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What to do with the freebie heebie jeebies
January 6, 2014 4:25 PM   Subscribe

What to say when you're asked to work for free.
posted by storybored (63 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Fuck you, pay me."
posted by daq at 4:27 PM on January 6 [62 favorites]


There are definitely times when you can agree to work for free, and this article lays a good number of them out. Still, more and more people are asking for free work, and knowing how to say no is very important these days.
posted by xingcat at 4:29 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


"Money is something people live on. Exposure is something people die from."
posted by Sys Rq at 4:33 PM on January 6 [116 favorites]


Great responses on the "exposure" question, which I get a lot in the form of oh, "please provide a free presentation."
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 4:35 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


There are lots of other people who will do it for free.
You should absolutely contact one of them.

I love that. When the person who you're not paying fails to show up, or shows up 2 hours late, or destroys your sound system, or drives away all of your customers then please call me.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:40 PM on January 6 [15 favorites]


"Not interested. I don't work for free."

Why is any further explanation or commentary necessary? This article puzzles me.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:41 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


Should I work for free?
posted by Paragon at 4:42 PM on January 6 [10 favorites]


Why is any further explanation or commentary necessary?

In the event that this company may be a future paying client and a curt response damages this possibility when a more diplomatic response like those suggested costs you nothing, or because one of the responses might get you paying work (who at your company does have a budget, let's talk when you do have a budget, etc) when a blunt response might not.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with "Not interested. I don't work for free," but having a handy list of other diplomatic responses would be something that I'd find useful, I suppose.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:46 PM on January 6 [13 favorites]


"No".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:49 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


sorry bud, blowjobs are 50 roses.
posted by shockingbluamp at 4:49 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]


I think my derisive snorts of laughter will get the point across just as well, really.
posted by elizardbits at 4:49 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]


I have no problem working for free. But someday, and that day may never come, I may call upon you to do a service for me.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:54 PM on January 6 [49 favorites]


Why is any further explanation or commentary necessary? This article puzzles me.

Because people think they may burn a bridge if they say, "Don't be silly." In my experience, people who expect you to work for free have no intention of paying, expect something for nothing, and will have no respect for someone who they deem desperate for any kind of work. In a way, it is test and probe to see what people can get from you.

As an author, I get this thing all the time and I had to have a rule: I do not speak or write for free.

If I am in the mood for some exposure, I am sure there is a flasher hanging on a street corner or something.

There is an old saying that it is better to sit for nothing than work for nothing...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:54 PM on January 6 [15 favorites]


n the event that this company may be a future paying client and a curt response damages this possibility when a more diplomatic response like those suggested costs you nothing, or because one of the responses might get you paying work (who at your company does have a budget, let's talk when you do have a budget, etc) when a blunt response might not.

I suppose that must be the rationale. If this has ever happened in the history of the universe, I'd love to hear about it. People who think that work should be done for free will keep on dredging the bottom until they find a sucker who'll do it.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:56 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


The proper response is to disappear in a puff of smoke leaving only the echoes of your best sinister Shadow laugh.
posted by jason_steakums at 4:58 PM on January 6 [10 favorites]


An important tip not covered by the scope of the article - it's not a dichotomy between being paid for your costs and working for nothing - when working for free (such as work-as-charity for a non-profit), it's often better to work at nearly-free.
Clients don't respect your time when they have no skin in the game. They'll want you to change things a hundred times because changes don't cost (them) anything. They won't even realize there are any costs.

If your charity is a 90% discount, instead of a 100% discount, your time will be respected, your work won't be taken for granted, things will go quicker and smoother. That the money involved is just peanuts doesn't matter - it still has the effect. (And it also sets up the machinery and precedent for exchange of funds between you, so that attempting to make the transition in the future to charging for you work isn't a sudden huge hurdle; that hurdle was already jumped and all that's changing is the scale of the discount)
posted by anonymisc at 5:00 PM on January 6 [34 favorites]


Twenty dollars, same as in town.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:03 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


"Where I come from, people die of exposure."
posted by Jode at 5:07 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]


Why is any further explanation or commentary necessary? This article puzzles me.

Author needs exposure.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:08 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]


But what puzzles me about the implication that these suggestions are valueless is that they're nicer than a curt response, and it costs you nothing to be nicer.
posted by MoonOrb at 5:12 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


As a lawyer, I used to occasionally have prospective clients tell me their case would be "great experience for me."

I'm baffled that turning these requests down is something people need help with. I mean, if somebody expects me to go without money, then surely they can go without my work. Why would I be the only one giving? That doesn't make sense.
posted by jayder at 5:13 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


company may be a future paying client and a curt response damages this possibility when a more diplomatic response like those suggested costs you nothing, or because one of the responses might get you paying work (who at your company does have a budget, let's talk when you do have a budget, etc) when a blunt response might not.

Wordwoman: "I suppose that must be the rationale. If this has ever happened in the history of the universe, I'd love to hear about it."

I don't understand what you mean. If what has ever happened in the history of the universe?
posted by desuetude at 5:25 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


I guess he means, people who solicit free work "for exposure" becoming paying clients.

You could always make a counter-offer: you pay me $500, and I provide no services to you.
posted by thelonius at 5:27 PM on January 6 [40 favorites]


Same as in town.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:32 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


So many creative types I know (including myself) need this on the wall near their workspace.
posted by redsparkler at 6:01 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


But someday, and that day may never come, I may call upon you to do a service for me.

Darn you, Florence, I was even humming the theme song--then you beat me to it!!
posted by BlueHorse at 6:07 PM on January 6


Because people think they may burn a bridge if they say, "Don't be silly.

If someone is asking you to work for free, you need to burn that bridge.
posted by eriko at 6:23 PM on January 6 [12 favorites]


There are lots of other people who will do it for free.
You get what you pay for.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:31 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


As much as I detest the "sales methodology du jour", anyone selling a service should read Harry Beckwith's books, at least "Selling the Invisible". He drills home the idea of the perception of value; that is, a client will value your service for what you will sell it for, and they will rarely recalibrate that perception of value. So if you give away what you're good at to try and "get in the door", clients very rarely decide you're worth what you think you are subsequently.

I don't work for free unless it's a very special circumstance (usually, an strong existing relationship that I can count on). Even for "charity" (which I'm willing to do a lot of) I usually ask for lunch to be covered (or cocktails, depending on the gig), and it's remarkable how many folks balk. That's bullshit, and I have no qualms about turning down that "opportunity".
posted by kjs3 at 6:40 PM on January 6 [6 favorites]


"Eat my balls" has always worked for me.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:41 PM on January 6 [4 favorites]


Here's another good take on this one. There is no such thing as exposure.
posted by Gotanda at 6:42 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


The visual artist version is being constantly asked to donate work for charitable auctions. I can't write off more than the cost of materials. And better still - work sold at those sorts of auctions NEVER matches the market value of one's work so it's worse than working for free because you're hurting your own market valuation. The number of times I've explained this and that I mostly don't donate work only to be responded to with a harrumph and "it would be great exposure" is far larger than I care to detail.
posted by leslies at 6:43 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


The world is filled with weasels. They're awful, chislers grubbing away at your pockets. They'll go through your trash if you don't tighten down the lids and pick the gum out of your mouth while you're still chewing. The world owes them something for free and you, you have the temerity to stand between them and what they want. They are relentless and sly and filled with offense when you won't gladly hand over the goods (and services).

If you are not the type of person who is used to saying "no" to requests, this sort of thing can come in handy.
posted by adipocere at 6:46 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


You definitely want to be known at "the guy who was too busy to do my stuff for free" than the "free guy" or the "guy who works for nearly nothing."
posted by maxwelton at 6:58 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


Work for free? Hell. I don't even work for cheap.
posted by jscalzi at 7:02 PM on January 6 [8 favorites]


I think the linked article had the best answer about exposure: "Thank you, but I obviously have enough exposure since you contacted me."
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:08 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


It's just so insulting to be asked to work for free. Even grocery store sackers get paid, for Christ's sake. I made a living as an editor for years, but I don't like to talk about it, because then I get buttonholed by people who think I'll be stoked to read their novel and help them market it in my nonexistent spare time, in return for nothing but their thanks.

(The funny thing is, your typical amateur writer absolutely hates actual editing; they take every red mark as a personal insult. Not only would I waste my time, I'd be wasting theirs too, if only they knew it.)
posted by emjaybee at 7:11 PM on January 6 [3 favorites]


Everybody's very down on working for free, aren't they? I find it interesting; working for free is often called "volunteering" and we regard it pretty positively - and there is evidence, for example, that volunteers in the not-for-profit sector are more readily employed (in the not-for-profit sector), than those without.

I'm not a huge fan of blanket rules. When I was working as a freelance writer, there were times when I "worked" for free, and it helped me - and where it didn't help me directly, it helped me because I enjoyed it and it enabled me to write how I wanted to write. There was no generalisation about when I would or when I wouldn't; considerations were varied and complex and included the type of work, whether the org was profiting from my work and by how much, how much leeway I was going to have, personal relationships etc etc etc.

This does not obviate how many requests like this are, frankly, bullshit. And it's true, the word "exposure" often directly correlates to how bullshit the request is.

But by the same token, I think it's good to remember that:

a) Some people's work is not worth anything more than free
b) Some places are totally happy and fine with amateur quality work
c) It can actually help you professionally sometimes
d) It doesn't have to be exploitative.

You always have the choice about whether to work - free or otherwise. I dunno, this reminds me a lot of when professional photographers bitch about talented amateurs with DSLRs. Sad fact is the world does not owe you a living, and if people produce free work that is "good enough", then it's good enough.
posted by smoke at 7:14 PM on January 6 [6 favorites]


I have assigned parking, a corner office, a personal assistant and valet. You will work for me for free and the work will be shit. I am extremely demanding and will be working you pretty much all the time. If in the next few months you are able to demonstrate some of the talent suggested by your educational background; then we might decide to offer you some kind of paid position which you will get to keep for a while. After this near exhaustion and time of hunger, we hope you will no longer be the superfluous thing you are now. From that day forward until you get your own assigned parking space, corner office, personal assistant and valet; you will say that "Hear of him? I worked for that old bastard" and that will be all the resume you need.
posted by humanfont at 7:27 PM on January 6


I usually paraphrase Twain (I think) and say something like "Cameramen, like dentists, are available at a variety of price points. How much pain are you willing to risk?"
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 8:19 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Work for free? Hell. I don't even work for cheap.

Won't even change out of your redshirt for less than ninety-three thousand dollars.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:24 PM on January 6


"Please design a logo for me.
With pie charts.
For free."

posted by Quilford at 9:20 PM on January 6 [13 favorites]


What is that damnation of Satan 27b/6 website about? Nevermind already filling myself in, old style

I'm recoiling in horror, for it wants me to read it for a long time and click on its various things throughout this night-time period

I am rarely asked for free work except by family and the occasional person who thinks a 12-pack of beer is sufficient -- I'll quote an appropriately priced bottle of something nice instead because it's usually not too bad of a job, but I'm not 18 when a 12-pack of beer is worth more than the actual sticker price in your mind.

Usually more "stuff I pay people to do myself because it sucks and hurts you in the process, why are you doing it and asking for my help dad" kind of stuff like taking down relatively big trees for the burbs in his back yard (he later damaged his gutters finishing the job with my brother in law, I've had some intermittent tendon / contracture issues with two of my fingers since, NEVAR AGAIN) or replacing dumb heavy appliances vs. what I do professionally. But it's an excuse to hang out for quite awhile and catch up, on weed
posted by lordaych at 9:54 PM on January 6


Everyone commenting in this thread is working for free.

Oh right; sorry-- we paid for the opportunity to do this work.
posted by jamjam at 9:58 PM on January 6


I'm baffled that turning these requests down is something people need help with.

I'm baffled at 2/3s of Ask MeFi questions for the same reason.

Personal attachment to a cause or something? Maybe work free. But no free client has ever turned into a paying client in my experience. They turn into someone who complains that you did it for free last time so do it again.

Volunteering is volunteering. Someone demanding your services for free for something you did not volunteer for is not volunteering. Plus you will get treated like crap. One of the agencies we deal with recently recommended we raise our prices so we would be treated better. We did. And we do get treated better. "Do me a favor and I'll treat you like dirt; overcharge me and I'll kiss your ass." People are funny. Thank god.
posted by umberto at 10:05 PM on January 6 [6 favorites]


Everybody's very down on working for free, aren't they? I find it interesting; working for free is often called "volunteering" and we regard it pretty positively - and there is evidence, for example, that volunteers in the not-for-profit sector are more readily employed (in the not-for-profit sector), than those without.


Oh, come on, smoke. Volunteering for a NFP or charity is not the same as being conned into working for free for a for-profit company, which could afford to pay you but decides that is better to grab your work for free with the promise of future paid work or other benefits that never materialise.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:19 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


Oh right; sorry-- we paid for the opportunity to do this work.

What do you mean "we", newb? *cough*

Anyway, I thought it was a useful article. It's not just suggesting how to talk to people who want you to work for free, it's showing you how to talk to yourself about these situations.

People are free to go full-tilt "Fuck you, pay me" if they like, they can just say No, they can try one of the clear, firm and tactful respectful responses described in the article, or they can actually decide to work for free. "You may want or need to work for free, especially when you’re just starting out to build a resume, client list or broaden your skills. At any time, you may be happy to donate your time and talent to good causes or very good friends."

But what the article doesn't support is being a pushover because you think you can't ever refuse without being rude, uncharitable or frozen out of the job market.
posted by maudlin at 10:21 PM on January 6 [5 favorites]



Everyone commenting in this thread is working for free.

Oh right; sorry-- we paid for the opportunity to do this work.


I don't know about you, but this isn't work for me. This is entertainment, recreation, education.

Actually, it's what I do to avoid work.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:22 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


And when you are asked to pay to do work for them you write a blog post about it.
posted by Megami at 10:48 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


Oh, come on, smoke. Volunteering for a NFP or charity is not the same as being conned into working for free for a for-profit company, which could afford to pay you but decides that is better to grab your work for free with the promise of future paid work or other benefits that never materialise.

I completely agree; my contention is that not all request to work for free - even in the for-profit world - fall into the above description, and that there are all kinds of reasons people get asked to work for free, and sometimes it can work out to mutual satisfaction.
posted by smoke at 10:57 PM on January 6


I have done some reality TV stuff in the past, that I got paid a little for (it was fun the first time) but it was kinda offensive when they called me several months later and wanted me to design several episodes for free for the chance that I "might get to be on the show again".
This might have worked if I had asked to be on the show the first time (they hunted me down).
I said I would do it if everyone else worked for free too. This seemed to disappoint them.
You pretty muck get taken for granted in that sort of work if you do it for free, and you end up pissed and feel like a chump.
posted by boilermonster at 11:31 PM on January 6


"We can’t pay you, but you’ll get great long term exposure"
posted by Tom-B at 12:47 AM on January 7 [7 favorites]


Thanks for posting, storybored. As a lifelong tactless brute in person, I'm always looking for ways to be more diplomatic. Especially with people who are idiotic enough to even request free services.
posted by yoga at 6:37 AM on January 7


"Do me a favor and I'll treat you like dirt; overcharge me and I'll kiss your ass."

It is annoying how true this is.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:01 AM on January 7 [3 favorites]


As a lawyer, I used to occasionally have prospective clients tell me their case would be "great experience for me."

Were these people indigent? Or were they from another planet?
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:19 AM on January 7


I have been getting requests to provide thousands of dollars worth of equipment (and in some cases labor) for free based on the vague promise of "great exposure" since I started working nearly 20 years ago. What's funny about the requests in my particular case is that I work in the audio-visual industry, selling equipment that people use when making presentations. The pitch people generally give me when attempting to get me to consent to this request is some variation of, "I give presentations every [day/week/month], so your products will be seen by X number of people, giving you great free advertising". Not realizing, of course, that literally every single one of my customers could feasibly make the exact same argument, so ultimately I could end up with no paying customers but a lot of wonderful exposure.
posted by The Gooch at 7:50 AM on January 7


Mark Evanier wrote a great series of articles on people who ask you to work for free:

Unfinanced Entrepreneurs, Part 1
Unfinanced Entrepreneurs, Part 2
Unfinanced Entrepreneurs: Follow-Up

An example of what one of these people told him:

"It's been my experience that contracts are worthless. Anyone with a decent lawyer can break any contract that's ever been written. That's why I don't mess with them. I deal in trust. If two parties have a genuine bond of trust, no lawyer in the world can destroy that."

Evanier's advice: If you hear this, run the other way.
posted by ogooglebar at 8:27 AM on January 7 [9 favorites]


This even happens in my job, which involves selling supplies to restaurants. Seemingly 20% of my customers think I should blow off sales and commissions and keep them perpetually well-stocked in exchange for the occasional free lunch.

Everyone thinks THEY'RE special, and need things free.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:41 AM on January 7


"It's been my experience that contracts are worthless. Anyone with a decent lawyer can break any contract that's ever been written. That's why I don't mess with them. I deal in trust. If two parties have a genuine bond of trust, no lawyer in the world can destroy that."

"I think contracts are things to be broken, therefore you should trust me." what?
posted by jason_steakums at 9:06 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


If two parties have a genuine bond of trust, no lawyer in the world can destroy that.

Let's do a trust exercise: You close your eyes and fall backward, and I'll go catch someone who will actually pay me.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:10 AM on January 7 [13 favorites]


This is pandemic in the political campaign world.

It's a great opportunity to make a name for yourself, you know: managing a campaign of this size.

Yup. Sounds like it could be.

Of course, we wouldn't have a budget to pay you...

For full-time work?!?

Oh, we'd need you to put in way more than 40 hours per week.

But you said it was a big campaign. Haven't you raised, like two hundred thousand dollars?

Oh yes, but we need all that for TV ads!


Oh. Ah. And why don't you ask the TV stations to produce and play your ads for free? It would be a great opportunity for them: playing ads for a campaign of this size...
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:51 AM on January 7 [2 favorites]


These are great. They show how to say "no" while avoiding introducing hostility into what might be a good relationship, while telling the truth. This is much better than using a snappy comeback.
posted by amtho at 11:21 AM on January 7


Well - it depends on what one considers as "work".

Back when I was an independent information technology consultant, "working for free" allowed me to increase my direct hourly rate from $70/hour to $170/hour... (that was my rate, I never cared how much any specific agencies billed-out over and above that)

Heck - I wouldn't even be in this business, if I did not get my first job after dropping-out of college by approaching businesses and offering to "prove my worth" with a 3-month, unpaid "internship".

So... what did I learn about the "type" of free work one should do, over the course of a 20-year career ?

That the trick is not in producing or providing actual deliverables for free, it is in training/presentations/seminars and overviews/introductions where you are offering a taste of your expertise in a small, bite-sized (2-3 hour) chunk of "try before you buy"...

Eventually it became "volunteering", through organising a technology product-focussed user group - and presenting sessions, but not too many, 2-3 per year, few enough that people would not get sick of me personally. But leveraging that to build a contact network of other speakers/presenters, and over-time personally presenting at larger and larger conferences ... Again, for free... my rule is/was: let me attend all the other sessions and I am happy to pay travel myself... (Besides - if you have your own business, those travel expenses are claimable/deductible)

So... that became exposure and essentially "marketing", I became a regionally recognised expert in my technology product (but not nationally or internationally as I did/do not blog, podcast or write books) - enough that the product vendor awarded my with public recognition and eventually a "virtual" role as well...

Admittedly - not all technology companies have formal recognition programs - IMO, more should - as they are getting free, voluntary marketing with no essential up-front costs to themselves, but...

In the end prior to transitioning to my permanent, full-time job, I would say - I was working about 15-30 hours per month for "free", but I only had to work about 80-100 billable hours per month to live comfortably and save as well. But - to get to that point, at one point in my career I would work a regular 40-hour week, and then invest another 20-30 hours in learning other technologies, methodologies and techniques... At that stage, I was a "generalist" - but in the end, I found more success in becoming a "specialist".

-------------------------------------

This is my personal anecdote, not necessarily a recipe for success for everyone - I have now reached the point in life where I understand the logical fallacy trap that many of us in IT/technology tend to fall into - one of "well, if I was able to bootstrap" my career up this manner, anyone else should be able to do the same...

... not everyone is comfortable giving presentations in-front of audiences, not everyone can learn new technology fast-enough that they can turn around and "coach/mentor/train" other people to use it, immediately after it arrives to market...

... however, perhaps you do not give your "free" work away, but build a publically accessibly portfolio instead... Contribute to an open-source initiative, cause or find a public movement or charitable organisation and (only if you already have some form of paying work), assist them with your expertise for free (but only a few hours per week) - as long as they agree to be a reference.
posted by jkaczor at 3:01 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


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