Frustrating Favor Requests: Freelance Doesn’t Mean “Free”

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By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

A few months back, I read a LinkedIn Influencer post by my  friend Ann Handley about pursuing “passion projects,” and why you should consider lending your professional expertise to a cause you deeply care about. (“Why You Should Work For Free (Sometimes)”)

Her post really inspired me, and I started thinking about ways I could use my skills to benefit causes I’m passionate about, like autism awareness and education reform. But when I looked at my calendar, it was jam-packed. At this point, as C.C. Chapman would say, I’m “juggling chainsaws,” and if something drops, it’s going to hurt.

I have two children, a full-time job teaching a graduate course in new media marketing, produce and host podcasts, create other freelance projects on the side, and write for free for a few more blogs that I love.

Recently, quite a few people have sent me requests to do work for them. Sounds exciting, right? Just what every freelancer hopes for? Yes. Except they don’t intend to pay me anything.

Unfair expectations

I know I’m not alone: several of my friends are very well known in the social space, and they get pitched nonstop. It happens online, in-person at events, pretty much all the time.

A while back, I wrote a post about creepy people and users on social networks. That piece focused on people who wanted to get to me (or go through me) for personal reasons.

Since then, I’ve encountered a whole new class of user: the Time Thief. Maybe it’s unfair to use the term “thief,” but the reality is that I have only 18 or so waking hours in a day, and no, I don’t want to give them away to strangers. (Incidentally, Arianna Huffington would say I need more sleep, and she’s not wrong.)

During those precious hours, I need to grade student projects, respond to questions, prepare for interviews, record and edit podcasts, write blog posts, manage my own household, and raise two boys.

I also travel to quite a few industry conferences, either to speak or to cover the event as press for one of the sites I write for. Should I ever find a minute to sit still, I will realize there are wet towels in the washing machine. I’m grateful for the hustle and bustle. I love my family and I love my work, but there’s not much room for “passion projects” at the moment.

If I can’t find time for passion projects—work that would feed my soul and make the world a better place—I certainly don’t have time to provide free consulting.

It’s not selfish, it’s smart

This may come off as selfish, but every minute I give you is a minute I take away from my children, my students, or my paying work (which I also find personally fulfilling—another reason I do it).

I’ve had a number of strangers contact me to ask for favors. By definition, a “favor” should be reserved for someone I like (or at least know: let’s start there). If I’ve never heard of you, don’t ask me for a favor: establish a relationship with me first.

Relationships don’t start with favors: they start with an introduction. Ann Tran wrote a great post about this in which she likens social media to a cocktail party. Before you ask for free business advice, take Ann’s free advice about cultivating a genuine connection with people online and off.

I’m very approachable. Start a conversation with me at an event or on Twitter. Just don’t end that initial conversation with a request. Wait until we have an actual connection before you pitch me on something.

Once I know who you are and have a sense of what you’re about, if what you want me to do is easy and would mean a lot to you, I may well do it. A quote or a book blurb is no big deal, for instance, provided I like your work once I see it. I don’t mind answering a few questions via email, either.

But please don’t ask me to complete demanding projects—the type I normally get paid for—in exchange for “exposure.” Understand that podcast interviews take me hours to plan, produce and edit, and that writing similarly requires time and concentration.

If I’ve never heard of you or your site, it’s unlikely to offer me the kind of exposure that justifies taking my attention away from my family, my work, or my passion projects (which I might have time for someday, once I master the art of ignoring one-sided pitches entirely).

Everyone has to do some free work when they’re starting out, but the fact you’ve heard of me and think I could do something for you indicates that I already have some exposure, at least within my field.

Except you …

If any of the following applies to you, you CAN ask for favors:

I love you, your project, or your company. For instance, I will support any project C.C. Chapman needs help with, because he’s a long-time friend and I love him.

I share your passion. I can’t stop talking about Mack Collier’s book Think Like a Rock Star because I truly believe in the message (customer appreciation over customer acquisition), and feel sure it will benefit others. If there’s a way I can help Mack get that book into the hands of more marketers, I’m in, no question.

You really can offer valuable exposure. I write for Social Media Explorer (and guest posted for {grow} before I became a paid columnist) because being associated with a site of that caliber is exactly the kind of exposure that’s worthwhile for a blogger/speaker/podcaster like me.

I’m not suggesting that I’m better or more important than anyone else, but if I don’t value my time, who will?

If you value my work enough to ask for a favor, value my time enough not to ask, at least until we have a relationship.
Kerry O’Shea Gorgone teaches New Media Marketing at Full Sail University. She is also hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast for MarketingProfs. Find Kerry on Google+ and Twitter.

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  • SlummySingleMummy

    Great post Kerry – I feel your pain! If I had a pound for every time someone emailed me saying ‘I don’t have any budget but I wondered if you could just give me a bit of advice…’ then I really WOULD be able to work for free!

  • Mack Collier

    Kerry you’re the best but I think you already knew that because I can’t shut up telling everyone that you are 😉

    I struggled with this as well, until this year I simply started telling people ‘no’. In fact, if someone’s first contact with me is to ask me for something, 99% of the time I don’t even answer them to tell them ‘no’, because they don’t deserve it.

    Besides if you give more of your time to strangers that just want something from you, that’s less time you can devote to gushing about friends that you care about 😉

  • Good for you Kerry, you are smart to balance life and your work. Respecting your own profession work and time instills respect from others.

  • Thanks! I would work for free if I could (sometimes), but I really can’t. 🙂

  • Thanks, Mack! Quality gushing does take time. And people who’ve earned my love, respect and trust absolutely deserve as much time as I can give them.

  • Agreed! I try to establish relationships for a weeks or months before I initiate any convo regarding a business project.

    However, I establish relationships with no project in mind. I establish relationships out of the desire to connect and to build a following and an influential base. Down the line projects pop up and these people (connections that I personally established) pop up and I try and fit them together.

    I’m always looking for the best win-win for everyone. Projects and clients come and go, but relationships are what can keep you afloat more than using people to get a job done.

    On a more personal note, I had women approach me more once I moved to Italy. They never established a relationship, just jumped right in and wanted to know my contacts, how I got so-and-so client, how I do this, how I do that… it was such a turn off! Those are the people I keep at a long arm distance and hope to not work with them in the future since I know that they have no understanding of how I work and how important relationships are to me.

    Great post, more people should read this! 😉

  • SlummySingleMummy

    I have a similar problem with friends and family thinking that just because I work from home I should be free during the day for outings/babysitting etc!

  • Can I ever relate! It’s difficult for some people to understand what I do all day “sitting on the computer,” particularly if they’re not tech people, but I need to pay attention to the work, not the laundry.

  • Thanks Tiana! People can definitely tell when your desire to establish a relationship comes from a genuine interest in connecting versus a specific need you have at the moment. Like you, I tend to distance the people who only contact me when they need something.

  • Thanks, Anneliz. I was on the fence about writing this, not wanting to come off as conceited or selfish, but the reality is there’s only so much time in a day, and everyone has to prioritize!

  • Great stuff Kerry. Since starting my biz last year, I have done some work for free, but I’ve been very picky with what, either it has been for a good cause, or I’ve felt that it could lead to paid and ongoing projects (which it often has). However, now that I ‘m a year down the line, and things are going well, I’m less likely to do that, I’m busy with family and personal stuff and I need to maximise every bit of my working time. I think I (and many others, including the Grow team) give enough advice and insight away via blogging!

  • I recently got asked–twice–to produce a one-hour web course on marketing stats for an “educational” entity that planned to sell it as part of an online marketing curriculum. They told me that they could not compensate me, but the course would generate “exposure” for me. I wrote back asking if they would give the course away to generate “exposure” for their company. I didn’t hear back 🙂

    You can’t eat exposure.

    Here’s the other thing, though, and anyone who works in an agency or does pro bono work knows this: paying me guarantees my attention. “Doing a favor” gets done when I can do it, in the time I can spare. But paying me makes it part of my work day, and gets my full attention.

    That’s not selfish. It HAS to be that way or the quality of my life will fall off a cliff.

    Great post, Kerry!

  • RandyBowden

    Well stated Kerry and agree totally. I feel that the “social” space has breed many who seek the “endorsement” of others feeling that all are equal in the channels. The “free entry” is taken as, you are of the same value as I place on myself and for many that is not paying their mortgage! Build the relationship and respect the value.

  • Great point! Anyone who follows Ann Tran’s blog, for instance, knows she’s written a lot about how she built her Twitter following. Asking her that via email only proves the point that you aren’t really invested in her and her work.

  • Definitely, Randy. We get the respect we demand.

  • Thanks for sharing that, Tom! I never imagined a company might try something like that, although I’m not necessarily surprised. Great point about attention, as well. When there are several projects pending, and some are “favors,” there’s no question which will have to wait.

  • Rezwan Razani

    Great post! It reminds me of this musician’s PSA that has been making the rounds: https://scontent-b-iad.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn2/1280825_10200548649338636_354461241_n.jpg

    It comes at a time when crowdfunding is on the rise, and inequalities in income are being talked about. Some folks are really good at commanding an income, many people aren’t, and don’t know how to ask for their due. Also, many people don’t appreciate nonstandard ways of making a living and don’t offer it (as the image above draws attention to).

    I am glad this kind of conversation is taking place. Some great insight into the matter comes from Steven Pinker in this talk on language. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

    The video says there are 3 types of human relationship. Dominance, communal, and reciprocal (I would call the latter, “professional”). And that awkwardness arises when there is confusion as to which type of relationship is taking place. The economic dimension of this is that the people in the dominance relationships command the most money. Your bosses, CEO’s, the military, the medical industry when it holds you hostage… And the rest of us are wobbling back and forth between communal (relationship based) and reciprocal ($ for services rendered, relationship is transactional).

    I think aside from pestering successful people, those who seek investment in their passion projects need to work on inspiring and educating their support base. My favorite example of this is by John Hodgman. http://www.fusionenergyleague.org/index.php/blog/article/john_hodgman_economic_genius

    Another excellent video on this topic: http://www.fusionenergyleague.org/index.php/blog/article/cgp_grey_explains

  • Thanks for your reply! There’s so much here: you could base a blog post on this reply alone. Interesting point regarding confusion about the nature of the relationship. Some people are obvious users, but others might not reveal their ulterior motives until a little bit later. So long as we’re clear in our expectations and set boundaries well, we’ll strike the balance we want between communal and reciprocal, and not step on too many toes on our path to dominance. 😉

  • Mack Collier

    I had to follow up: Since reading this post this morning, I had two people email me asking for help:

    1 – An event organizer that I had worked with asking for a recommendation on a speaker

    2 – A person I had never heard of asking me for free consulting

    The first request I responded to within minutes with multiple speakers they should contact that would be perfect for their event, and offered to connect them via email or in person.

    The second request I deleted.

  • So, you won’t be replying to my evil twin with free consulting? 😉

  • Hello Kerry,

    “If you value my work enough to ask for a favor, value my time enough not to ask, at least until we have a relationship.” – No more comment needed after that. You nailed it!

    In my ten-year career, I have been asked to work for free so many times I could write a book. Some even tried to emotionally blackmail me with the famous “Don’t you have a heart?” question. Needless to say that I stopped responding after that.

    I think the problem comes from those who accept any kind of request or sell themselves cheap.

    Thank you for this excellent article!

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  • Yes, emotional blackmail is something I’ve encountered, as well, which always strikes me as odd, because the person doesn’t even know me: how can they hope to manipulate my emotions without any emotional connection? Thanks for your reply!

  • Claudia Licher

    Wonderful post… just for a different perspective: the first time I asked to get paid a normal wage was the time when I realized I’d have to earn my living away from art history… Small(er) museums in my country seemed to think they can’t pay for employees unless the government gives them money.
    Things may change, slowly, now that depending on government subsidies isn’t a viable approach anymore.
    Meanwhile I seem to have developed an allergy for ‘favors’ that’ll cost me a lot of time I’d rather spend, say, with my family.

  • Michele Price

    I am late to the party with my comment. This topic has come up several times in our local community. It is even sparked a new free lancers meet-up group, because of the dialogue on a FB group about this very issue.

    What I am reading here are examples of being asked to work for free, not a passion project. ( which was topic of Ann Handley’s post)

    That brings me to wonder how many times are people using their desire for FREE and positioning it as it if were a passion project?

    Another area that has pushed the “free I have no budget” is the startup world. Yes you may have a great idea, yes you may have worked on it with no remuneration ( because it is not market ready yet), yes you are looking for investors. I get it. Yet as a startup business I did not get any of those breaks. I did not get free consulting, free legal, free graphics, free website…you get the point. I may have had a colleague who was in same boat and we found a great situation in which to trade and help each other.

    The ones that make me laugh the hardest are established 20-30 year companies with multiple employees who act like you are a college intern when they want to use your services. What has happened in this country where people feel it is ok to diminish what you offer ( that they need to move into because space that has changed)? Ummm you do not know how to do this, strategically or execution wise, you want a half day workshop then hand it off to an employee who after working with them I have given you an analysis they cannot handle this role, because you need to save money?

    Wake up American businesses, you are so short sighted you need more than glasses, you need new eyes.

    Now another discussion we might want to open the door on… people who are free lancers or in business for the first time and are giving away their services ( really cheap rates ) and devaluing the industry for skilled legitimate businesses because there is always a part timer and Mom blogger moving into a space they are not really qualified to handle – but they say yes ( to potential client) to then go on FB and ask their friends how do I do this? ( head to desk )

    Kerry great post, great points, excellent reasons to show them no.

  • Exactly!

  • I needed this message today.

    I was just asked for a favor earlier this week. I thought about it, because it’s a company I’d really like to get in with. But I decided offering free services is not the way to get it. They have budget. There is no reason I should give away my stuff. So I put together some high level thoughts and told them how much it would cost to move forward.

    I read through this and nodded, “I totally just did the right thing.”

    Even if I never get any work with the organization, no one is ever going to respect our own time if we don’t first and foremost!!

    SOLIDARITY!!!! 🙂

  • Yeah, just yeah. Was going to write more, but yeah pretty much sums it up. (wry grin)

  • Co-signing all the “WORD!” comments and really can’t add too much more but here I go. Your closing nailed it, starting w/ the relationship – but I have to take that further.

    IME Asking for the freebie favor can often be an abuse of that relationship. Ex. running to a store I have in town b/c casual friend doesn’t have said store, THAT is a favor. Spending hours on the phone and in email, w/ same friend doing lots of brain picking about how to build/improve their business, that is NOT. Then same friend getting upset that you want to talk business and contracts and money if any work is to continue, that’s crossing the line.

    Like you said, unfair expectations from those who’d never give away their expertise, their talent, their time to say nothing of their effort. Those aren’t the kind of relationships my business needs. FWIW.

  • marc zazeela

    Kerry,

    I agree that relationships don’t start with favors and people who ask for them in exchange for something meaningless are definitely asking for a freebie.

    On the other hand, without a large and wide audience, where would bloggers, writers, trainers, and speakers be? One can’t make a living speaking at the dinner table or writing birthday cards.

    How does one find the balance? When you consider that the person asking for your time might be someone who has followed you for years. Could be someone who has purchased your products. Might be someone who has recommended you.

    I also agree that time is of the essence. There is so little available to do everything we want/need to do. Perhaps we are trying to cram too much stuff into too little time. So much that we don’t allow ourselves time for free and unrestrained thought. Not enough to allow for serendipity. No time to see just see what happens.

    Unplanned and unscheduled experiences are often the most rewarding and most educational. One never knows.

    I read advice by one expert blogger who advocated giving everything away for free. He said that when he did, more people lined up with their checkbooks in hand, to pay him for even more information. One never knows.

    Cheers,
    Marc

  • Hey Kerry, great post. In the world of social media we open up all the doors but unfortunately this brings in a ton of requests from people that don’t understand the importance of relationship building!
    Ian

  • Yeah. 🙂

  • Great point Davina! Thanks for sharing.

  • That’s one way to approach things, Marc. I do think that if someone’s followed you for years and bought your products, chances are you already have a relationship with them, because they’ve likely reached out before to let you know. Those kinds of advocates warrant attention and special treatment, though to what extent is up to you as an individual.

    As far as giving everything away for free, I just can’t. However, when you’re starting out and need to illustrate your work ethic and quality, contributing free of charge to quality sites that draw the audience you want can be a great way to build a following. Thanks for your comment!

  • Thanks, Ian! And you are a natural networker, so people should take an example from the way you’ve built relationships and contributed high quality content to blogs like {grow}, Jeff Bullas’s blog and Social Media Examiner.

  • Great article here Kerry.You’re right,it’s not selfish,it’s just a smart move.Doing something well and loving to do it sometimes is just not enough,you need to think about some ways to make it work in order to get paid for doing it.

  • Dr. Traci Teasley

    I absolutely LOVE this piece! Thank you for helping we entrepreneurs to honor our value and our time!

  • Just discovered your blog and love that you wrote on this topic. I work with a lot of women who are first time business owners having a hard time setting good professional boundaries. I’ll be referring them to your blog. Thanks!

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