So you’ve finally decided to go freelance – it’s everything you’ve dreamed of. You’re just getting started, but you’ve got enthusiasm and are willing to put in the work necessary in order to fulfill your dreams of being able to design what you love all day, every day. You control your own schedule, are truly independent and your client seems awesome. Everything is perfect.
You sit down with your client as they enthusiastically tell you all about their website idea and how it’s going to beat Facebook, that it’s going to be the best site in the world, and that everyone who so much as stumbles anywhere near the website is going to be rich. You’re just as excited as they are, so you get on to the matter of payment. With a project this big in scope, surely it must pay well! Chances are your client has a huge budget that they plan to use to really knock this website out of the park!
You mention payment and immediately a frown appears on your client’s face. They start wringing their hands and get noticeably uncomfortable. They say that they’ll gladly pay the money upon completion of the project, or that they can offer you tons of free exposure if you do a bunch of great work on the project.
This is the part where any sensible, level headed experienced designer smiles politely and leaves before anymore of their time gets wasted; but you’re just starting out! How bad could it be? You do need to bulk up your portfolio after all.. and if this site hits it big you’ll be famous! And there may even be the potential for revenue sharing! Plus, there’s all the free exposure to think of! What’s the worst that could happen?
It is exactly those thoughts that ran through my head when I first agreed to the project. That’s right, this scenario isn’t made up, it actually happened to me:
The real tragedy is that it didn’t happen to just me, but instead has happened to many designers the world over, almost as if it’s some sort of right of passage to becoming a freelance designer.
Now there are many instances of doing spec work where it is perfectly okay to work for free, and that can really only be decided on an individual basis and what feels comfortable to you. For myself personally, the experience I had with my first client didn’t end handsomely. We did the work, they went out of business and we got none of the fame and free exposure we were promised. This was after two months of dedicated work on the project. All that time, gone. It is making such mistakes that allows you to learn quickly, and is one of the big reasons why for myself I don’t do spec work. I also don’t do it for the following reasons: (While understanding that these rules don’t apply to every situation, but generally help to serve as a good guideline).
Free Exposure Doesn’t Pay the Bills
You’ll get this promise a lot from marketing companies that are just getting established. Ignore them. Any self respecting marketing or web development firm will know to sub-contract you out for your work and pay you your worth. When you have a company that does that, you likely have a truly happy relationship with that company. If the company promises you free exposure for your work, go elsewhere.
Promises Mean Nothing
Be picky about your clients and pick them well. A good relationship is built on trust and a track record of delivering on what is said. An iron clad contract will not protect you if the client decides to leave the country, or if the money just plain isn’t there. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust people, it just means that if a promise seems off, then it likely is.
If the idea means so much to them, they should be willing to pay for it. This may sound somewhat harsh at face value, but the fact of the matter is that these people will make money off your work, and you need to eat. It is with that in mind that you should be compensated for the work you do.
Don’t Let Them Take Advantage
Lack of experience or portfolio does NOT mean it’s okay to work for free. Stick to your guns and be confident. The experience and portfolio come later. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is likely being exploitative and just wants to make use of your skillset for free. Don’t let them.
Don’t partake in logo competitions, crowdsourced design bounties, etc. that offer up some semblance of bounty money (i.e. $1000) for crowd sourced logo design. You’ll be competing with dozens if not hundreds of other designers, and will ultimately spend far more time chasing that prize money than if you had just gone out, gotten yourself a client, and designed a logo for them. In most instances, you actually stand to lose money because of your rabid competition. The only way to beat the game is to not play.
Those are just the five main principles that I use in practicing my day to day freelance work. Your mileage will definitely vary based on what feels right to you. There are definitely situations where there are exceptions to these principles, but it’s what I find works best for me. As it stands, the clients that I do choose to work with (I only have two clients at the moment) are fantastic and we have a great hassle free relationship. It’s about the quality of your clients. Not the quantity. Don’t be afraid to turn down work if it’s not worth the time.
There’s plenty of people that need work done in the world and the good ones will respect the skills that you’ve spent your entire life learning, and will be willing to pay for it. So let them.