Saying no to friends who want you to work for free.

A few weeks ago, my friend who is an interior designer asked me a question.

“How do you say no to friends who want you to work for free without hurting the relationship?”

It’s an interesting question because it happens to so many people.

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If you’re a photographer, designer, developer, writer, personal trainer, doctor, mechanic, hair stylist, lawyer, illustrator or a billion other professions, friends are going to ask you to work for free.

I even know homeschool parents who get asked to babysit during the day because “You’re home already.” Sometimes, people describe the request as a “playdate.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if my kids played at your house for 6 hours?

It usually starts with an email like this:

“Hey, sorry to bother you, but I need your opinion on something. I need a quick logo. It should only take you a few minutes. You could probably knock it out in your sleep. Is that something you could help me with? I love your style!”

There are a few telltale signs:
1. The promise that it will be “quick.” If someone says “I just need you to tweak it,” run.
2. “Help me” is often code for “give me for free.”
3. There’s usually at least one compliment to soften you up a bit.

Sometimes, they will promise you “great exposure” or that they will split the future profits of the project with you. Or they will offer to barter something you didn’t want or need. “You take my photos and I’ll let you have one of the ferret pups we have after ferret breeding season is over.” (I just tried to think of the worst barter I could imagine and that’s what I came up with.)

The email you receive might be different, but regardless of how the request is made, how do you handle it?

My old method was to say yes out of guilt and then do the work filled with pure, white hot rage. My words said, “Sure, no problem!” but my face said, “I would kill you in my sleep if I owned a good pair of gloves.”

After years of doing that, I came with a really simple plan. It has two parts.

The first thing you say when someone asks you to do some work for free is, “What’s your budget?”

This question works because it introduces money into the equation without being offensive. Instead of saying, “Well, my hourly rate is $250” which puts your friend on the defensive, you respond with a question.

The question helps your friend remember that you’re a professional. It quietly introduces the idea that you do this for a living. It reminds them that this is your job, not just a passion. We’re not just talking a hobby. People sometimes get confused by this because for them, quilting is a hobby so why shouldn’t it be the same for you?

If you don’t think the question is going to be enough, do what my friend Cliff Nowicki does, and send them a survey. Put together 10 project-related questions, one of which is the budget, and fire them off a survey.

Two things are going to happen in this moment:
1. They will tell you their budget.
2. They will tell you they don’t have a budget.

If they tell you their budget, great. Proceed as you wish if the money makes sense.

More than likely though, they’re going to tell you they don’t have any money.

If this is something you want to do, then by all means, donate your time and expertise. I love that you can use your talents that way and think you should support your church, non-profit or family as often as you can.

But, what do you say if you don’t want to do it?

Here is exactly how you respond:

“In order to honor and fulfill the commitment I’ve made to my paying clients, I can’t take on any pro bono right now. I love doing it when I can, but I don’t have the time.”

They’re not just asking you to give them something for free. If you take time away from your paying clients to work on your free clients you’re actually stealing from the people who pay you. That’s terrible. That’s how small entrepreneurs like us go out of business.

Saying yes to the wrong thing is one of the most expensive things you can do.

Upon hearing this from you, a good friend will recognize what they asked you and will say, “Thanks for considering it.” A fake friend will not care that you are too busy and will try to shame you into helping them.

Don’t.

You do the friendship more damage when you let shame turn your no into a yes.

And the bigger issue is that friends should pay full price. Why should we expect a stranger to treat us well and pay our fee? Our friends should pay us the most. They should over tip! The people who love you should not try to discount your ability. It’s actually the reverse.

Don’t give up your talent, time and energy unless you want to.

Care about your craft enough to charge for it.

P.S. I wrote a New York Times Bestselling book about being so awesome you can get paid for your passion. You should read it.

31 Comments
  • Alex Nemo Hanse
    Posted at 06:28h, 28 September Reply

    Always an interesting concept. Much needed for those who don’t want to hurt anyones feelings. I usually get the “can I pick your brain?” question more than anything so I totally understand. This is why I make video content and have started blogging and writing so that I can share my knowledge and when someone asks for help I can at least give them a condensed version of what I would tell them anyways. So for all those who are reading that is something you can try as well.

    Create E Books of most frequently asked. Youtube and video content if possible. It can even be from your smart phone. Turn your blogs or medium posts into books and offer it to your friends and family. These could be good ways to get people to try to do it themselves, or they truly begin to understand how much work you are really putting in to your craft.

    Also, understand your target market. Your friends aren’t always your best market to sell to. Or, find out what they really want. Survey them and ask some questions. At the end, find out if they would be willing to put a price down to support your project and in return they can get an exclusive copy with bonus tips and other perks like that.

    Thanks Jon! Keep being great my friend!

    • Robyn
      Posted at 08:09h, 29 September Reply

      Great suggestions, Alex. I get the “pick your brain” requests, too. Love the idea of the ebooks (why didn’t I already think of that?!). In fact, I may also do one for all the “where should we stay/eat/go” requests from friends visiting NYC (where I live).
      Thanks again.

  • Sandy Kenrick
    Posted at 08:22h, 28 September Reply

    One of the most inspirational things I’ve read in a long time. Saying no means saying yes in so many other ways such as your kids, a roof over your head, your spouse. Being nice is being able to set boundaries. Loved this so much, I may just read this every day before the pitching wars start.

  • Michael Natrin
    Posted at 08:30h, 28 September Reply

    Excellent thoughts. It’s a job, not just a passion. Doing anything for the “exposure” is something that I immediately run from. As a musician, many gigs are offered up for nonprofits and fundraisers that pay via exposure. Exposure can’t go in my gas tank or pay for new strings/cables/instruments. Even with paid gigs, it’s helpful to be clear with what the expectations and deliverables are, because like you said at the start, the phrase “just tweak it” can be sent to you repeatedly until you’re doing twice the work you would do for any other client. Put limits on how many revisions you’ll do. And respect artists/musicians enough to pay them for their craft.

  • Phillip Alexander
    Posted at 08:39h, 28 September Reply

    Jon – perfectly timed for me….I was struggling with a friend wanting me to do free web design work. I did help him set it up and thought I trained him well enough but now he continues to ask for help. I just drafted and sent him an email based on this post and feel so much better. Thanks.

  • Mandy
    Posted at 09:07h, 28 September Reply

    I’ve done this before & feel so bad about it. I can justify it every which way, but it so wrong & I realize that at the heart of it it’s really a generosity issue. I’ve done what I can to make up for a service I talked someone into for free by making sure to use & pay well the next time. (Thankfully there has been a next time.)

    On the flip side, as a wannabe writer, I have no idea how to get paid for my writing. It’s a passion I’d really like to turn into a career. Where’s the line between needing exposure & selling out your work? While it’s something I think I’ll do the rest of my life, whether or not I get paid, how do I make that shift without making it seem I’m just focused on the $$?

    • anon
      Posted at 21:33h, 22 October Reply

      Mandy,

      FIrstly, if you genuinely feel badly then you should pay for that service already given. Just because it’s in the past doesn’t mean you cannot correct this wrong. If they don’t accept payment, because by now they may want to look like they weren’t pissed this whole time, then get them an expensive gift.

      As for exposure, yes, beginners in many creative positions do free work in order to build up their portfolio. Once you have done that and fell confident about your work and are getting PAID for some work, then stop doing free work. Unless it’s for yourself of course.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 10:08h, 28 September Reply

    Loved reading this. I needed to read this. I’m a stay at home mom and people ask me to watch their kids all the time. I end up saying yes.. Although, I should have said no. So many times my “friends” will say they can pay or we’ll do a swap but then they will watch my kids once or twice while I’ve watched there’s 20 times for FREE and I’m not talking the hour or two that they watch mine. I’m going to start bringing up the budget question when they ask. And I know I’ll probably lose these “friends” but hey, I’ll be happier and can devote all of my time to my own priorities. Thanks Jon!

  • Joshua F.
    Posted at 10:29h, 28 September Reply

    As a consultant who often works with financially struggling clients, I have had this request, or a Jesus Juke as you call it, quite often. It takes a mind shift to get beyond feeling guilty for charging and saying no to working for free (particularly when there isn’t anything else pressing). Great article I would love for would be clients to read.

  • Shelley Huff
    Posted at 12:34h, 28 September Reply

    This is such a struggle from graphic design to cleaning carpets ( I kept a machine from a business I sold years ago for personal use) It is tough to say no, this is a great idea on how to say no without the guilt. I never mind a few minutes of advice or an offer for trade, I have gotten my house cleaned in trade for website work and chiropractic care in trade for graphic design work!

  • Chris Cummings
    Posted at 12:41h, 28 September Reply

    Excellent post. Sadly, as a web designer, I don’t get this nearly as much from friends as I do from churches and ministries who think I should “do it for the Lord.” I have a feeling though, that the Lord wants my kid to have things like glasses and food and insurance. 🙂

  • Anitha Abraham
    Posted at 13:08h, 28 September Reply

    A much needed post – I am sending this to a couple of friends now who are in business for themselves. One is a make-up artist..the other a photographer…both deal with this often! Thank you!!

  • Susan
    Posted at 16:11h, 28 September Reply

    I have found, almost universally, the people who want free help rarely value what you’ve done for them. I’ve designed graphics, built websites and given business building advice to people only to discover I was more invested in their success then they were. People simply don’t value what they get for free. If they aren’t willing to pay, they aren’t serious about what they need. I’m more than willing to give people in need a hand up, but I like to see some commitment on their part first. It’s like loaning money to family. It’s okay to do as long as you go in to it with no expectation of getting anything in return.

  • Ed Troxell Creative
    Posted at 23:11h, 28 September Reply

    Gold!!! You hit it right on the money. In fact, this is what I have been talking about all week. I love that this just came to me. It is so important to get paid for your time and to be professional about it. You broke it down to the simplest form (I refer to this as “Stupid Easy™”). I already Buffered this and will add a link to one of my blog posts that covers the money issues.

  • Mark Sharp
    Posted at 06:54h, 29 September Reply

    Great words. I am a landscaper and get this question more than I want and that is, hey question for you regarding some drainage issues or hey, what should I do about, fill in the blank. I do love helping friends which is a gift however, it is annoying when friends do not notice that I do have a life outside of my business.
    I’m wondering if I should carry around my estimate book.

    • Rebekah Marks
      Posted at 12:35h, 30 September Reply

      Yes, carry your estimate book and scheduler! I run a business from home and will carry my calendar with me everywhere. When casual requests get turned into real appointments, people see that I’m not just loafing around the house all day.

  • Jenn Sanchez
    Posted at 09:55h, 29 September Reply

    I really appreciate this article. It’s super hard to navigate, especially what you said about it being a hobby for them so it’s assumed it isn’t a profession for me. Thanks for this!

  • Sandi
    Posted at 00:55h, 30 September Reply

    I don’t have a budget for books so…can I get a free copy, please? Brilliant article, by the way. ?

  • Honey Ryan
    Posted at 15:14h, 01 October Reply

    This reminds me of my father-in-law. He owned a lawn repair business. When friends asked him to repair theirs for free, he would tell them, “I’m sorry, but I have to charge my friends. I don’t get any business from my enemies.”

  • Jackie Harder
    Posted at 15:14h, 05 October Reply

    I get that all the time with coaching; people love being coached but actually pay for it? They run for the hills! Love your “what’s your budget” approach. Will be sharing this with all my entrepreneur friends and LinkedIn peeps. Good stuff.

  • Lisa Swanson
    Posted at 06:11h, 06 October Reply

    As a personal trainer/health coach/nutritionist I get this ALL the time. Great advice!!!

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    Posted at 22:32h, 06 October Reply

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  • Curtis Wallis
    Posted at 10:50h, 07 October Reply

    Such a hard issue. As a photographer I get this a ton. I personally have no issue being part of some of the events. In reality I love being part of the day. But there are times I want to be a guest enjoying myself too. So I always work out a deal to bring help along ad they pay for the extra help. This way i can monitor whats going on and enjoy the evening too.

  • Winda
    Posted at 23:49h, 07 October Reply

    I have read this post more than three times…and each time, my heart shouted “yes yes yes”. I heavy-heartedly left my workplace because of my poor health condition (MS) and began to be a self-employed designer this year. The most ‘interesting’ thing they offer me was prayer (“we’ll continue to pray for healing for ya, can you help us designing this simple stuff? No need to be perfect!”)

    (( Lord, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing )) sigh

  • Jacqueline
    Posted at 08:35h, 30 October Reply

    Great article. Love the simple question: What’s your budget?

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  • Kris Marsell
    Posted at 15:41h, 11 December Reply

    So, I just shared this on facebook, but only with myself…I don’t want to loose some friends that I know are struggling financially. I don’t want them to think I aimed it directly at them. They have not openly asked for free things but have hinted around. I crochet and people often share very cute and adorable posts with quips like “I think these are adorable!” or “Wouldn’t I look cute in this?”. I try to respond politely, but sometimes it’s difficult to be polite and get the point that they can’t afford it or I don’t want to make it across. I often find myself researching the item and linking a search or site to buy the actual product from someone else! Who does that benefit? Not me!!! And now I’m sitting here writing this instead of doing actual paid work that needs to get done because I have a deadline!!! ; )

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