Deborah Lee
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Working for Nothing – Why it’s Time to Say ‘No’

My close friends will tell you that my biggest bugbear is being expected to work for free. Try as I might to rein my frustration in, occasionally I have been known to go ‘pop’ on being told someone wants to ‘pick my brains’ on how to establish a really great social media campaign. Over coffee. Or a glass of wine.

Now, for the record, it’s not that I don’t want to help. Really, I do.

It’s because I want to help that I’ve decided to at least double the number of blog posts I write this year, and to appoint regular expert contributors to this site in order to widen the appeal and spectrum of information.

But the rest of my working day is spent working with clients …. who pay me to do so.

Maybe this is a problem that businesses who trade in actual commodities don’t have; after all, I can’t actually remember being in a restaurant and thinking because I’d had a bit of banter with the waiter that I could have my meal on the house.

Certainly in the early days I did an awful lot of ‘speculative’ work that ended up having a financial cost to me once I’d factored in travelling and accommodation expenditure. But I told myself that it would be good experience and possibly valuable exposure to an untapped market.

There does come a time, however, when the requests to work for nothing keep coming in that you realise the brutal truth:

They don’t want you … They want someone that they don’t have to pay.

So many times I’ve heard “we have no budget for this”

And that in turn leads me on to another dilemma, namely do I really want to work on projects where getting the best person for the job clearly isn’t the priority? Because let’s face it, if quality was important they would have budgeted for it.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, my advice is to honestly answer this question:

Will doing this help progress a project or initiative of mine?

It may be that you’ll be introduced to new contacts or opportunities as a result, in which case it would make perfect sense to agree to it.

But if it’s purely a case that you’re doing someone a favour (and saving them money), then I’d think very seriously about declining.

To be blunt about it, try and imagine the other party offering their services or product for nothing. Would that be likely? If the answer is ‘no’, I suggest you make that your answer too.

There are always exceptions of course, such as charity events and the like, but continually working for nothing will only ever guarantee you two things: a full diary and a pile of unpaid bills.

Ultimately it’s worth considering the value someone will place on your contribution if you offer it free of charge. If you’re continually willing to place a price tag of zero on your time and skill, then what are you saying you’re worth?

As of this moment on, make this your mantra …

“You want me? Then pay my fee.”

Leave a Comment:

Decide on your rules and then stick to them… | Rachael Phillips says

[…] my good friend Deborah Lee wrote an excellent post all about working for free. I’ve wrote about the same thing on this blog […]

rachael phillips says

I cannot tell you how much I love this blog post. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and you know what I’ve surmised – if it’s something that you CAN’T do yourself – whether it’s writing, taking good photos, updating social media, WHATEVER then you need to pay for it.

The same goes for people who think its ok to offer £5 for a blog post or deem your services “too much”. At the end of the day, my advice to ANYONE setting up a business now would be to decide on your own rules. When you’ve decided on those rules then you stick to them. In fact, you’ve inspired me so much I’ve done a post on it!

Douglas Gorney says

Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes. Well said, Deborah. And we marketers, content strategists and other consultants need to do this as a class, so these freeloading businesses can’t simply move onto the next sucker. A message needs to be sent.

    debsylee says

    You know it makes sense, my friend!

Jonathan Pollinger says

This is a tough one and sometimes hard to call. I like the analogy of the restaurant. I take a slightly different approach and am always happy to answer ‘one off questions’ for free. This works well for me as people see me as approachable and often this does lead to business. However, I do still get people asking ‘multiple questions’ or who are after detailed advice so it doesn’t remove the need to say ‘no’.

    debsylee says

    I agree, Jonathan; an initial question is fine, but being expected to diarise a whole day in order to speak at an event gratis is entirely a different matter!

Mark Kenna says

Very well said Deborah, in business, especially a new venture, there is a time period in which you offer out reduced prices and/freebie’s to gain more ‘paid’ work, make contacts within your market place and get your name out there. This has worked in my post-production business, where filmmakers have come to us with a short film and I’ve just wanted to help the project, make it suitable for the big screen & festivals, which has led to ‘paid’ feature work. However, there comes a time when you have to say no to unpaid work to keep in business. After all, it is a business and many if us are not business people when we set out. We love what we do, we’re experts in our field and that is worth something. It’s up to you to feel that worth and charge accordingly. I’ve started a film production company in April 2013 with the vision of making great quality films that people want to go and see, but more importantly, raising budgets so that we can pay people for their craft, whatever that may be and be a sustainable production company that pays people and makes profit to survive and keep doing what we all love to so. I’ve signed up to your newsletter by email and would love to discuss our slate of films here at Bad Blood Films. Our first feature will shoot summer 2014 – check out and please do get in touch if you feel you could help us on the social media front. Have a wonderful weekend and so keep up the blogs, they’re great!

John says

Two great pieces of advice I had:

1. When starting up behave as though you are already highly successful. So value your time as though you are incredibly busy with productive work

2. Think of your time as widgets, I.e. physical goods. Would you give away physical products beyond a sample?

    debsylee says

    Absolutely, John!

    My view is that people who insist on paying nothing don’t value what you do highly enough; this is a problem I’ve run into many times (as I’ve detailed) in my line of work because it’s ‘new media’ … Few truly understand the importance of an effective social media presence as yet, so don’t see the reason why they should pay.

Suse Coon says

Tell me about it Debbie! As a magazine editor I am constantly asked to publicise events and products for free ‘because it’s editorial’. They don’t get it that it takes me longer to get their editorial out there than I’d spend on a block ad!
It really isn’t sustainable to ask anyone to work for nothing. Developing a long term relationship can involve negotiating discounts and the odd favour but it can’t be one-sided.

Jim O'Donnell says

AMEN! Awesome article and I agree completely!

    debsylee says

    Thanks so much, Jim 🙂

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