August 05, 2012

How to work with me on a low budget

I got some enquiries recently from people with little or no money to get their work done. So I thought I would jot down a few notes on what I think about that and what I want in those situations.

Firstly, I get it. Things are tight and everyone—including me—is looking for value. That’s fine. There are four scenarios where I can imagine people might approach me to work at a reduced fee, or no fee at all:

  • You like what I do enough to risk a refusal (Good effort)

  • You think I’m a soft touch (Really?)

  • You think whatever it is that you’re doing is more important than my son’s education or my health insurance (It might be, but it’s not)

  • You’re chancing your arm (I’m sort of impressed, but no)

When you look at it, none of these is a great situation for me.

My overhead and fee structure

I work from home. This was a conscious decision, based on prevailing economic conditions and a desire to spend as much of my time as possible enjoying the single biggest expense in my life: my home. The rate that I quote for work is low by recent, historic and industry standards. I worked it out in order to offer you good value, pay my living expenses and put a modest sum aside for the future. When I ask you to pay me for my work I am not asking you to fund a lavish lifestyle. Far from it. My house is small, and I’ve made some of the fittings myself. I grow a lot of my own food, use one lightbulb at a time, bake my own bread, keep my own chickens and have cut out a lot of what folks might consider as “normal” expenses. There’s no gym membership. I don’t own a television. I rarely go abroad unless I sail there on someone else’s boat, which is quite a cheap way to get about and has accommodation built-in. I drive a mid-sized car, which was bequeathed to me, and would prefer to cycle everywhere but sadly that’s not practical. My insurances, telephone and broadband costs are renegotiated on an annual basis. I don’t drink alcohol, and my greatest indulgence these days is some decent sketch-books in which I hope to make great work for you. I don’t engage in arbitrage to make money: you buy your own print, web-hosting, whatever. I’m not a middle-man. So the fee that I ask you for is my sole income.

Pro-bono publico

It means “for the common good”, and I’ve done plenty of it. Unless your project is closely aligned with my own thoughts on social justice, common sense or animal welfare, you’re paying me. And even if it is, I totally reserve the right to refuse.

You’re getting paid, right?

This kills me. You’re getting a salary. Every week or month you get paid. And you want me to work for you for nothing. This is not going to happen. You show me where you deferred your salary and I’ll listen to your proposal. (I’m serious. You are asking me to forgo my income. So: you first.) Or give me some of your salary to get what you obviously consider worth a sacrifice (mine, it seems) done.

If not money, just what are you bringing to the table?

I’ve no statistics to back this up but my gut tells me that the people who ask me to work for little or nothing are the same people who sometimes just don’t have their stuff together. They haven’t done their research. They don’t really know what they want. Their imagery is poor, or non-existent. Their writing is a grab-bag of other peoples words. Sometimes these people are the ones who make it. But for every 1 that makes it 99 continue to blunder their sense-of-entitlement way through life, leaving a trail of people wondering just why they got involved with them.

So if you want me to work for you for little or no money, here’s what I expect:

  • I expect you to know what you want, and provide supporting documentation. Do your homework. Show me your research. Convince me that this is important to you. Show me the time you spent on it, how much it matters. Back it up with printed material and web links.

  • I expect you to demonstrate mastery of your subject. I expect your insights into the project to inspire and motivate me. I will rarely assist you in an exploration of your own stupidity, but I might like to be involved with your brilliance.

  • I expect you to have or want great writing and great images. Nothing makes my working life more of a joy. If you cannot be bothered to focus on these areas of primary importance, I probably cannot be bothered with your project.

  • I expect you to be organised. I expect you to communicate clearly, show up on time and have whatever information is required to hand. I expect you to sweat the details, because you’re not paying me to do it and details are very important to me.

  • I expect a free hand. If I work for you at a reduced rate, you will like it or lump it. You forfeit the chance to indulge your creative side or be indecisive.

  • I expect a token of your appreciation. Let’s call it a donation to a charity of my choice. That is unlikely to be you, but I won’t rule it out.

This is not a seduction.

Or if it is, it’s the moment where you take your clothes off with the lights on. You have chosen to bypass the dinner, the dancing and the moon-lit stroll. Please don’t try to be charming or appeal to whatever vanity, conscience or insecurity you think I possess. Just tell me what you want me to do, what you think is in it for me, and I’ll tell you if I’m interested.

If there’s something on offer, be very clear about what it is.

A recent email from someone who is being a little coy about wanting me to work for nothing said:

The labourer is worthy, if not now, definitely when our ship comes in, as it will.

This, while very nicely phrased, is so vague as to be unhelpful. When is that ship due? What is it carrying? Will I be here when it arrives? If your approach is of the “you do this for us now, and we’ll do something for you later” variety, please spell it out. Like, tell me exactly what the planned or proposed project is, and the budget that you envisage for it. And tell me in very unequivocal terms that I will be working on it. This is something I can make a decision on, and something that I can hold you to.

No means No.

If I turn down your non-offer, I expect that to be totally fine with you. Please be very clear about this: the priority in my career is to keep a roof over my head and provide for my son’s future. If your project doesn’t tie in with that, please be cool. Don’t harbour some weird grudge or go out of your way to give any future, paid, work to someone else. (Or actually maybe do, if that’s your style.)

It’s still a project.

If I take it on, it will still have time allotted to it as if there was a budget. Because I will assign it a budget, even if it doesn’t get paid in cash. I will treat your job just like every other job that I do. And when your time is up, so is your project. You do not get a blank cheque on my time. I will not be a martyr to your aspirations.

Money is a perfectly acceptable form of recognition.

That may not be a good thing, but it has worked in its own little tin-pot way for a long time now. (I will indulge whatever philosophical qualms I may have about that in the quiet of my evenings.) I have no interest in working for nothing to gain your approval. You may rest easy in the knowledge that the only form of recognition I want from you is financial.

Shut up already.

If I decide to get involved in your project at a reduced rate, you will make a small donation to a charity of my choice. And that’s the last we’ll hear of it. Don’t make a fuss. It’s fine. I made the decision to get involved, you didn’t make me. I’m not a saint, a star, a little topper, a darling, a sound man, a gentleman, scholar or fine upstanding citizen because you say so. And I would rather you didn’t promote me as some sort of Foundation For People Who Don’t Have Any Money. Please be quiet and let me get on with the work that pays my bills.