The designer and the tech guy

broken piggy bank

Would anyone ask their plumber to work for free? The same goes for your mechanic. Your accountant. Lawyer. Heck, even the kid that cuts your lawn on a Saturday morning for ten bucks. When it comes to design, it seems lots of people aren’t similarly predisposed, and requests for free work, spec work and discounted work are the rule rather than the exception.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe because most end-of-project tasks are carried out on a computer there’s a notion that any design task only takes a few minutes and there’s some magical “design this” button. Or perhaps it’s because design isn’t what most designers do, but what they are, that leads to a perception that because (in theory) we enjoy what we do, we shouldn’t expect to get paid for the time we spend doing it.

Do this for free and I’ve got lots of work coming your way

In any case, requests for free and spec work come quite often in the design profession. The trouble is, working for free isn’t doing yourself any favours, even if carried out with the purest intentions. Or in response to the “just do this, and I’ve got lots of future work coming your way” request.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the “future work” pitch — you know, the “just do this and I’ll have a ton of future work coming your way” — well, I’d have an awful lot of nickels. Generally, I don’t take these potential clients up on their ever-so-generous offer. Not because I’m some arty-farty prima donna. Not at all. My usual response of “the promise of future work has no bearing on how we deal with this project” is given for one simple reason: When people promise a ton of work if you complete one task for free, they’re seldom genuine.

Working a limited time for free doesn’t lead to additional paid work sometime in the future. It’s so consistent that it’s pretty well a rule.

Even with active clients and active projects, performing free work can be problematic, and may very well have the opposite result to the one you intend. I’m gonna tell you about a recent incident at the shop, where “throwing in” some work for free not only didn’t help, but eventually cost me a decent client. I’ll not use real names, but regardless, the occurrence illustrates, in very real terms, the practical downside of working for free.

The designer and the tech guy

The gig was for, let’s say, Bob’s Money Mart. It was a fairly straightforward web design project. Bob was a wonderful client, a little pushy on the delivery times perhaps, but a client that was good to work for. He prepared his web content on time (a stumbling block on many web projects), he listened to suggestions, and he mostly knew what he wanted.

The build went without a hitch. As did creating the Flash animation that would make up a lot of the site interface. Because Bob was so reasonable, I didn’t mind putting in some overtime to get his site launched within a very tight deadline. I supplied revisions within hours of the pitch. I gave my personal cell phone so he could call me at night (sometimes a risky proposition — I have an office and an assistant for a reason). I even brought in a paid colleague to help speed things up.

All things considered, the project went smoother than a typical web design gig. I didn’t even have to install the files on Bob’s server. He had some “costs me a fortune” tech guy to handle that, and at project close I simply ZIPPED the files and sent them into the ether. The client was a happy camper and loved his new site. In terms of business, the project had ended up being marginally profitable. Win, win.

The danger of freebies

Once the site was launched, Bob wanted some contact forms put in place. His “costs a fortune” tech guy supposedly didn’t know how to set one up (in retrospect, I think he knew all too well), so I offered to help. I had some PHP script that a web developer created for me a few years back. I didn’t want Bob to get bombarded with spam, so I gave him a custom CAPTCHA script that I had paid someone to create for an earlier site.

According to our original agreement, since this additional work was being done after finalization of the project, and after the site was “live,” I should have charged Bob above-and-beyond the original budget.

But I didn’t.

My thinking went something like this:

1) Bob’s been a great client
2) I already had the finished scripts
3) The project went down fairly easily, with a few hours left on the budget
4) If I made Bob happy by helping him out it would lead to future work

Yeah. That old chestnut.

I sent the scripts to Bob’s tech guy and he uploaded the files. Trouble was, he couldn’t make them work (once again, I think he could have) and was now telling Bob that the script dysfunction wasn’t his fault. Had to be the stupid designer’s wonky script.

Now Bob starts to use the cell phone number I gave him earlier. He’s not terribly happy because his tech guy charges him a fortune and fixing the form/CAPTCHA system was going to be “horribly expensive.” Once again, I offered to help. I knew the scripts worked just fine on my servers. Probably needed some tweaking to make them work on his.

And I did get it to work.

Here’s the rub: A “favour,” using scripts that I had paid for, had now eaten up five more hours on a Saturday morning with the back-and-forth, checking this, checking that, uploading files, etc, etc. Now the project had gone over the budgeted time. Not a big deal, but by doing a free favour, I had managed to turn a profitable project into one that’s not so profitable.

Ah well, at the end of the day, I had shown Bob that I was a decent guy and I had built up some client goodwill. All I had to do was wait for the additional work to roll in.

Not quite.

About a month later, I received an e-mail from Bob. Someone at his office had come up with a wonderful idea — some movie thing that they wanted to use on the site. They needed to add the page and add it to the menu system. Not much, but it was going to take some time to retool the layout.

I looked at what was wanted and figured it would take three or four hours. I told Bob that I’d only charge him for two. Well, even that wasn’t on. Bob questioned the fact that I’d bill him anything. After all, I had “added that form thing after the web site was launched,” so why was this request any different?

Have you ever tried to explain to a client how one portion of a project was done as a favor while you expect to get paid for another? It’s not an easy discussion.

Bob demanded that I make the change, without billing him. He reminded me that he had “tons of work” coming our way and if we only performed this one change, it would all be ours.

I put my foot down.

If Bob wanted me to make the changes, he’d have to pay me to perform them. The inevitable “send the Photoshop files to our tech guy” e-mail came hours later. I suspect that Bob’s “costs me a fortune” tech guy performed the changes. And billed handsomely for it. I don’t expect to hear from Bob again.

How to earn respect for your time? Bill for it.

See, here’s the thing. When it came to the tech guy, Bob knew that he “cost a fortune.” Bob never wasted the tech guy’s time because he knew he’d have to pay for it. I screwed it up by performing free work as a favour. Bob respected the tech guy’s time even though it still pained him to pay for it. I had given Bob reason not to respect mine.

When it came to installing Bob’s contact form, the important factor was that I was solving a problem. A very big problem. Bob would have been glad to pay for having that problem solved. Yet I thought I needed to go the extra step and solve his problem for free. At that point I had changed the business relationship forever. Bob now knew that I’d perform “no-charge” revisions. All he had to do was figure out to “motivate” me. Which turned into a glorified game of “chicken.” And as anyone knows, when playing “chicken” you have to be prepared to go all the way.

In this instance, going all the way lost me a decent, well-paying client.

So the next time a client requests that you perform work for free, keep this little tale in mind. And think long and hard before offering to perform design work without billing for it. In the long term, it won’t accomplish what you think it will, and may end up turning a good designer/client relationship into a bad one.

Read more of Steve’s design thoughts on his blog, The Logo Factor.

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