Can You Spare Some Time?

A common topic in the programming business is how to avoid doing work for free, or close to it. There are various permutations of this:

  • Job postings offering $50 and “lots more work from my friends” to build a custom built eCommerce site with its own payment processing system
  • Friends asking you to spend an evening fixing their virus infected computer
  • People you meet in the community asking you to donate your time to their favorite program

Buried under workIn all these cases, what is being ignored is the fact that the skills they are requesting took years of training to acquire, and that those same skills are what we use to pay our bills. This is similar to asking a doctor to dispense medical advice for free, or a lawyer to prepare a lengthly hiring contract for $50 when it will take him 3 hours to draft it properly.

At the same time, one must stay aware of maintaining a positive relationship with family and friends. The question is, how and where do you draw the line?

For me, the lines are pretty simple.

First, I have two hourly rates – the rate I want to earn, and the rate I need to earn. The rate I want to earn is the rate that I charge paying clients. This covers my expenses, some contingency billing for any additional time I might have to spend on the project that I cannot bill for, and a bit of profit. The rate I need to earn covers my costs exactly. If I have to pay someone to do the work, it’s the amount I’m paying them. There’s no profit in it for me.

Okay, now what? How do I apply those rates?

For family and friends, or people I run into around the community, if I can answer the question on the spot, I don’t charge. It’s not worth it, trying to charge makes me look like a jerk, and there’s usually no liability issue associated with the advice I dispense (if there is, then I won’t give the advice, and I’ll tell the questioner to give me a call at the office). It’s also a good way to spread my name around, gain some positive reputation, and benefit from word-of-mouth referrals, which are the best kind of referrals.

If the work will take me some time (that is, more than a couple minutes), then a decision must be made. For some members of my family, I really will get quality referrals, and so, I take that into consideration. Others are merely trying to get a free ride – and my taxi doesn’t drive that way. In that case, I charge the rate I need to earn, and explain politely that this is covering my out of pocket expenses, and that if I didn’t charge it, I would actively lose money by doing the work for them.

For anyone else, or if it’s a larger project, the explanation for why I can’t just do them a favor is really simple:

I earn a living by doing exactly the kind of work you asked me to do. In particular, this project you want me to do for you will take me 40 hours to complete. That’s a week. I wouldn’t ask you to work for free for a week, and you shouldn’t ask me to do that either.

If you look up what the going rate is for this type of work, it runs about $1500 to $2000 and that’s what I typically charge. If you cannot afford it, then you cannot have it. I can’t afford to vacation in Aruba all year around, much as I would like to, and so I can’t have that either.

It’s really not up for debate, so any explanation longer than that is not warranted. Just as I cannot spend time building your website for free, I also cannot spend time explaining that to you either.

In regard to the people posting on job boards asking for cheap labor for their complicated project? I don’t need them or their project. Offering pennies for the work is just insulting. Either be ready to pay the going rate, or just ask for the favor. Getting me your 10 closest friends to give me their pet projects isn’t a favor, because if you can’t pay, what makes you think they’ll pay either?