A Weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch





Back to Archive Index

Back to

Don't work for free

by Douglas E. Welch

October 15, 1999

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

Those of you familiar with this column might be a bit confused at this week's title. I often have people ask me how to get high-tech experience when they are just graduating from college or changing careers. For these people I recommend working for friends, neighbors and relatives; anything they can do to gain experience for their resume. Once beyond that level, though, especially after one or two paying jobs, no one should work for free.

You get what you pay for

We are all familiar with the saying "You get what you pay for." While it isn’t always true we all assume, deep down, that anything you get for free is probably worth just what you paid for it. You shouldn't put yourself or YOUR career in this position. Your future livelihood depends on your customers, whether corporate workers or your own private clients, understanding that they are getting an exceptional product whenever they are paying for your services. You don't want people to devalue you just because you are doing them a favor today. Something should change hands whenever you work for someone, whether it is money, movie tickets, referrals to other clients, something.

When I first began working on my watercolor painting skills, my art coach taught me this same lesson. Never give your art away. Ask the person to make a donation to your favorite charity, if nothing else. Make sure there is an understanding that there is an intrinsic value to your work that deserves remuneration or recognition. Make sure your works receives the same consideration.

It can happen…

Just because I've learned a lesson, like the one above, doesn't mean I always follow my own rules. I often fall victim to my own good intentions. Now, certainly, you shouldn't stop helping people. I volunteer my time teaching people about computers and was even a volunteer forest ranger for several years. We all need to be very quick to understand when our good nature is being abused. In these days where every potential client has a cousin, niece, nephew or brother-in-law who says they can fix a computer we need to work all the harder at being professional about our careers.

Recently, I was contacted by a gentleman who needed some repair work done on a series of web sites he develops. He is not web knowledgeable and the designers of the web sites had moved onto other projects leaving him with no one to assist him. Since he is a small businessman and was referred by one of my existing clients I took on his project at a much-reduced rate with the hope that we would eventually be able to work together at my normal rate. That first step was good business. The bad business came next.

Despite the fact that I had extended myself by lowering my rates and performed several emergency fixes and detailed upgrades, this same client recently acted as if I had over billed him. The client had extended the scope of the work 3 times, called late at night and requested the changes as quickly as possible, but still found my billing, at my lower rate excessive. It should be clear to you, as it was to me, that by lowering my rates initially, I diminished the worth of my own work. Despite the fact this client cannot perform the work himself, and possibly because he doesn't understand the nature of what I do, he finds even the lower rates untenable. Through my desire to help someone I became the one with the problem.

Be on your guard

I want to reinforce that this is not the first time I have observed or experienced this. Almost all my friends and peers who work in a high-tech career have their "war stories." This is especially true of those who work freelance with private clients or consult inside corporations. There are good clients out there and there are even clients who deserve our good intentions. These clients are to be cultivated for they can lead to long and productive relationships. Those clients that prove troublesome shouldn't be allowed to continue and devalue your time and energy. Stop working for these clients as soon as you can and save yourself the headaches and aggravation to come. We all deserve to earn what we are worth, even is we sometimes forget that ourselves.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

Book Recommendation

Browse the WelchWrite Bookstore



Also on