Working for free : When is it okay and when it is not

Do you remember this wall in my living room that I painted a while back? When I painted it, I got quite a few people asking me if I would do it for them. This is what I said to them, "A lot of people have been asking me if I will paint a wall for them at their home. Well for that to happen you have to be one of the following - my mom, dad, in-laws, brother, husband, son, nephew, niece, cousin, my best friend, or the PM of India!!! So if you are not one of the above, wait till you are." And I wasn't even talking about doing it for free. I did that wall because I love my home and want it to feel the way we want it to, as a family. It is not something that I do professionally. And not something that I want to do either. So I know if one of those people asked me to do it I would do it for free. I love it and I love them! Its super simple.

But when it comes to quilting, not so much. When I started out, it was just a hobby and I did a lot of 'Free work'. Even my blog was a hobby then and I used all the opportunity that I got to make those quilts to learn new techniques.

But ever since I made it into a business, I knew I would not do that. And if I did, there had to be a strong reason to do so.

Here are the reasons I do not work for free :

  1. It is not free for me. Making a quilt or teaching how to quilt is not free to me. If nothing else, I'm taking time away from my family and giving it to the project in hand. I am employing a maid to do the cleaning or hiring a cook to make dinner. Or even telling my husband I cannot go with him out for lunch. All of this is something I am paying for. Either in cash or in some other way. So even if the person asking me to work for free is providing me with all the material, I am still bearing this cost in addition to the overhead costs like using my machine, space etc. Even if it is just a blog post, the least I am using is electricity and internet, neither of which is free!
  2. I deserve better. If I use my first reason a lot of people will say, "I will pay you for all of those - overheads and the substitute staff you pay". Will I then do it? No. Because I deserve better. Because I deserve to be paid for my time, intelligence and my work. And I will not accept anything less than that. When talking about my work or while talking to the creative entrepreneurs that I coach, I always say "If you do not value your own work, no one else will." It is very important for us as entrepreneurs to value our work. That is why I insist people work out the selling price of an item even if they make it with an intention to gift it. You must know what 'value' you have gifted.
  3. I want to set a good example. Being in this industry for a while now, a lot of quilters look up to me as a mentor or an inspiration. I do not want to set a bad example for them by offering my work for free. I do not want to start something like a race to decide "who is the cheapest". I am an industry leader and i take my role very seriously. When I charge my time's worth, I know that I am justifying not just my own time, but the time that every one of my students, followers and clients is putting into making their unique creations. 
  4. People do not value what you offer for free. I have learnt this from experience. Unless people see you closely working hard, they do not value what you are doing. Your work has to take something away from them - be it time (like your close family) or money (like other paying clients) for them to value it. If you offer free advice, it looses its value just because the person has not paid its due price!

So does that mean that I never work for free?

Not at all. I do. And much more often than you would think. So when do I think it is justified to work for free?

  1. When you value the person who you are working for. When the person who you are working for is someone who deserves your time and effort, it is justified to work for free. Your husband. YES. Your child. YES. Your parents. YES. Your closest friends. YES. Any person who is invaluable to you. YES. How valuable a person is for you dictates whether you will work for free for them. If Elizabeth Hartman or Jacquie Gering would ask me to make a quilt for them, I would never even hesitate to say Yes! But if it is someone who is not that close or not someone who I is so valuable for me, I will definitely say No.
  2. When it is for charity. If I am making something for a charity that I support, I will always be ready to work for free. I have received a lot from the society and I believe I should give back to the society as much as I can. If making a quilt for a war veteran, an orphan, a homeless person or even an old lady too frail to look after herself puts a smile on their face, it is all worth it.
  3. When the favor is reciprocated. I am willing to work for free, if it is a part of a reciprocated favor. Of course, then it will be called bartering and technically I wont be working for free. I understand that especially as a new entrepreneur it is not always possible to pay for some expensive things even though they are really important. In these cases, you can offer your work in return for it. If I could not pay my coach/mentor her fees, but if she were ready to coach me for free in return of me making a portrait quilt of her, I would go ahead and do it. In these cases you must make sure that the items you make for each other are of almost equal value.

I understand that in the beginning of your business, it is easy to give in and work for exposure. In the end it comes down to simple maths. The business that you get through the exposure should generate more profit that the value of the product that you are offering for free. 

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