Want to make good money? Don’t get paid in promises.
In the dark ages, when I was growing up, it was not uncommon to hear the expression, “Why buy the cow when you can milk it through the fence?” It was used as a stern warning to young women that premarital sex might lead to (gasp!) spinsterhood.
I know, right? As a perspective on female sexuality, the cow metaphor is pretty degrading. In the world of freelance, however, I consider it gospel.
What I mean is this: if you don’t respect your work – if you give it away too cheaply, or worse, for free – you’ll have difficulty establishing long-term client relationships. And it’s especially true if you’re just starting out and trying to establish a reputation.
A while back a friend working at a fledgling ad agency connected me with her boss who was desperate for help with some ads that needed to go to print fast. I showed up with my portfolio, did the ol’ soft shoe, and impressed the heck out of him. He offered me the work on the spot.
We talked money. I told him my rate and he said, “I can’t afford that! Charge me half and I’ll give you work every week. ”
Ongoing work! I get a little weak in the knees when I’m sweet-talked with the promise of regular money. So I wrote like a demon, churning out sheer brilliance in the name of a bright, shiny future as a freelance copywriter.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I never heard a word back from him. He paid me but he never used my services again.
A few years later my friend quit her job at that agency. She told me, “I couldn’t work for that guy anymore. He was such a creep.” When pressed, she revealed that his many unscrupulous practices included ripping off unsuspecting freelancers. Apparently, I’d gotten off lightly!
Why cutting your rates won’t work in your favour:
- it’s hard to get your rate up to where it should be
- it’s harder to make a living
- it lowers the rate standard for your fellow freelancers
- if better work comes along you can’t accept it
- you’ll resent it and you won’t work up to your potential
- your client will think less of you
Working for free is worse. There’s a word clients like to dress it up with: “spec.” Never, ever, ever do work on spec (clearly I mean it with Taylor Swift certainty). You may think it’s going to get you in the door; that it will help build your portfolio, but it won’t.
A couple of times in my life – during long, dry spells that tested my resolve to freelance – I succumbed to requests to do work on spec.
Theoretically, “spec” means you write great copy or design a fabulous web site, or whatever, and if the client uses it, they pay you. Sounds fair, right? Nun-uh. Chances are you’ll never get paid for your brilliance – and you may never know if your work is used or not.
Both times I was persuaded to churn out creative concepts for free I didn’t hear back. Both friends are lost to me and, at the end of the day, they got free creative valued at hundreds of dollars and I got bupkis.
Spec works because we so badly want our great ideas to be recognized. But who knows how many freelancers this client has working for FREE? Who knows if anyone ever gets paid! There are no rules in this freelance game. No one to protect you. You have to be extra vigilant and protect yourself.
Anyone who asks you to work for free is not doing you a favour. Even if it’s a friend. In that moment your friend may have every good intention of passing future work your way, but that person may be being duped by his or her client, too! And when it all goes south everyone is too fraught with shame to make eye contact.
You’ll still be tempted to give it a try, won’t you? Return to cow metaphor, we must, young Jedi.
Say, in a moment of weakness, you let yourself get milked through the fence (you work for free). What’s that client going to think of your milk? After all, it was free, how good could it be? Now, that other milk they paid good money for, that’s some sweet-tasting milk – they can’t get enough! Free milk will go untried. And the poor cow it comes from? She’ll end up hooked up to an electric milker over at the dairy.
The price you put on your work is its value. Just like anything that’s purchased, a greater value is attached to a higher price. When you lower the price, you lower the value. Your remove the price, you destroy the value.
If you want a decent income, charge your clients decent rates. It is the only way to get respect – and that’s what great relationships are built on. Any client worth having will not ask you to work for less than your worth or pay you with promises.