Everyone wants something for free.
Everyone wants you to give them your labour and your value for free.
They’ll offer you exposure, or they’ll offer you a chance to build your portfolio, and none of it means jack. They devalue the years — literally, years — you’ve spent growing and honing and building your skills, through sheer blood, and sweat and tears, by trying to barter it out of you for nothing.
And when you say no? When you tell them you can’t afford to work for free, because you still have to pay for your own rent, your own bills and your own food out of somewhere — they act like you’re the entitled one. They act like you’re the asshole.
Their message is this. “If you don’t help me for free, you’re a bad person.”
And their attitude is, if we don’t drop everything we’re doing to make everyone’s projects our personal business and top priority without charging a dime, then we’re frauds.
It’s pretty toxic, but unfortunately — it’s something I’m used to.
That is the opposite of collaborating. It’s demanding labour.
There are some folks who will always try to get something for free, if they can.
They try to get something without offering even a fraction of its value in return.
And if you freelance, if you’re a writer or a creative of any kind, or if you’re a small startup trying to gain your first ground, you’re going to be confronted with this kind of attitude over and over again. As a writer, it happens all the time. So many publications want me to write for free.
One publishing company approached me recently and offered me a book deal, if I agreed to $0 upfront, and $0 on every book until they’d reached x amount of sales, at which point I’d get 10%. It’s ignominious to the point of being insulting. And it happens in all the work I do. I’ve had startup founders harass me via my emails because I wouldn’t work for free at my advertising studio and had the audacity to insist that my award-winning work has real-world value.
It’s all exhausting, and it can be almost gaslighting to experience.
You almost feel guilty when you ask people for money and they come up with a creative way of telling you to piss up a flag pole.
But that guilt has been carefully designed by these folks in order to keep you working for free, for as long as possible.
Here’s how to break out of that guilt.
I have a finite number of hours, minutes and seconds left to be alive.
The average life expectancy here in Australia is 82 years; so let’s say I’ve got another 50 or so years left on this planet. If the current climate crisis doesn’t cut it short by an even more drastic number.
So that’s around 480,000 hours.
Sounds like a lot, right?
Let’s say I am fortunate enough to shove my work into its box and spend 8 hours a night sleeping. That’s 160,000 hours gone and I’m down to 320,000.
By the time I go on to cut out weekends, holidays, time spent with my loved ones, time spent working on my own business, time spent educating myself, building my skills, writing my blog, writing and reading books, touring, speaking, filling out taxes, getting sick and recovering and squeezing out a little time here and there to watch TV…
…how much time do you think I’ll have left?
Hint: nowhere near 480,000 hours.
So considering the fact that my time is already running out down here on earth, here’s my response when people want my work without paying for it.
“If I sacrifice a bunch of hours to your project for free, that’s time I can never get back, time taken from a constantly running out well, and time that my family will now never have with me. I hope you understand why I can’t do that.”
Business is business. I keep it that way.
I do work for free. For the people who I mentor, for some non-profits and some charities. For trans and queer people who need a hand, or a moment of my time, or someone to talk to. For friends and for wonderful humans. For founders and creatives and writers to whom I give away office hours.
But all of this is giving my time away on my terms. Nobody else’s.
I don’t do commercial work for nothing, and I won’t do commercial work out of the goodness of my heart or for any other bullshit that keeps me from getting paid the money I deserve.
It doesn’t have to be money.
I have amazing sponsorships in place with incredible companies who have a huge commitment to creatives and provide me with software, resources, the occasional notebook and one or two delightful mascaras.
That’s better than money. It’s priceless. It’s support.
Those folks understand what it means to exchange value for value. That’s why we get along so damn well. They understand the give and take.
I’m upfront about needing that.
I don’t mess around. I don’t fuck around.
If you’re emailing me on a laptop or a smartphone that you use for your business, guess what?
I’m pretty sure you didn’t rock up to Apple and promise them exposure.
They would have laughed you out of there.
And if you really think what I do has so little value that you won’t pay for it, why on earth would you think it was going to help your business in any way?
It’s clearly not worth it. How can it have a positive impact?
Here’s the last point. If you are serious about your business you won’t be giving everything away for free.
So if you want to improve your business, why would you listen to the advice of someone who doesn’t charge you for it?
Wouldn’t that mean they aren’t serious about their business?
In the end, people who want free shit haven’t thought about any of this.
They haven’t. All they’ve done is selfishly ask themselves how they can get what they want without paying for it.
Because their work matters more than your work, or your career.
That’s an unacceptable attitude and it violates my principle of how to conduct myself — acting ethically and responsibly to get the best outcome for me without harming or disadvantaging others.
I know some people are going to have a whinge about this one.
They’ll complain that they are the exception and people should work for free for them because their idea will change the world, because they’ll pay me later, because they don’t have the budget but they somehow “deserve” it or any other reason.
And to those people — as well as the international corporation who took 18 months to pay an invoice under $5,000, the startups who mysteriously disappeared when the final invoice arrived, the law firm who wanted a second opinion on my writing quote when I wouldn’t do it for the exposure and everyone else who doesn’t respect honest working people, freelancers, small business owners, writers, designers and developers –
The last I wrote about this, here’s the response I got.
I received this comment:
Exactly. My. Point.
This is exactly what I was talking about. Exactly. The idea that asking to be paid for my work is somehow whining or demanding charity or being petulant. As though to succeed in business requires us to shut up and just take whatever scraps people throw at us. That’s not the case.
Never take responses like this or messages like this to mean you don’t deserve to be paid for the hard work you do. Don’t let people take advantage of you and call you out for wanting the bare minimum that you deserve. Ever.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.