Perhaps you’re a newly-minted freelancer, eager to build your portfolio. Or you’re a hungry consultant, trying to land your next gig. A prospective client approaches you, likes your work, and wants your skills for their budding enterprise.
There’s just one catch: they don’t have much money. You’re assured that ultimately, however, their venture will take off – and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.
So…do you offer to work for yeoman’s wages? No.
Case in Point
Back in 2003, I was approached by some filmmakers – via AOL’s message boards – who needed help setting up a Web site. They were adapting author Michael Murphy’s landmark golf novel, Golf in the Kingdom of Shivas Irons, into a full-length motion picture. Some big names were dropped, including that of Clint Eastwood (who had once bought the film rights) and Sean Connery, who was an early favorite for a key role.
Why, they even had interest from various investors. There was just one minor problem.
They had only a small budget. But I seemed nice and helpful, patiently answering their endless questions about domain names and Web publishing when other Web consultants would not (because, they…gasp…wanted to be paid for their expertise). Would I be willing to take on the filmmakers’ project at this early stage?
Sure, the compensation would be meager. But this undertaking was sure to gain momentum. As golf fans and venture capitalists learned of the upcoming film, Golf in the Kingdom: The Movie, this thing was sure to reach critical mass.
So, I naively offered my services.
The first phase of the enterprise was to build a Web site that would offer information about not only the film, but also a publicity-generating contest. I created a clean, five-page site, replete with an interactive form via which visitors could send the filmmakers their choice to play Shivas Irons.
The initial deadline was tight, as the film’s producer and director, Mindy Affrime and Susan Streitfeld, were attending an important conference in just a matter of days. I worked tirelessly over the course of a week to make sure they’d have a domain name, Web hosting, and attractive Web site ready as they made their initial publicity inroads.
For that, I was paid a very modest amount, something I accepted because I thought I was helping fellow creatives, and because I was now part of something that I thought would be artistically and, ultimately, financially rewarding.
And I figured it would be fun.
Another Phase, Another Drop in the Bucket
About six months later, I was asked to do a more ambitious Web site, a complete redesign that would orient visitors to the Golf in the Kingdom movie project and keep them updated. I put many hours into the redesign, and was again paid a small honorarium for my effort when it came to fruition about two months later.
I worked hard to make that redesigned site attractive and prominent in the search engines; soon it was on the first page of Google for the crucial keywords.
Meanwhile, over the next several years, there were scores of updates and overhauls. New photos (which I had to optimize, resize, and publish multiple times), new interactive forms, reciprocal links, streaming video, news items, content updates, additional pages, copy editing, countless requests for help and advice – there were plenty of things to do. I even helped them troubleshoot unrelated technical issues as well as put together a cohesive electronic press kit.
Keeping the Faith
Whenever I came across something potentially useful to the Golf in the Kingdom project, I alerted my clients and – per their approval – added that functionality to the Web site. In the meantime, I monitored the site’s search-engine status, applying the appropriate tweaks to keep it prominent.
Sure, I was paid a pittance, but I was assured that eventually there would be a real budget for the film. At that point, there would be some nifty things to do for which I’d be paid properly. And that kept me motivated.
At times, I was complimented on my efforts and even told I was an asset to the creative “team” (emphasis on the “ass” part of that, to be sure). But I doubted any other “team members” were foolish enough to be as underpaid as I was.
As the years went by, it became hard not to feel overlooked and under-appreciated. It became increasingly difficult to psych myself to process the occasional “we need this in a hurry” update. I began to wonder whether I was ever going to be compensated in any but an embarrassing way.
But I hung on, because of a tacit understanding that once the filmmakers procured funding, I would be paid properly for my work.
Fast-forward to 2009. The filmmakers secured financing and were ready for the next phase. We discussed another complete redesign of the Web site, even a new domain name. But first, there were some urgent updates that they were pressuring me to make.
No discussion of payment, mind you. Just “we need this”. I used that moment to air my concerns.
At long last, my clients seemed to understand. They said they were ready to pay me what I thought was fair. When I added up my time and offered them a very reasonable number (complete with hours worked and a discounted hourly rate), I was paid only part of that (to date, I have received less than $1,500 – I am not kidding).
Then, I was informed that a PR firm would be taking over the Web site duties. From what I was told, I thought the new site was going to be a big, snazzy, animated affair, replete with interactive pyrotechnics – things I didn’t feel set up to do – so I thought it best that I step aside and let the “experts” take over, foolishly accepting partial payment of a discounted rate for all that I’d done.
Well, I’ve seen the new site. It’s definitely not better than what I would have done. No glitz, pomp, or circumstance. Initially, it was a mere Posterous blog, something that takes about 20 minutes to set up. After quite a few months, however, that cursory affair was supplanted by a WordPress-powered site, rendered with what appears to be a customizable theme framework (not a bad way to go – coincidentally, I had plans to use WordPress for the new Golf in the Kingdom site myself).
Although the new site is well done, it’s not nearly as glamorous as (and far less interactive than) I’d thought it was going to be. It’s nothing I couldn’t have rendered. In fact, I would have made it more interactive, allowing visitors to comment on news and other updates, so as to foster more buzz about the film and related matters.
Nonetheless, I’m sure the folks who put it together received a nice fat check for their work.
The Greater Fool
To that end, before you do any work for a prospective client, get a signed agreement that spells out both the scope of your services and what you’ll be paid. Communicate clearly how many hours you’ll need to devote as well as any expenses you might incur, so as to protect yourself from working too much for too little.
Most importantly, do not give your services away for less than they’re worth, let alone for free, to anyone operating a for-profit enterprise. Prostituting your skills in such a way ensures that they will not be appreciated. Clients base the value on what they receive, in large part, on what they pay for it.
Working for less than a living wage causes your work to be more fatiguing, far less enjoyable, and not very fulfilling. Resentments can build, potentially affecting other areas of your career and life.
If you must work for free, do so for charities that truly need your talents. You’ll be helping a (presumably) good cause, you’ll feel better about yourself, and you won’t be letting someone profit undeservedly from your efforts.
A Lesson Learned
To reiterate, clients don’t value what’s given gratuitously. Moreover, people who don’t pay you a fair wage for your current efforts will think you’re okay with being underpaid or cast aside later, even if they do come into some cash.
Just my two cents. Which, in relative terms, is about what I was paid for my time in the Kingdom of Shivas Irons.