Working for Free


Can you fix computers? — I was asked. Sure, I responded. So we began to work for free. The question, though, quickly became how much time I should invest fixing something that could be replaced for $500. We’ve all done it, and we’ve all quickly come to regret it. There are some challenges not worth taking up. This scenario can be extrapolated to many other workplace situations. There are certainly times where giving away your services for free is justifiable and appropriate. To help the poor and for charity, for instance. There is a difference between working and offering a helping hand, but too often we are exploited because we fear that rejecting a request “wouldn’t be nice” or people (perhaps, the boss) may think lesser of us. Here is a treatise on why that is always bad.

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It is in our nature to love the puzzle. We are obsessed. The lot of us. We love puzzles. We love the challenge. We thrive on finding the answer. We hate disarray. It bothers us deep in our soul.

We love the accolades. We love to be seen as the digital white knight who fixed the server, the computer, the email, and anything else that life depends on.

We love it so much, we sometimes make horrible decisions. Sometimes, we work “FOR FREE.”

We’ve all done it. A friend, a neighbor, a relative, a good client, a bad client, a pretty girl… Whoever it was, and for whatever reason, we all threw them a technological bone and fixed something for free. In rare instances, it can be a rewarding experience. Perhaps your buddy gave you a beer. Maybe someone said thank you. Maybe there was a smile on their face, and that was rewarding enough.

More likely, however, that five minute task you thought you were signing up for turned into 40 minutes, then an hour, then a commitment. Wow. You didn’t see that coming.

There are five reasons why you should ALWAYS hand out a bill.

1. You Break it You Bought it.

When you sit down to fix a problem that presented as a simple one you are creating a contract. Not a legal contract, but a social one. The computer owner is trusting their computer with you. It’s their baby, and you’re the doctor. So you sit down, and begin to fix a problem.

In the process, something else breaks. You fixed one thing, but something else goes awry. What’s the best part? Neither you nor the user notice it is broken until a day later when they call you to blame you for breaking something else.

“I thought you were going to fix it.” They complain.

This is the primary reason you charge money to fix something. You break it, you bought it. The user / owner will expect you to warranty your service even though THEY received all the value of your time, and you received nothing in exchange.

2. People don’t respect things that are free.

I learned that quote from a man who runs a non-profit organization. Image that. A man who solicits donations for a living candidly told me “people don’t respect things that are free.” You know what? He’s right.

Free advice. Free upgrade. Free entry. None are valued. Free advice is seldom wanted. Free upgrade was something you were going to get anyway. Free entry? The band playing tonight must not be any good.

People associate the value of service with the amount of money that is exchanged for it. How else do you think that lawyer can get away with charging $400 an hour? People naturally make the assumption that if it costs an arm and a leg, then it must be worth it.

So, if customers and friends will assume that the most expensive car is the best one, what will they assume of the free car? Do you want the heart surgeon who charges $500,000 per surgery or the one who works for beer to operate on your mother?

3. They will expect it forever.

In law, the concept of a precedent is vitally important. Judges and lawyers look to previous cases to decide what the interpretation of the law was because if a case was settled one way before, chances are, it will be settled that way again.

Gamblers playing craps look at the past behavior of the dice to, mistakenly, assume that the good luck will continue.

Users will figure if you fixed it once for free, you’ll do it forever for free. There is no reason why they should respect the thousands of hours you have spent learning and researching the art of computer science. There is no reason that they should respect the certifications you hold. There is no reason that they should honor your abilities by paying your fees. Why? Because you did it for free. Once!

When they come back and you try to get fees, they will meet you with resistance in the form of guilt. “I thought we were friends” they cry. “You didn’t charge me anything last time.” They argue.

Setup the expectation that they are going to pay (or barter) from the onset. Demand the respect that you deserve. Make sure they understand you are a professional. After all, that is the difference between a professional and an amateur. Professionals get compensated for their skills.

4. The demands will only grow with time.

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