don’t expect you to work for free” and follows that by the word, “but.” There are plenty of people around who want and expect freelancers (especially designers) to trade their work for less than their services are worth, or even for free. Here are things to look out for and what is not acceptable to agree to:

  • Free labor expectations from non-profits or churches. Nothing in the Bible says it’s right to pressure a professional to work for free. That is their discretion if they want to offer their services as an offering.
  • Free or discounted labor because the client is an “A-lister.” You may or may not get additional work just because you did work for a major corporation or Joe Blow Blogger with 1M pageviews per day.  Feel free to offer rebates or commission if additional work does come through, but don’t get pressured into it.
  • Free or discounted labor in return for referrals based on the success of the work you did for them. Once you hand the work over, everything is out of your control. Even if you have control, that’s a miserable deal because you are slave to them to ensure your paycheck and no longer working for yourself.

Tips for a Real Win-Win

I’m still learning the ins and outs, but in the last 6 months, there have been plenty of opportunities to learn lessons and improve the way things flow. Here is a small list of what has worked for me:

  • Set a project price rather than hourly rates if you can. Account for the time you may spend in a 70/30 worst-case scenario. Make it more than an easy project with no problems, but less than a disaster. If you are going to succeed in the business, you’ll end up ahead 90% of the time and send you packing to get a job soon enough to not fool yourself longer than necessary.
  • Set a clear cut-off point for work included in the project price or other included services. For example, my projects end after two revisions after the first draft. If there are still client issues after that, then communication is an issue and it is creating unnecessary work, which will be paid for on their dime at my hourly rate.
  • It’s okay to offer a discount for publicity for your work for them, but don’t work for free, under ANY circumstances.
  • If your initial call/correspondence with them annoys, bothers, or offends you, turn down the work. With very rare exceptions, this is the best indicator you have of how the work will go. I’ve returned one person’s full payment because of this coming true and brought out one potential client’s true colors with a reasonable proposal counter-offer to cement my intuition about them.

Remember, if you’re not happy running your business, you are handicapping your success. You deserve to work under the best possible conditions, so make it so.