The point when you can’t do free anymore

This is a tough topic, and I even hesitate to mention anything about it. Still, it’s worth opening up a discussion because as I get deeper and deeper into my career that revolves around technology, whether it’s in radio, web design, podcasting, or content producing, this is something that similar people are running into.

What do you do when you can’t do what you love to do for free anymore? After all of those favors or helpful tips that you give out to other people are just too much for the amount of time that you have in a day where you have to ask for some compensation, what else can you do?

In my current day job, I am the main I.T. contact for a group of four radio stations. I have enough knowledge and experience that I can get into the engineering side of it, meaning equipment in the studios and all the way to the transmitters. I don’t know everything, but my amount of knowledge is more, when it comes to technology, than the average staff member. It’s called support. I’m paid to use my abilities to keep the ship afloat.

What do you do when someone asks you to take a look at their personal technology needs? A quick look at their home PC can take a chunk of your time. There is also the question of coming over to their house to help them out with something that, for someone like myself, would be relatively easy to pick out the problem and maybe even fix it.

The part that gets sketchy is when you are asked for your services and not expected to be compensated for them.

If you offer me a bottle of wine to do something that is relatively low key in the amount of time and energy that I have to expend, then I’m pretty much fair game. However, not all problems are the same, so once you do one favor for someone, the thought is that the next favor that is asked by someone else would be the same situation.

Truth is, it’s not. I’d love to be able to solve everyone’s problems, but there is not enough time in the day to take care of everyone, not to mention my own issues (that took front and center with my 5 year old Powerbook just the other day, hopefully lasting another few months before it completely dies).

There is a mindset that exists today where, in my experience, people want a lot but do not want to pay for it. This isn’t a new concept, but getting into the world of consulting and design with sixty4media, this is the reality of today’s landscape.

Whether it’s fixing someone’s computer at home to overhauling a website design, my heart is always there to give assistance, but I also have to be able to live. Your free time is just as valuable to my free time, and the sun doesn’t stay up long enough to enjoy life as much as I would like.

Sharing information in a community level is where you will find me in very many capacities (i.e. Northern Voice, BarCampVancouver, etc.) as well as the people I call friends. In that situation, we are there to fill the world with ideas to help you go in the direction that you want to be in. When it comes to the point where the communication descends out of the cloud and into a direct, two way relationship where you are the knowledge seeker getting information from the knowledgeable, that is an exchange of goods for my (or any able bodied geek’s) services.

It’s a tough world when it comes down to someone asking you for the world and not expecting to give anything to get it. This is the realm that many of us live in when it comes to technology in many aspects, and it gets even tougher in the world of design.

There won’t be a solution to this long stemming problem in a simple blog post. I watched my brother go through this in my hometown, and when he started charging $40 per hour to fix someone’s computer, less people came through the front door. However, there were those hardcore believers that trusted in what he could do and paid the money.

This is what drives me through the frustration. Truly there are people out there that understand the concept that if you think that what I am good at what I do, then we’ve got a deal. I will do my best to not let you down and give you the best of what my abilities are capable of.


14 Replies to “The point when you can’t do free anymore”

  1. I don’t mind helping people out and doing favours for them, but I sort of expect when I need something from them they’ll be around to help me out as well. Most of my friends are good with that, but many people aren’t. I kind of like the line the Joker used in the last Batman movie – “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

    I’ve been told by many companies in Vancouver that once you draw a line in the sand for what you will do for how much money, you’ll lose a bunch of business, but it will be replaced by higher paying (and generally higher quality) clients. So you basically just have to voluntarily decide to stop doing work for nothing and move past it. I’m bad for that as well.

  2. It’s hard to draw the line, especially if the boundary has already been crossed by certain friends or co-workers. But you have nothing to lose (except working for free) and everything to gain (getting paid or not being asked by freeloaders).

  3. It’s a great topic to bring up, John, and really one that doesn’t get enough attention. Though I don’t experience it to the same degree that you do, I’m often asked by either family or friends to assist with technical support on their computers or home networks, and this has recently started to happen with more frequency with co-workers asking about their home machines.

    I’ve always been hesitant to agree to charging money for any of these services for fear that it would be tantamount to offering a warranty. At the same time, I’m not all that keen on spending hours and hours of my free time showing someone how to re-install Windows on their PC because they’ve downloaded too much crap off LimeWire and find themselves with a box full of malware.

    Maybe it’s time more geeks went from tech-support flunkie to paid consultant.

  4. Do not get me started about LimeWire. I don’t even care about the discussion about copyright infringement when it comes to file sharing. It’s just a pain if you install it, especially on your Windows machine. Ugh!@!$

  5. Hey…got a minute…can you look at my MacBook…

    BTW…it went in the shop…$430 plus tax to get it back to specs…

  6. This is a great topic, John, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been commented much, but it’s true. I agree with what Keith, Duane and Phaedra have all commented, and would add that the English language has helped me deal with that greatly.

    For example, if somebody tells me “hey can you translate this short sentence for me” (in any of the languages I speak) I am more than happy to do so. If somebody tells me to spend an hour of my time translating, I’m expecting that either (a) the person asking is a very close friend, and he/she will appreciate what I do or (b) the relationship is so reciprocal that asking a favor back will never be an issue.

    Given my current lack of steady income, I am frequently worried about asking people for help because I worry I won’t have the cash to pay them. It’s not that they WANT or EXPECT compensation, it’s that I feel bad that I can’t afford to pay back in the kind of compensation they DESERVE.

    I’m often trying to find ways to pay back to the people who help me, and I find that the feeling and attitude is always mutual. The only person who used me completely was my former best friend, and he is gone from my life as of February 2006.

    In closing, your knowledge is your currency. And I find that there is nothing wrong in charging when it goes above and beyond the call of duty (or friendship).

    Also, as I said, English as a language helps me a lot. I have a MUCH harder time charging friends in Spanish than I do in English. It’s easier to say “well, my hourly rate is …” than “bueno, esta asesorĂ­a te va a costar TANTO”

    You’ve opened a great topic for discussion here, John!

  7. Great topic John – I think it’s a subject we all struggle with. It’s probably the biggest downside in working for myself. I’m a naturally a guy who likes to help people out – but when what you are good at is also how you make a living, you have to draw a line.

    With family I still help out a lot – but they have and always will help me when I need it too. It is similar with friends – but I’ve got a lot of friends so these days I tell them how to search for a solution to their problem and then to follow the recommended steps.

    It’s the whole give a man a fish/teach him how to fish kinda thing…

    The longer I’m in business for myself, the more I try to equip others with the tools and knowledge to solve their own problems, rather than just fixing things for them.

  8. I got into a discussion about this recently with a family member. Building machines is fun. Teching machines can be fun, but usually it’s the same damned problems – poorly written software for poorly written operating systems in the hands of poorly educated end users.

    I like the ubiquity of Windows, the presentation of Apple, and the open qualities of GNU/Linux. My answer was ultimately go to Linux – I already had a bevy of PC hardware and I’m discouraged by the iron fist of hardware control Apple maintains (although I acknowledge it’s one of the reasons their software is so damned good). And most people think that if you’re a geek/nerd/tech lover/etc that you just must like to do this sort of thing.

    So I’ve switched all of my machines to various flavors of Linux (outside of a single gaming machine). Mostly I use Ubuntu or other Debian based distros.

    There was this point where I said “I’m tired of fixing user initiated errors for machines” after being called or e-mailed numerous times every week by various acquaintances that were having issues. My solution has been this – $65 an hour for all tech support work outside of my immediate family, or I switch you to Linux for free. So far I’ve switched most of my friends, 6 members of my family, and a church to Linux with minimal fanfare and best of all much lower tech support requests. Most of those people have simply ceased to have issues by taking the 2 main factors away (weak software/weak OS).

    So the answer, for me anyway, was stick to your guns, charge people or offer an alternative that is mutually agreeable – but the more you give in and offer free support the more you’re tied to that expectation, and in doing so devalue your work.

  9. As a self-employed person (internet and marketing) every time I get to the point where my business stops being fun and starts being a pain, I raise my prices. This weeds out those who try to get something for little or nothing and allows me to better focus on those customers who actually value my skills.

    Raising your price from zero to something is the same thing.

    Subtle ways: “Sure I’ll help – but I’m tied up until 5AM tomorrow morning – how about you bring it over then and cook breakfast while I work on it?”

    Not so subtle ways: “Sure – I’ll have a look at your computer but while I’m doing this can you run out and fill my car with gas (or at least wash it)?”

  10. I love these types of blogs, but I’m eagerly awaiting the day that this attitude becomes popular in the arts world. Artists are so often ask to do things for free– play an event, create new pieces for auctions. I’m often asked to basically be a curator for free. But when I talk about artists banding together and no longer giving our skills away for “exposure” — which is a load of crap for us — I get a few hear-hears and the rest is mostly angry disagreement.

    But this type of sentiment seems to be getting more and more popular in the tech/freelancing/consulting world, so I can only hope that it will become more clear that the same logic applies to artists.

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