Working For Free Is Not An Opportunity.

I’d love to call it an imposition…

The other day, I sat down for a meeting with an entrepreneur who was looking for a marketer and content writer. A mutual friend had put us in touch, and prior to our meeting I had provided him with a clear breakdown of my fees and estimates. We met up at a cafe and shared some coffee to discuss his project.

He gave a long pitch about his startup and how it was both synergistic and disruptive. All was well.

He spoke about changing the world and using social responsibility to have a wider impact outside of his product area. All was well.

He began outlining his financial approach.

All was no longer well.

I attempted to remain interested despite the slow, sinking feeling that I was about to be asked to let him royally screw me.

And then he came out with it. He said that he didn’t have the budget to pay for any work. But that he had projected millions of dollars in profits over the next two years and was prepared to give me exposure.

Motherfucker, I don’t need exposure.

Motherfucker, I need cheques.

Despite an urge to scream in his face, I was polite and courteous, thanked him his time and repeated the fees that I had quoted to him before our meeting. He seemed stunned by the fact that I wasn’t so excited about his company that I would work pro bono.

Thankfully, the meeting wasn’t a total waste of time. He did pay for my cappuccino. I briefly toyed with the idea of suggesting that he ask the Barista to work for free as making coffee for him would be a huge opportunity, but I let it slide. We parted amicably, but he left a terrible lasting impression.

This kind of behaviour is a bad look. It shows a total disregard for anyone but yourself. The fact of the matter is that if you cannot afford to pay for someone to perform creative work, you need to seriously re-evaluate your business plan or develop the skills yourself. Expecting people to work for free in exchange for a future promotion at best or a tweet at worst looks self-centered and unprofessional.

When you’re a creative, you will be faced with this all the time. It’s a constant, demoralising expectation. It comes from a wide range of people. You are expected to be prepared and more than happy to work for free. You are pushed to take advantage of some fictional “great opportunity” in which you will be given amazing publicity and some content for your portfolio.

It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, an artist, a musician, even a scrapbooking consultant. You will come across so many people who don’t value your work. They value what they see as the results of your work.

If you’re a designer, they value the effect that your work will have in terms of making their business look professional and attracting clients. But they don’t value the creative work itself.

I myself have been approached to design free websites, run social media accounts and campaigns for the experience and develop marketing strategies for jack shit. I’ve been asked to create custom drawn flyers, merchandise and album covers for so many different bands, companies and entrepreneurs who “don’t have any room in their budget” that I have now lost count.

Here’s the thing. As a creative professional, the greatest opportunity that anyone can give me is paid work. That’s all I’m asking for. Because my work deserves that much respect.

If you’re a creative, understand that you need to be bold. Be brave. Stand up for yourself and say that you deserve payment. It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be a large fee. But it does need to be something.

If you’re an entrepreneur, understand that the kind of respect that you are fighting for, for your app or service, is the kind of respect that every freelancer out there is fighting for.

If you’re building a product you love, understand that asking someone to design your materials for free makes you the bad guy. It shows that you only care about one person: You.