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This article was published on October 28, 2021

Asking you to work for free is not an opportunity. It’s an insult.

Creatives gotta eat

Asking you to work for free is not an opportunity. It’s an insult.
Joan Westenberg
Story by

Joan Westenberg

Founder, Self

Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and adver Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She’s the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self and was named one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

The other day, I sat down for a meeting with an entrepreneur looking for a marketer and content writer. A mutual friend had put us in touch, and before our session, I had provided him with a clear breakdown of my fees and estimates. We met up at a cafe and shared some coffee to discuss his project.

He gave a long pitch about his startup and how it was both synergistic and disruptive. All was well.

He spoke about changing the world and using social responsibility to have a broader impact outside his product area. All was well.

He began outlining his financial approach.

All was no longer well.

I attempted to remain interested despite the slow, sinking feeling that I was about to be asked to let him royally screw me.

And then he came out with it. He said that he didn’t have the budget to pay for any work. But that he had projected millions of dollars in profits over the next two years and was prepared to give me exposure.

Despite an urge to scream in his face, I was courteous, thanked him for his time and repeated the fees that I had quoted to him before our meeting. He seemed stunned by the fact that I wasn’t so excited about his company that I would work pro bono.

Thankfully, the meeting wasn’t a total waste of time. He did pay for my cappuccino. I briefly toyed with the idea of suggesting that he ask the Barista to work for free as making coffee for him would be a huge opportunity, but I let it slide. We parted amicably, but he left a terrible lasting impression.

This kind of behaviour is a bad look. It shows a total disregard for anyone but yourself. The fact of the matter is that if you cannot afford to pay for someone to perform creative work, you need to seriously re-evaluate your business plan or develop the skills yourself. Expecting people to work for free in exchange for a future promotion at best or a tweet at worst looks self-centred and unprofessional.

When you’re a creative, you will be faced with this all the time. It’s a constant, demoralising expectation. It comes from a wide range of people. You are expected to be prepared and more than happy to work for free. You are pushed to take advantage of some fictional “great opportunity” in which you will be given fantastic publicity and some content for your portfolio.

It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, an artist, a musician, or a scrapbooking consultant. You will come across so many people who don’t value your work. They appreciate what they see as the results of your work.

If you’re a designer, they value your work’s effect to make their business look professional and attract clients. But they don’t appreciate the creative work itself.

I have been approached to design free websites, run social media accounts and campaigns for the experience and develop marketing strategies for jack shit. I’ve been asked to create custom drawn flyers, merchandise and album covers for so many different brands, companies and entrepreneurs who “don’t have any room in their budget” that I have now lost count.

Here’s the thing. As a creative professional, the most incredible opportunity that anyone can give you is paid work. That’s all you’re asking for. Because your work deserves that much respect.

If you’re creative, understand that you need to be bold. Be brave. Stand up for yourself and say that you deserve payment. It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be a hefty fee. But it does need to be something.

If you’re an entrepreneur, understand that the kind of respect you are fighting for, for your app or service is the kind of respect that every freelancer out there is fighting for.

If you’re building a product you love, understand that asking someone to design your materials for free makes you the bad guy. It shows that you only care about one person: You.

This article was originally published on Joan Westenberg’s Medium page. You can read it here.

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