A couple of weeks ago, I went to the first Freelance-a-lot event at Kosmonaut in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. There was a good mix of businesses from different industries and it was great to chat to a software engineer, copywriter and video storyteller, as well as both the sponsors, IPSE and FreeAgent. As a small business, it’s great to get together with other creative businesses and share ideas.

Chris Williams from Network Freelance did a quick introduction to the #FeeNotFree campaign (feenotfree.co.uk). Right at the start, he asked us who had been exploited and some people raised their hands. But it seemed everyone related to a video about The Vendor Client Relationship that he showed next.

The video features actors playing out several scenarios of people buying things from small businesses. One of the scenarios is set in a DVD store.

“This is marked $19.99” says the customer, holding up a DVD. “Well, I’ve only got $7 set aside for this.”

After a while he says, “OK, let me make a phone call and see what I can do. Maybe I can get you $8.50. Can you do $8.50?”

The whole scenario seems absurd in a business selling products, and yet this kind of interaction happens a lot when you’re selling a service.

In another scenario in a restaurant, the customer and his friend tell the waiter that the taco stand charges $12.

“Sir, we’re not the taco stand,” replies the waiter.

“I had beef – the same thing,” the customer replies.

“You had the fillet,” replies the waiter.

“Yeah… cow…” says the customer.

Again, this happens frequently in the service industry. A potential client will compare the price of your service to someone else’s, even though they’re not actually offering the same service. Quite often, I think you can go some way to explaining why this is the case. There are hundreds of reasons why paying for a designer to create a bespoke WordPress website from scratch costs more the designing one on Wix. Yes they’re both websites, but you can’t really compare the two.

The #FeeNotFree campaign is “committed to redefining the boundaries between client and freelancer, to bring an end to low or no paid work on the vague promise of receiving experience or exposure in return.” I think as freelancers (I use the term interchangeably with small-business owners), part of our responsibility is to say ‘no’ when we get asked to do work for free, or to work for a rate that’s below the industry standard.

It is hard. Sometimes you think it’s better to do work for a tiny amount than have no work at all. But here lies the problem. By compromising, you’re not just devaluing your own services but also those of other freelancers. Why will that client ever pay a fair price, if they know they can get someone to do the work for cheaper by haggling them down on price?

The flip side, is the clients who ask freelancers to work for free. Sometimes it is very subtle. The kind of scenario where a client says, “we expect you not to charge for the quick jobs because there might be a big job coming up for you soon.” The thing is “quick jobs” are rarely quick, and those 15 minutes a week add up to hundreds of pounds of free work over the year.

The solution recommended by #FeeNotFree is “building relationships based on trust and respect, just as you’d expect between an employer and their employee.”

This is echoed in another video I’ve seen.

In this video, made by Zulu Alpha Kilo, they send out a man to ask businesses in non-creative industries to do speculative work – that is, work submitted by designers to prospective clients before designers secure both their work and equitable fees.

“You don’t do spec frames? Then how do you get clients?” the man asks a framer.

“Customers trust me and they like the quality of work I do” the framer replies.

“How am I going to know if I’ll like the coffee if I don’t try it first?” the man asks a coffee shop owner.

“You just got to trust,” she replies.

What can businesses do?

  • Don’t take advantage of freelancers. Whether or not I agree that ‘exploitation’ is the right word, I definitely think business owners have the responsibility to trust freelancers that they’ve given you a fair quote to start with. Don’t try and haggle the price down.
  • Don’t expect freelancers to work for free. As well meaning as the promise of future work might be, freelancers have expenses to pay too, and we wouldn’t expect our clients to give us stuff for free.
  • Don’t compare the work freelancers do with other services in a different league. Just because you can set up a site on Wix for free or hire someone to make your logo for £5 on Fiverr doesn’t mean they are as good quality as the product and service you’ll get from a freelancer.

What can freelancers do?

  • Don’t work for free. There are times you’ll want to work for a discounted work. Whether it’s for a particular charity you want to help, or for family and close friends. Or whether it’s to get your foot in the door with a new client. It’s OK to work for a reduced amount (or even sometimes for free) but send them an invoice. Put how much it actually cost on there. And then put the discount you’ve given them. This way they know the true value of your work. And they know how much your services actually are for when they recommend you.