Sometimes, no matter how many times you go through something terrible, if you don’t recognize how you got there – and take the steps to consciously avoid it – you’ll go through it again and again.
When I first began freelancing my web design skills, I took all the usual avenues: I hit up friends and family, posted on Craigslist and occasionally volunteered my work. In fact, “occasionally” is putting it mildly. In the first several months to a year, I made next to nothing on my freelancing, because I was giving it away.
I eventually got to where I was making money at it, but it took time and I had to learn a few hard lessons:
The value you place on yourself is the value that others see in you. If you work for nothing and clients literally have no investment in you, don’t expect to see that change. Most business-owners are glad to get a free lunch wherever possible, and though they probably don’t mean to take advantage, they will if you don’t set the rules from the beginning.
You get more of the same, no matter what. What you sew is what you reap, regardless of whether or not you actually believe that. If you establish a reputation as a good-but-cheap designer, developer or consultant, you can expect that to continue as long as you’ll let it. The best rule to follow in this regard to is to “take on the work you want to keep doing.” This includes, y’know, getting paid.
Doing work for free almost always hurts everyone involved. This includes the clients that are getting the work. If you’re not getting compensated for the work you’re doing, you have very little motivation to do good work. Consequently, the work you turn in might not be that great, but the client probably won’t saying anything because hey, it’s free, right? This in turn affects your reputation and the client’s, and can lead to the downfall of you both. Tread carefully.
Even so, in 2012, I let this incident happen to me once more, and it was sneaky: it didn’t come in the form of a non-profit begging for help or a prospective client looking to get something for nothing. It came in the form of a personal friend, who brought work from a reputable company he’d previously had a relationship with. You see how tricky that was? I allowed myself to break my own rules and began working on this stuff during the off-hours, on the hope that I would eventually be paid when the project was complete.
Oh, and there was the money. The promised but elusive money. It was supposed to be one of my biggest projects to date, and I’ll admit, I saw dollar signs. It wasn’t life-changing, but it made it a lot easier to shove those contracts and nagging feelings aside. After all, this was my friend, and I needed to help my friend.
Well, you already know how this ended. After spending literally dozens of hours and tons of revisions on this project, the client suddenly pulled out. We had no contracts with him, and no recourse. My friend felt awful about the whole thing, but I knew it was my own fault. I had followed the carrot on a stick and walked my own way right into this mess.
Some lessons you just have learn more than once to get it to stick. Hopefully this is one lesson I won’t have learn again. No more carrots for me.