The economics of free or why I won’t do things for free anymore

Last year, my friend John Bollwitt wrote a really insightful post where he mused about when is the right point to stop offering your services for free. You should really read the full post, but the sentence that definitely touched a nerve with me was this one.

The part that gets sketchy is when you are asked for your services and not expected to be compensated for them. [John Bollwitt]

I started meditating about this issue shortly after I received a tweet from Mike Jagger who indicated “you are the Mother Theresa of liveblogs“. That, and the sentence above just absolutely triggered a thinking process around the wrong perception that I give out my services for free. Nothing further from the truth. I don’t want to nor do I plan to be the Mother Theresa of liveblogs. I would like people to appreciate the value of my time, the value of my writing and the value of my research skills. I don’t write “for the exposure“. I *have* the exposure, thank you very much! And bottom line? I write for myself, so whether people read my content or not is not one of my concerns, nor is it being “seen”.

I have volunteered my time for the Vancouver social media/tech community to extreme lengths. I am not self-absorbed or self-congratulatory in saying this, I am just being truthful. I have liveblogged numerous events for free. I have covered many events for free. This doesn’t mean that I have de-valued my own work: it means that I am interested in giving back to the community in the spirit of “paying it forward”. However, I work as a freelancer. I am NOT a freebie. Don’t mistake my generosity for lack of appreciation for my own value.

If people are expecting me to liveblog an event just “‘because” they may probably find that I will decide NOT to do it. Liveblogging, writing content for blogs, reporting on events, etc. are just a few examples of actual services, and people need to learn that they should be paid and rewarded. The perceptions that just because we are bloggers we should feel happy that we get invited to events or that anybody can liveblog an event are completely erroneous. Of course, everybody with some degree of knowledge of computers and technology can fire up a liveblogging event on Cover It Live. That’s not that difficult. It’s the skill required to capture the thoughts and meanings of a speaker that is an acquired, honed and valuable skill. Refusing to pay for a service that is provided is tantamount to trying to get a freebie.

For example, when you go for a consultation with a doctor (medical doctor, MD) or a psychologist or a counsellor, do peoplereally expect to go in, and come out and NOT pay anything? No, right? Then why would people think that they can come, ask me a barrage of questions and expect an in-house, one-on-one, free consultation? I have no clue why, but this has happened to me, more times than I care to remember.

There is a big difference when I deal with my friends. For example, if somebody who is a friend of mine tells me “hey can you translate this short sentence for me” (in any of the languages I speak) I am more than happy to do so. If somebody tells me to spend an hour of my time translating, I’m expecting that either (a) the person asking is a very close friend, and he/she will appreciate what I do and (b) the relationship is so reciprocal that asking a favor back will never be an issue. Or (c) that they are going to pay my translation fee.

I would really like to change people’s perceptions that everything can come for free (or be bartered). That’s not true. As Rebecca Bollwitt noted on her post on bloggers for hire, “bloggers who produce strong, insightful, creative and intelligently content have great value.” Bloggers, consultants, freelancers, researchers, all provide important services, and as such, should be rewarded.

Last year, when I was in the process of establishing more of a consulting practice in social media, I asked how to establish pricing strategies in this field, one that wasn’t really mine from the get-go. Right now, I think of social media as just one more of the fields that I consult on, simply because I have accumulated experience organizing social media conferences, giving talks, testing the tools, writing content, and establishing relationships. I have a PhD in environmental studies, that’s where my initial consulting work is. Social media is my “side job”.

As I mentioned in a comment I posted on John’s excellent post, your knowledge is your currency. I spent numerous years doing rigorous research and becoming a specialist in the fields I have expertise in. If anybody wants my knowledge, it comes at a price. I am wondering how do other freelancers/consultants/writers/bloggers feel about this topic. I know it’s touchy and thorny, but I wanted to put it out there.

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Comments (57)

GusFMay 12th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I’m starting to understand you dilemma more and more. I’m starting to do a lot of this now in my own work. I work with PR professionals and Marketing people and though I love to talk social media to them, I often wonder if I should be charging for some of the advice I give to them. Most of the advice has nothing to do with work and has no bearing on what my company does.

I have asked you the question recently regarding “what to charge”. I don’t want to give everything away for free. We’ve put our time in this and we should be valued for our knowledge.

GusF’s last blog post..Happy Mother’s Day

Tina HinesSeptember 30th, 2009 at 1:32 pm

A friend of mine has a motto he strongly believes in “If it’s free, than it’s for me”.

Fred will drive miles to get some free hot dogs, donuts, coffee, at grand openings of stores and businesses?

Is this normal behavior? Or is Fred just like the rest of the human race? Is free really worth it? Not me.

Catherine NovakSeptember 30th, 2009 at 2:36 pm

At Victoria Social Media club, we were one of the beneficiaries of your – shall we say priceless? – sharing of knowledge earlier this year. You really paid it forward. The thing is, with every act of generosity, one hopes there is a corresponding action – either back to the giver, or “forward”, with corresponding generous acts of one’s own.

Thanks in part to your inspiration at Victoria SMC, a group of Twitter-types got very busy building community and making connections to do some good in the world. I know that your words about “Social Media for Social Change” inspired us to have a blow-em-away Twestival… and work together on it. You would not believe how many times the organizers would say “Well, Raul Pacheco-Vega was a big inspiration for this, when he came and talked about building community via social media”. Frankly, members Victoria’s Social Media Club will be buying beers for you and giving you places to stay on the Island for a good long time in gratitude for your time with us. I hope you see both pay-forward and pay-back as a result of your generosity last spring.

As someone whose communications business has been completely swamped with social media consulting requests, I’ve had to consider very carefully how I want to present the value of what I have learned and experienced. I have no qualms about saying “I charge my clients X per hour – and save you hundreds of hours of your own time learning this stuff the hard way, like I did”. It works, and nobody’s feelings get hurt if there is no budget or even no actual need for what I offer. I carefully consider offers to comp me into an event. I look at how much I am really “giving away for free”. I ask myself if this will result in at least a pay-forward, if not a pay-back. But I always, always emphasize the value of what I have to share, and what we in the networked community have built up together. How that value comes back isn’t always direct. But when it’s clear what that value is, I would expect people to recognize and honour that value one way or another.

Andrea_RSeptember 30th, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Oooo, I love this post. And it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

I do a lot of free work, in the general WP community, and I do have people email or tweet at me specifically for help. But, I have picked my own line in the sand, the limit of my free help, and when we get close, I let people know. Generally, they understand. There has been very very few people who didn’t, and those are the kind of people I really don’t want as clients anyway.

I learned that bit the hard way. ;)

Anyway, the free stuff I help with is the basics, the pointing people in the right direction, and showing them how to find the answers they need. My specialized knowledge and experience, plus allocated time, is what people pay for.

(deciding what to charge for it is a whole other conversation ;p )

Shane GibsonSeptember 30th, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Coming from a professional speakers perspective this problem is much older than blogging. I look at large associations who have beautiful galas, expensive wine flowing freely and glossy brochures — yet they say they have no speaker budget? They use terms like exposure, community and networking yet they paid the hotel, and I know for sure the distillery wasn’t in it for the community. When I first started off speaking I would do it for experience and exposure, deliver good value and then find out they paid another speaker at the event a considerable sum. You get out of life and business what you negotiate not what you’re worth.

With the exception of the Vancouver Board of Trade, and other organizations that give real value to they community (like SOHO, my Meetup friends, and the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs) I no longer do freebies. Why? Advice is worth what you pay for it. Someone will feel just fine picking Raul’s brain about social media and blogging and never implement it, but if they paid $300 for an hour on consulting I would bet they would implement more.

As a speaker the odd thing is when I charge full fee that’s when the event organizers treat me really well.

What does this have to do with blogging and social media consulting? Some of the lessons I have learned as a speaker apply:

#1) Gather references from well known clients and people, then you don’t have to worry about doing stuff for recognition etc. You already will have proof of your ability

#2) Package yourself, get a real business card, list and position your paid services well on your blog/website. You need to look like you’re in business to get business.

#3) Budget so many days a month for free work, then invest that free work in areas you believe in. Inform the freebie seekers where you invest your budget. This will help you justify to yourself that you’re already doing great things, and one one will be able to twist your arm.

#4) Start associating with people who make money doing these things, it will rub off on you.

#5) Build a library of case studies and tribal stories about the great things you have done for paying clients. These stories will also help you establish your value.

#6) Remember you don’t need to do business with the entire world, it’s okay to say no and move on to new contacts and new networks.

#7) Double your fees every couple years. You’ll get more and better clients and love what you do more.

So Raul… I probably should have posted this rant on my blog and linked back but… here’s my two cents worth!

Michael YurechkoSeptember 30th, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Awesome post Raul.

As a freelancer I’ve had this problem countless times before – a lot of people expect a lot for nothing. The problem I’ve had recently though is companies trying to hire me full time to get a ‘deal’ on my services – as crazy as that sounds, it happens. They would much rather pay me $30/hr and have me in house than pay my freelance rate.

When it comes to working for free, I do. Daily. I’m constantly sharing my knowledge with friends, colleagues and potential clients. I think it’s important to give them enough information to get hooked, play your cards right and next thing you know you’ll be signing the contract.

I also think it’s important to give up a little bit of my time to honest people (who would pay) who will benefit you much more if you do some work for free and let them tell everyone how great you are. A good referral goes a long way.

I think Shane has given out an insane amount of info in this thread already (where can I mail your cheque? ;) . I especially agree with #7, doubling your fee is so important. Most freelancers don’t value themselves or their knowledge as highly as they should. As crazy as it sounds, you’ll get more work at a higher rate. I found this out recently when I essentially tripled my rate. Good business people realize that you get what you pay for – low rates scare them off because you seem less experienced.

The people looking for deals (wanting to pay you half your rate, or not at all) are terrible clients. By terrible I mean the worst thing you could ever imagine. These people want everything for nothing. They will call you up at 2am because of an emergency and flip out when you bill them for the 45 minute call (did I mention it was at 2am?). They find every way to complain and any information you give them they don’t bother implementing.

Your time and knowledge is valuable. Charge people accordingly.

JPSeptember 30th, 2009 at 7:13 pm

In the film industry when you work for free, and I have done many free gigs, for an up and coming director or producer. The work is considered an investment in them with the understanding that when they do have money or become successful that they will return the investment that got them there. That means hiring you at your rate on a full paying gig. It is still a gamble but there is at least an understanding.

Now that I am not in the film business the rules are different. When I do free non charity work now I alway issue an invoice of what the work would be worth if it was not free. It may sound crass but when people understand the value of the services you are donating. If you don’t do this it does not take very long before the relationship can turn sour and they begin to treat you as if you are being paid in full and that’s when the resentment sets in.

I also feel that because the business model of social media and blogging is still being developed and it is really based on passion that there are those that will take advantage of other that are passionate about what they do.

I am not saying not to work for free but we all have to pay our way and you need to strike a balance and tactfully let people understand that your services, although free, are worth something.

Thanks for the post Raul.

JPSeptember 30th, 2009 at 7:23 pm

I would like to add this little vid as well:

I think is sums it up nicely.

CK Golf SolutionsSeptember 30th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Raul – great post and thanks for starting an insightful discussion! We’ve been in the golf consulting business for a few years (after operating a number of BC courses) and have spent the past 6 months learning (which is ongoing) about Social Media. We realize it is to easy to get into discussions about Social Media with clients to the point they won’t need us. Your post (and the great discussion that has followed) has made us sit back and rethink some of our strategies.

raincoasterSeptember 30th, 2009 at 7:47 pm

I’m a veteran of several different industries; my first job out of school was as a professional groom in a foxhunting stable. And you know what? I’d have been perfectly happy to have made that my career, except that they could always find teenage girls to muck out stalls and exercise the horses for free. Obviously, that wasn’t a career path that would ever climb very high above minimum wage. You can ask the grooms at the track what they make, and why.

And there are lots of bloggers, tweeters, livebloggers, etc, who will do it for free. And they’re not as good as we are, my friends. It’s our responsibility to tell the world our value, because to civilians (yes, I still use that word) we all look alike. Part of becoming prosperous is learning how to easily and professionally let people know just how good you are. Once they know you’re in the top ten thousand on Technorati, or you’ve got 40,000 real Followers who pay attention to you, or you’ve won literary or journalism awards for things you wrote on the web, they’ll know you’re worth more than JoeBlowHaircutBlogger.

I recently pitched a blogging project at, effectively, barista wages, but the project is a trial for a much larger project and I made it very, very clear I was only doing this because I know this project will demonstrate its value immediately AND that I had no intention of continuing for the same wages once that proof was established and accepted by head office. They already know there’s another negotiation coming. And they know my corporate consulting rate, to the penny. And yes, every January it goes up a little.

Every time I see Boris Mann he tells me to triple my rates. The last time, he told me to double them. I think I’m making progress.

raincoasterSeptember 30th, 2009 at 7:58 pm

And cranking the intensity up a notch, here’s Harlan Ellison telling people to Pay the Writer!

LoisSeptember 30th, 2009 at 8:21 pm

I work in theatre where in the first few years of work its generally expected that you will work for free – and people do it because they are passionate about it and cannot find companies that have the necessary funding to pay them anything, let alone pay them what they are worth.

But I too have recently “stopped” working for free. I say “stopped” because there are still times when I will – fundraisers for causes I believe in, projects with my friends that I want to take on and in a way support financially by volunteering my time. But with companies that I know have some money I expect something. If nothing else, my time and knowledge are of value.

Free Costs « raincoaster mediaSeptember 30th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

[...] started with a much-better-than-I-could-have-put-it post over at Hummingbird604’s blog on charging actual, real money for social media work. I have volunteered my time for the Vancouver social media/tech community to extreme lengths. I am [...]

Terra (aka Zoeyjane)October 1st, 2009 at 12:01 am

This post and all of its comments are really making me second-guess the last few months of “work” I’ve been doing. And whether I should be tripling my rates. Three times zero is what, now?

Kulpreet SinghOctober 1st, 2009 at 1:30 am

This is a great discussion. I recently started offering consulting and tutoring in WordPress development, eBusiness/eCommerce, and internet marketing consulting. For the first few clients, I started out very shy. I was not sure how to charge and at which rate. When sending a quote to a client, I firstly thought about charging low to get the client, but then the advice from a colleague circled in my mind: “Know what you’re worth, demonstrate it and charge it, and only accept the clients that respect it.” Thankfully, the clients I’ve dealt with so far have been very professional and respectful of my experience and knowledge. In fact, when I was shy and telling them I wasn’t sure what to charge, they insisted to me that they want to pay me what my knowledge is worth.

If the “internship” phase of your professional career is over, you should use your own discerning intellect to decide when you want to do work for free. Most working professionals who have experience, knowledge and respect from their peers no longer need to do free work to get recognition or credibility – they just do it out of goodwill or support for a cause.

This is a completely different topic from “nishkaam seva” (Punjabi for ‘selfless service’). True selfless service is performed anonymously for a good cause and we all do this in our lives out of our core humanity and love for good causes. When you do selfless service, it is for a noble cause. When you willingly help a righteous cause like a charity or church with their project, you feel a sense of purpose and humility in doing volunteer work. You can’t do selfless service for corporate interests, that don’t respect your knowledge and are simply taking advantage of you. That is not service, that is exploitation.

RaulOctober 1st, 2009 at 6:57 am

Thanks everyone for the comments. Each one deserves a detailed response, and the advice you all have given (for free, indeed) is really valuable.

The thing is, my clients DO know that they have to pay the full rate. And the negotiations are very clear. This is how much work I can do for these many hours of work. That’s not really very problematic.

My post originated actually a few months ago, not in September 2009. I kept putting it off and rescheduling it and re-scheduling it (thank you WordPress scheduling function) until I completely forgot that it was due to be published on September 30th. And while I was at a client meeting, the post got published. So be it. Maybe it was high time to have the discussion!

I do some work for free, still, particularly in the social media world. So do many of my friends. There IS value in doing some work for free, but definitely NOT everything.

Building goodwill and giving back to the community is important, true. But even more important, I think, is to value oneself’s work and its worth. It’s not an easy discussion but it’s one I think should be had.

Andrea_ROctober 1st, 2009 at 7:24 am

One piece of advice I read was “Charge what makes you uncomfortable”.

This holds especially true for me, as I live in a low cost of living area. My neighbors and local businesses would never be able to afford my services at my regular rates.

Another issues i noticed was for a long while we have far more clients and potential clients than we could ever handle. One way to slow down the onslaught was to (you guessed it) raise our rates.

John O'ShaughnessyOctober 1st, 2009 at 8:11 am

IMO, the only time working for “free” should happen is when you’re adding value for a compensated relationship. Define compensation how you will, be it money, recognition or that warmth you feel in your heart after a good deed done.

I understand the dilemma well, it’s as if this economy has somehow granted free rights for major corporations to seek breaks–please read free–at par with the requests of the neighbourhood non-profit.

I agree with Shane, it’s about your ability to negotiate.

NicholasPROctober 1st, 2009 at 8:35 am

After doing many hours of free work, I now charge for any consulting or project work. Well that’s not entirely true, I do what many lawyers do. First half an hour (or so) is free, where I listen to client, then anything I do, or say is billable.

Tanya RobertsOctober 1st, 2009 at 9:28 am

I totally agree with what you’re saying Raincoaster. A lot of clients try to nickle and dime you to save money. It’s up to us to stay firm on our rates. Afterall, if you have an excellent quality service, it justifies a certain price tag. There are also a lot of people out there claiming to be “online marketers” that have NO idea what they’re doing. It’s up to us to educate our clients. If someone claims to be a “marketer” with no formal education or experience, their service obviously won’t be top notch. Stick to your guns. We ask for what we know we’re worth. :-)

Lisa JohnsonOctober 1st, 2009 at 3:13 pm

I’ve learned an interesting strategy from friends in the Slocan Valley. There’s a tight community and many talented, creative people — a recipe that could let you get taken advantage of for being both passionate and generous.

A common practice among those friends is the “work trade.” You do something for me (shoot a promo video for my business), I do something for you (light carpentry in your reno). Not a new concept, but not one I hear among my city friends as much.

It’s not written down, it’s a handshake and a smile, but it’s a contract of sorts. The trade isn’t immediate, but it builds relationships (and sometimes businesses) and seems to work pretty well.

Kulpreet SinghOctober 1st, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I agree with Lisa. For many situations, when you are in a financially secure position, bartering is a great way to work with people. Sometimes, the bottom line is you have to pay the bills. But many other times, the other party can perform an equally valuable service for you in their profession in exchange for your consulting, speaking or service. Depending on the circumstances, that exchange of non-monetized services can be just as, if not more, valuable than exchange of money.

Hilary HenegarOctober 1st, 2009 at 4:24 pm

I’m fascinated by this discussion because it’s one that likely spans many industries yet is seldom had. And the timing couldn’t be better, as I’ve been mulling over this myself lately; though admittedly from the other side.

Like Lois says (and Raincoaster gets at this as well), when you’re passionate about a vocation, particularly in the arts and media, you expect to start out working for free. It’s almost a badge of honour. This is true in the film industry, where I worked many a long 18-hour day, busting my ass and proving my worth knowing someone was noticing. Paying your dues is similar to the concept of apprenticing and affords the opportunity to work with top-notch people who teach you along the way. I wouldn’t trade those experiences in.

That is very different from what you’re discussing here however, Raul. And likely because social media is such a new industry. The fact that you are a professional with your own following already, buoyed by an audience who willingly accesses your tweets, blogs, speaking engagement, etc. means you don’t need to do the free work that increases your exposure or reputation.

And I like your response to these requests – because I’ve asked you myself on occasion for the fruits of your knowledge – you courteously show your openness and delight to being asked, but ultimately do not accept the “job.”

But that said, social media is different in another way: it’s ensconced in a culture of “nice” – scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. That “pay it forward” concept that has been mentioned before truly does have a foothold in this industry. The more we collaborate, the greater our reach, the more trust is instilled, the better our (yeah I’ll say it) karma. This truly is a concept that translates into more business. And precisely because the greatest asset of any social media practitioner is their own reputation. Their own authenticity, too.

So, while I am humbled by this discussion and know it will inform how I relate and interact with the wonderful bloggers who contribute to going forward, I also don’t want Vancouver’s social media industry to start spiraling down Cynical Lane.

By nature, you are social, engaged creatures who jump to get involved because of your passion for people and community. Don’t lose that because you’re getting burnt out.

Take Raul’s lead, be gracious and flattered. And then do what you have to do.

Thanks, Hilary

CrunchyOctober 1st, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I think for community building events etc ‘free’ is just fine.

I also cannot imagine being paid to live blog…but mainly because I haven’t really bought into it yet..same like the live tweeting….I don’t really get it.

I personally would rather read a well thought out and well written summary of an event.

But people have carved themselves niches in this new arena and that is the power of making yourself and your ‘skill’ sound indispensable.

The whole social media/blogging etc has opened up the world to a lot of people who really can’t write or shouldn’t be consulting or freelancing etc…

Finding a price and finding someone to pay that price has been made very hard in a world where everyone thinks they can write or thinks they are soc med experts.

Quality writing no longer get the respect it should.

This makes it tough for the consultants and freelancers out there.

Skill and respect are tough to hang onto in this fast changing field.

RaulOctober 1st, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Thanks, everyone for your thoughtful comments.

I wanted to answer one point of Hilary’s which is the ‘getting burnt out’ bit. Particularly because I feel that it’s a really important point to be discussed (not that the others that have been raised before).

I have, as I mentioned above, done a lot for free for the community. The community has given back to me as well. We all share, we all give. That’s still my motto. But the question remains (and it’s associated with “getting burnt out”) – how much free is good enough? When do we separate the “ok, I can totally translate four sentences for you, not a problem” to “are you seriously asking me to translate a full page for you for free?”

Lots (and I mean LOTS) of people have done stuff for me and I haven’t paid them back in cash. But they do know that I follow the honor system and I’ve referred business to them, or given them recommendations, and so on. That’s the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”.

What really got me thinking about this (and as I said, this was a conversation I was having with myself a few months ago) was the presumption that, just because I’m Hummingbird604, the community builder, the socialite, I was supposed to do things for free. My research skills, and my writing skills are valuable. I paid many thousands of dollars for my education and training. I expect retribution. My clients know that. I just didn’t want to have this lost in the translation.

I co-organized Mental Health Camp with Isabella Mori because I was moved by the courage of those who spoke at Coping Digitally. I don’t have a stake in mental health issues. I just wanted to help, and give back to a community that has built exactly the reputation that Hilary indicates. I have built a following because, in many ways, of the free work I have done (and continue to do).

But the point I raised, and that’s something that I think is getting lost, is that while many people maintain 9-5 jobs that are secure, freelancers and contractors have to fight much more to make ends meet, in my opinion. It’s really easy to give away things for free (particularly our knowledge) when putting food on the table doesn’t hinge on whether you give away that bit of knowledge that is valuable.

The fact is – as Kerry indicated,

finding a price and finding someone to pay that price has been made very hard in a world where everyone thinks they can write or thinks they are soc med experts.

– this translates to EVERY field.

I expect to continue to do some work for free, but it will be on my terms, and it won’t be because people assume I’m going to work for free for them. Indeed, people know by now that if I do something and I don’t charge, it’s because I see the value in it (I’ve done LOTS of charitable work for free).

This is a great conversation, and as everyone has said, it’s one that should have been had long time ago. Keep the comments coming.

Michael KwanOctober 1st, 2009 at 6:33 pm

As a professional freelance writer, I really appreciate this post, Raul. A big part of the problem is that there are so many people who are willing to undervalue their work. As such, people have come to expect “freelance bloggers” to be able to produce quality content for a couple dollars a post or, worse, in exchange for “exposure.”

I’m sorry, but “exposure” doesn’t pay the bills. While I have no problem giving back to the community by helping out a local non-profit or charity, I will not do the same for any for-profit organization. Just because I’m a “freelance” writer does not mean that I will work for free.

Harriet GlynnOctober 1st, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Funnily, I work (actually, on mat leave right now) for a non-profit organization that pays its outside consultants well on principal. This is probably because part of its mandate is to ensure that artists are paid appropriately for their work. I ran a granting program that gave a percentage of the project budget to artists fees and materials for art projects, and people would still try to add “volunteer” hours by the artist in their budget. They could not fathom that an artist should be paid a living wage.

That said, choosing to volunteer or mentor for a valuable organization is up to you. Just be sure you’re making the choice.

Ultimately, however, it’s up to all of us to be brave enough to charge what we’re worth.

raincoasterOctober 1st, 2009 at 8:00 pm

It’s important to realize the difference between barter and pro bono work. Barter is taxable, on BOTH sides. And if you don’t believe they prosecute over this issue, perhaps you can cast your memory back to a certain political figure and a certain deck that was built on his house by his neighbor in exchange for “consulting services.” At least one ended up in jail, and it was the tax angle they went after, not the influence-peddling.

The Audacity of FreeOctober 2nd, 2009 at 12:31 am

[...] Fried had to say on the matter. Free can cause wild growth, but is that the real goal? See also Raul’s post on free for more [...]

Teri ConradOctober 2nd, 2009 at 8:02 am

It was fun to see Chris Brogon linked you up this morning on his blog The Audacity of Free!

I’m a Realtor in Langley- not writer (as you will quickly discern) however I can relate.

People think that Realtors make money hand over fist by simply posting a sign and filling out a little paper work. NOT SO! We work very hard and long hours as our clients expect us to be at their beck and call and can spend months on one deal and can even go months between deals (last year!) We DO work for free until the deal completes – IF it completes.

We are required for our expertise and knowledge as we are imersed in the industry every day and are held to the same professional standard as doctors and lawyers…however we do not bill by the hour.

We have extremely large dues just for the privilege of carrying a license and I haven’t even begun to touch on my marketing costs…and yet EVERYONE seems to expect free advice about the market and EVERYONE wants a reduction in my commission. I struggle with this.

Now it would be foolish of me not to share and barter and network as everyone else here has discussed, and indeed that is how I have built my business, but at some point my commission must stand. I work very hard for it and in fact I need to pay my bills as well.

Thanks Raul for making the point and I for one see the value!

Chris WaltsOctober 2nd, 2009 at 8:53 am

Wow, this is a great thread for me right now as I am trying to make the transition from all of the free work I do over to something that pays me.

I have a film / theatre degree, and I still wind up in conversations with people where they tell me that I must be in film for the money. I have always responded, ‘no, I simply want to make enough money to not have to work another job’. This is very much how I feel about the larger Arts in general which I consider social media part of.

Right now social media media (especially our favorite tool twitter) is poised on this weird brink where it is half way between fad and a true movement of expression. If we want to try and push it all the way into this realm of expression we need to be able to dedicated real time to get real innovation. Which ultimately means we need to get paid to do it.

My fear is for the larger scope, which Hilary mentioned, our community. People seem to be burning out, and I think it is because everyone is having to work ridicules hours just to make ends meat. I know the saying is that necessity Is the mother of invention, and poverty is the mother of necessity, but that is what has already brought out community together. If we have bigger and better dreams, like I know many of us do, for our community and the impact social media can have on the world we need to find ways to get paid so we can properly build it up.

Tanya RobertsOctober 2nd, 2009 at 9:27 am

Here’s a video that sums up the vendor supplier relationship nicely. It’s funny because it’s true! Check it out:

RebeccaOctober 2nd, 2009 at 11:11 am

Nice discussion on here! I love the video that Tanya posted, it’s classic but to quote Homer Simpson “It’s funny cause it’s true”… although not too funny when it’s happening to you ;-)

Tris HusseyOctober 2nd, 2009 at 11:53 am

You’re so bang on Raul. (And congrats on getting the link from Chris Brogan). I’ve finally gotten to the same place. I do a lot of volunteer work for free and I help my friends when I can, but I have a rate. I have a consulting rate (probably due for a doubling now), teaching rate, and my “friends and family” rate … but it’s all real money.

None of us should feel bad for charging money. We all like to eat food, have a warm place to live, have clothes, and other niceties. I don’t think IGA would be too happy if I wandered in grabbed some milk and said “but hey you know, we’re friends, can you just do this…”.

We’re a talented group of experts. We have amazing experiences to relate to others. And that has value. So, when I start asking many of you to be a guest speaker in my class this term you should know that BCIT pays an honourarium. I value your time and so does BCIT. And I’ll probably at least buy you coffee too ;-) .

CrunchyOctober 2nd, 2009 at 1:21 pm

On a greater scope…look at the great #nestlefamily debacle on twitter. Corporations are now relying on people to live tweet, etc …as promotion for their company/product/convention/show you name it.

And people do it.
Writing on the web/soc med etc won’t get any respect (thank you Mr. Dangerfield) while people keep doing stuff for free or for product.

And this is from someone like me who has been guilty of this.

Businesses will be happy with quantity over quality while they can.

[...] Raul wrote a very thought-provoking post the other day and he’s created this session (”Free”lancing is not Free) to [...]

Barcamp Vancouver 2009 rocked | MainWriterOctober 4th, 2009 at 1:55 am

[...] – invited participants to talk about a topic that generated discussion earlier this week online: “Freelance is Not Free.” People shared their advice, opinions, and experiences on [...]

KimmOctober 4th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

I grew up with coaches who never got a penny for coaching .. They did it for the love of the sport.. Now a days everyone who coaches wants to be paid mega bucks per hour.

For me I go back to my roots, for when I’m coaching a high school team for a season for free (they don’t have extra money). Though ifs its a program or anything to do with adults I would like to be paid something but I don’t demand that I’m worth so much an hour.

Heck I’m happy if I enough money to pay for parking and or gas.

raincoasterOctober 6th, 2009 at 12:23 am

Kimm, you’re not a professional coach, are you? I’m not a professional knitter, but I wouldn’t mind if someone paid for my wool; I’m a professional social media consultant and blogger. And for that they pay, up to $150 an hour.

RaulOctober 6th, 2009 at 6:52 am

I do things for the love of them, but I have food to put on the table. So, much as I love teaching, I have to charge for my teaching, otherwise I won’t be able to buy the food for my teaching.

If a non-profit can’t afford to pay me, I may make an exception and not charge. If the community needs something I may give them that for “free” but there’ll be a point where I’ll get retribution.

Bottom line – it’s easier to give away things for free when your basic needs are met. Between giving a blanket to a shelter and keeping it if I can’t pay a heat bill, I think I’d keep the blanket. And I triple-dare anyone to refute that.

[...] for free. I know this because: a. many of them are friends and people whose work I admire and have spoken out, b. I am one of [...]

Yam De La PenaOctober 7th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Great post Raul! Actually, this year I took the decision to stop doing stuff for free (with certain exceptions)

I remember a few months ago when I made this resolution, I started to think of the pros & cons of my decision and realized that even though, doing certain stuff for free could very well be a way to get exposure in new markets, you still need to see beyond that & analyze the cost-benefit of your decision. For the the independent worker/freelancer/consultan/entrepreneur it goes beyond the point of getting some economical retribution or not, it’s a matter of prescence & reputation. If you start to self yourself short and don’t analyze all of your options, you may end up hurting your brand & image.

Every single step that you take as an independent worker whatever your label is should be recognized, period.

(sorry for any typos. Working fom the iPhone this week :) )

RaulOctober 7th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

@ everyone – you summarized many of my concerns better than I could have summarized them myself. Thanks for chiming in. I hope this post is valuable.

April SmithOctober 7th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Thank you Raul for writing this! :) I agree with your coined phrase ” Free-lance is NOT free! :)

We all have to stand together on this concept – We are all valuable people who do valuable work who NEED to get paid!! :)

Thanks again! :)

301 Moved PermanentlyOctober 7th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

[...] the end of September, Raul Pacheco-Vega (aka @hummingbird604) posted a blog entry, The economics of free or why I won’t do things for free anymore, which had enough resonance to prompt him into leading a well-attended Barcamp session, Freelance [...]

KatherineOctober 8th, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Thank you for writing this. Unfortunately, in what I do [or used to do, as there is no more work to be had, apparently: a.k.a. television] the mantra is now “We don’t have the money” to pay you your ‘rate,’ and yes, I can’t tell you how many people I don’t know think so little of my EXPERTISE that they assume I will not only work for free but incur expense doing so.
What’s interesting to me is the cheapest people I have worked for tend to have the most expensive houses and cars. The solution for me is not to try to even keep negotiating; I am weary of the battle. I am now looking for ways to survive, doing anything else but freelance ‘creative’ work, which is a shame, because, unfortunately, I’m good at it.

[...] and even a session inspired by an old post of mine regarding freelancing (certainly read Raul’s post on this issue which further explains this session which I also [...]

KylerOctober 11th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

People who ask for ‘freebies’ or ‘favours’ should/might want to read this before asking again (maybe they’ll change their minds).

[...] writing. And we’ve covered the whole concept of Pay the Writer, haven’t we? Remember, Freelance isn’t free, and if you desperately just want to get exposure, go to any major intersection in Edmonton this [...]

Michelle BuchananMay 29th, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Thanks Raul for bringing this up. After giving away my labour for far too long in a variety of fields from film-making, to counseling and group facilitating, to writing and giving readings, I am now very careful about what I offer up for free and to whom. For the most part, I only do it if I think that there will be something in it for me in the future, or for decent pay. That said, if I feel that I can be helpful to someone in great need (and have the time and energy to spare) I’ll still occasionally hand over work for free.

Something that concerns me about this conversation, however, is the harsh words put out against newbie social media specialists and writers. It reminds me of conventional journo talk when referencing bloggers and twitterers. Sticky ground for anyone whose success was enabled by this here level playing field.

[...] Posts * The point when you can’t do free anymore * The economics of free or why I won’t do things for free anymore Category: Direct mail sales letters, Vancouver business marketing, hire a copywriter in [...]

CarolineOctober 26th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Thank you for your post. I am in PR and recently had this conversation with a friend who owns a marketing agency, as we often get asked for ‘free’ consultations by clients eager to pick our brains. My friend surprised me with his smart and healthy approach to it, he does not give them, nor does he accept free services because he has less control of the deadlines as well as quality of the content. Likewise, I have stopped free consultations as someone who is really willing to take their business to the next stage will already know that this is a service well worth paying for. Why should someone not get payed for the time they invested in mastering their craft? We pay doctors and lawyers without objections -how are marketing professionals different?
When we volunteer knowledge we also exchange knowledge, hence as you say, then it is not free.

Vancouver photographer Tamea BurdMarch 6th, 2011 at 1:30 pm

As a professional photographer, even though I offer competitive and all-inclusive pricing, the issue of potential clients and sometimes friends essentially saying “I want you to do a bunch of work for me, but I place no value on your time, or your skill, or your knowledge or your effort.”, comes up far too often.

With friends, I offer a substantial discount, or offer a 100% trade. Occasionally, if they just really need help and can’t afford to pay or trade, I will shoot a few photos for them for free, but that’s only for the friends who offer me something of great value just by being my friends.

With potential clients, if they have a service or product that is of interest to me, I’ll offer a 50% trade. Meaning they pay half of my rate in cash, the other half in trade of their product or service.

Volunteering is entirely different. As with anyone who volunteers, it’s something I choose to do for free, to support causes I believe in.

My standard answer to anyone who attempts to convince me that they shouldn’t have to pay for my services is this: “If I were a plumber, would you expect that I’d be willing to install a new water heater for you at no cost? Nope, you wouldn’t. Because it requires skilled labour, the cost of parts and the cost of service… Well so do I.”

As for those who think saying “I don’t want to pay you, but if you work for me for free, it’s a great way to build your portfolio.”, I fight the urge to smack them and instead say this: “I already have a great way to build my portfolio. It’s by getting paid work.”

At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for our choices. I recommend that we choose not to be taken advantage of or devalued.

hilary henegarMarch 15th, 2011 at 10:22 am

Thoughts on the subject from the Flickr community:


caroMay 18th, 2012 at 10:29 am

Hi there. The topic you have raised also apply to designers. It’s amazing how many times I have been personally asked to “just do a logo” for free, after all “my nephew is taking art in high-school, has Corel draw and could do it for free”. In my industry, a big part of the problem is that so many people actually work for free (particularly students) hoping that will get them exposure and that eventually people will see the value of the work. Which happens seldomly, if ever. Creative professionals (writers, designers, photographers, artists) we all need to value our work. Knowledge and experience has a price. If people expect your work for free, please don’t do it, they’ll never get to value it and it devalues everyone else’s efforts.

Having said that, I agree that giving back to the community is essential, but even then, it’s good to have clear parameters discussed, in my experience, pro-bono work can sometimes grow like a monster!

TawcanMay 18th, 2012 at 10:29 am

Great post Raul.

Time is money and you can’t afford to give out your time for free all the time.

The truth is, people will always ask you to provide your services for free. The trick is to turn down these requests.

I’m a BarCamp Virgin No More | Gus FosarolliJanuary 31st, 2013 at 12:19 pm

[...] later on in the day, as well as a great round table discussion presented by Raul based on his “The economics of free or why I won’t do things for free anymore” post of last week, and a discussion on Fresh Media (an event that will be happening October 24th [...]

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