What about working for free?

In my ten years of working with clients on different web projects, I’ve noticed a trend. The more I charge, the more my time and services are respected.  The less I charge, the worst treatment I receive. That’s not to say that I haven’t done pro bono work for the sake of helping others out without a “thank you”.  Most people are typically nice enough to give you the courtesy of a “thanks”.  What I’m referring to is the overall treatment you might find yourself receiving as a result of constantly undercharging.

Here are some tips you’ll want to remember in working as an online business.

Giving back is great, but be careful not to burn out on pro bono work.

I love to give back.  But it’s cost me a lot of time, effort, and money to get where I’m going today.  I’m talking years of research, learning css or html in between my kids’ nap times, taking online design classes, paying successful online marketers to teach me what they know so that I can succeed as well.  I didn’t always have the money and sometimes I borrowed money to take a class, and paid back with interest.  I worked part time jobs, sweat through graduate school while raising an active toddler and learning to work an online business.  People who want to get somewhere tend to go after it and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve their goals.

People who learn from others who have forged the way might call you a mentor for being that leader.  People who want what you have but don’t want to put in the time and effort to learn from you or get where you are- well, they’re called freeloaders.  I’ve experienced both.

In my career as a work at home mom, I have given back whenever I see a need that should be met but the client doesn’t have the funds although they have the vision.  Sometimes they come to me for help, or I approach them and offer the help.  Whatever the case, I love being of help and I don’t mind not charging in those particular circumstances- which are few and far between. But I’ve noticed a trend resulting from my “free” services, which I would normally charge in the upper hundreds for.  When I do these things for free, there are only a few responses I tend to receive:

a.) “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.”  And with that, the client happily uses the product or service I’ve provided for months and years to come.

b.)  “Thank you, it’s perfect.”  And with that, the client uses the product or service for a few weeks or months, then changes their mind and decides to use something else.

c.) “Um…I don’t like it at all. Can you change it?” And with that, the client proceeds to request a series of edits that you are now left having to decide on how much to charge for the extra labor it will cost you (after you’ve agreed to do pro bono work).

There are several lessons to learn from this.    One is: always have agreements in writing and stipulations in place about how you will handle any work you do- both paid and free.  It’s absolutely okay to help others out on the occasion when you know giving back is something you should do for someone.  But keep the communication lines open and clear. And the other: be very selective about who you give back to.

The first case is optimal. Provided you’ve listened to your client and done exactly what she wants, you’re going to have a happy camper. She could help you by spreading the word of your business or providing a testimonial for your website or Linkedin.  She could send customers to you in the future.

In the second case, you’re left confused- and hurt.  You spent the time, energy, tears, and sweat to provide her a valuable service or product, and she said she was happy with it- even thanked you publicly a number of times, validating how pleased she was with your service. But at the end of a few weeks or months she changes her mind about it.  If it’s a product, she might no longer use it-shoving it to the back of her drawer.  But let’s just say it’s a service.  Maybe you designed an ebook cover that she seemed absolutely ecstatic about.  Then three months down the road, your client ditches the cover and redesigns it herself (without saying a word to you, of course.)  A bit confusing, eh?  Of course, she can do whatever she wants- it’s her ebook.  And if she had paid you for the cover, you wouldn’t feel so stung…but because you gifted her, maybe you expected a longer shelf-life.  So it can leave you feeling shattered or even wondering if your help was truly appreciated.

Again- it’s business, and it’s all relative.  We always say to never take things personally- it’s business.  But when there was no business transacted, it becomes personal.  So be careful.

In the third case, you promise you’ll never do anything for free ever again.  This is the worst case scenario- with a “client” who acts as if she’s actually paying you.  In these cases, be firm but gently remind them that you will do the “extras” for a fee.  Beware of these situations also, by careful screening.  You should be able to pick out the ones who may cause you some trouble down the road right from the beginning. In those situations, charging your full fee from the beginning will help you to avoid this altogether.

Is pro bono work worth it?

It can be.  If you play your cards right-find people who really need your help who are also willing to help you in return by promoting your business, and find those who are willing to pay you even just a little- then, yes, it is worth it.  If the client totally cannot pay you monetarily, they may be able to “pay” you by promoting your business and sending others your way.

Not all “free” work ends up in a bad situation. Just knowing that what you’re doing for them is giving them a leg up should be reward enough. It’s when you get taken advantage of that sucks. And always, if anyone is ever using your skills or products without properly crediting you- then know that you’ve been had.  Learn from the situation and don’t repeat it.

Have you experienced this before? How about you- do you offer pro bono work?  If so, what are the guidelines and policies you have in place to protect yourself and your business?


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