Why You Don’t Work For Free For Rich People


I caught this interesting article a while back about Lena Dunham’s scuffle with not paying some performers. Say what you will about her/GIRLS, but the article hit me right in my gut about working for free/for cheap for rich clients.

A particularly awesome bit of truth I had to learn over the years, summed up beautifully:

Because here’s the thing: this isn’t just about unpaid labor. One reason people, especially young people with creative aspirations, work for free is to form valuable relationships that will push their careers forward. But you can’t form a valuable relationship with a rich person who can afford to but won’t pay you a reasonable wage, because your entire relationship with that rich person is based on their failure to acknowledge the value of the work you’re doing for them.

Months ago, we were contacted by a return client. She’d started a new business and wanted to know if we handled logos and websites. I think we all know the answer to that, and we set up a time to talk over her needs.

Turns out her new adventure is a realty business with a partner, working in Beverly Hills. As we sit down for coffee, she gushes that she and her fiancé just put an offer on a 4mil. condo. They just secured an office on Rodeo Drive.

We had a great meeting, talked over prices, they even asked about copywriting services; things were looking solid. Jake and I went back to refine the contract and to wait to see if they were adding services.

Two hours later, we get a phone call.

“Hi Jenny! We really, really like you, and we really want to work with you, but we’ve talked with other designers and you came in higher than them. We feel comfortable doing it for $500 cheaper.”

And that’s when I turned them down, thanked them for their time, and wished them the best with their business.

2014, as a whole, was a giant learning curve with many directions. One of the lessons I learned (the hard way), is if someone doesn’t see the value in what you do, there is very little that can be done about it.

Unfortunately being told “We really like you, and want to work with you, but” is all fluff for the real issue. This isn’t a “liking” situation– I mean to a point. You have to like the people you work with, but you also have to respect them. If I tell you my services are valued at _____, that is what it is. Negotiating $500 when the client clearly can afford it only sets up the boundary that you can be pushed beyond reasonability. Especially in the beginning!  If I accepted this, the client would have lost respect for me- whether overtly or subtly, and it would. pop. up. again. Trust when I say I have learned this lesson.

It also sets up the behavior of pushing boundaries. Whether that’s really long meetings, super needy phone calls, micro managing, the list of bad behavior that can happen with clients is plentiful, but it all starts with one questionable move. Usually, solid relationships can cross each others boundaries reciprocally so that they’re always in some sort of fluid balance; this is the ideal. You know it’s bad when the givers never stop giving, and the takers never stop taking.

But I had had a small issue with this client before, years ago when she was working with a different partner for a different business. And wouldn’t you know it, it was over price. It was the main reason why I felt so convinced to walk away. I did try and sway them though. I told them that the proof of my services was resulting an average of an 30-60% increase in revenue for my clients. That wasn’t good enough, so I had to let it go.

There’s plenty of work out there, and I’m pretty excellent in making up my own opportunities. I can’t waste my time on someone who doesn’t see the value in my work. To quote a great sage: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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