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Ok, as a software engineer, I feel that my skills are valuable in other contexts, for instance, a friend came to me and asked me to setup a website for her research and I did it for free. At first I thought it would put my name out there and give me something to work with and hone my skills in my spare time... But I couldn't stop thinking that I was wasting my time with an unpaid job.

Now, a second friend comes to me with the same story: "Could you do it for me? I will put your name there, you know, it will get tons of views... Yadda Yadda..."

How do you handle this? Do you charge for services in your spare time, even if we are talking about friends? If so, how would you charge for it, for instance, as a consultant?

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Are these projects preventing you from making a living wage? –  JeffO Sep 9 '11 at 17:18
    
Not at all. I work on them in my spare time, on weekends, basically. –  wleao Sep 9 '11 at 17:50
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In my mind, this is just about the same as how I'd handle someone asking me to help them go pick up some furniture, if I have a car and they don't. It's perfectly fine to do things for free for friends, as long as it's part of the usual mutual exchange of favors. If they're really a friend, and they understand that they're asking for a favor costing you substantial time, then this just becomes a normal social question, not a programming one. –  Jefromi Sep 9 '11 at 18:28
    
I charge 3x-5x my hourly wage for work that takes away from my evenings and weekends. My free time isn't free. –  Incognito Sep 9 '11 at 18:48
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See this flowchart shouldiworkforfree.com –  Ragnar123 Sep 9 '11 at 22:07
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11 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

My simple rule is never to work for free. But this doesn't mean I always work for money. If I work for them, I ask them to give something in return. It might be even just be symbolic, like coming over and buying pizza if I spend an afternoon helping them typeset their thesis in LaTeX. A friend used to give me tennis classes and I helped him with his website. If they aren't willing to do something simple for me, I'm not willing to work for them.

I also avoid like hell doing something for family members. It just doesn't work out. A frank advice and critic will often be seen like if it's something personal. Might just be my family or my culture, maybe it's different in other places. But, from previous experiences, it's better to just avoid it. I just say I'm too busy.

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I would take that on a case by case basis, there maybe some "free projects" that interest you and give you opportunties to develop skills and experience for paid work and some that don't.

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I would be wary of doing free projects for friends and family. They tend to snowball and go down hill quickly. How do you tell one friend sure, but then when the next asks you say no. Can lead to some strained relations

Doing free work for other projects that aren't for friends and family can be beneficial. You may not only learn new technologies and techniques but very well may make some valuable contacts in the process. The value of good contacts can not be overstated.

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Also, the value of well established boundaries are equally important. No point in gaining new contacts if you burn bridges when you don't have time to support something you did for free but the contact expects that of you. –  Jetti Sep 9 '11 at 13:02
    
@Jetti thats a good point, the assumption of continued support for free work –  Gratzy Sep 9 '11 at 13:15
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Thats a tough thing to do if they are friends, but typically if it is a non-profit venture for charity then you can write off expenses on your taxes, (Eg. workstation, software, gas to drive to friends house to discuss requirements, etc...) I did a website for a local politician but I am not sure if campaign contributions can be written off on taxes?(Disclaimer: I am not a tax attorney)

If it has even the slightest chance of profit then force yourself in as a business partner and take a percentage ownership of the venture. Knowing I am the cofounder sometimes calms my racing thoughts about the whole mess being a giant waste of time.

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FWIW, in Canada donations in kind to a political campaign are eligible for the same tax write off as the equivalent cash donation, which is substantial. So make sure you get a receipt from him. I am neither a lawyer nor an accountant, but I am involved in the administration of a political party. –  MattBelanger Sep 9 '11 at 14:51
    
@Matt, Thank you for the information but despite my name I am not a Canadian, I am from the US ^_^ . I should be so lucky to live and work in a progressive forward thinking country that treats their citizens with dignity and respect. :) –  maple_shaft Sep 9 '11 at 15:04
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It is probably a big continuum, if it is a small thing that will take me a couple of minutes I will do it. If it extends into multiple hours I will usually try and offer to teach people what needs to be done.

Take this as an example, if you have a friend that earns a living as a plumber, and you have a plumbing job to do, would you expect him to come over and fix the problem for free ?

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It's really a case by case thing. There are many variables affecting your decision to charge or not:

  • Time: How much time will it take you to complete it.
  • Delivery: When is it expected to be delivered? Is there pressure to finish?
  • Profit: Is the project meant for profit? If someone is goind to make money of it, why can't you as well?
  • Relationship: How close are you to this friend? Did he save your life? Does he own a bar and constantly gives you free beer?
  • Time: Again, time, but this time your own time. How much available time do you have to work on it.
  • Expectations: Are they demanding? A one time delivery or constant support?

The main thing is that you feel comfortable with the arrangement. It could tear down a friendship If you feel taken advantage of by not defining proper terms and expectations. And if you decide to charge, do so correctly, by defining a requirements document, delivarables, timeline, the works... avoid a common problem which comes from entitlement. When someone, even a friend, pays for something, they rightfully feel entitled and they might demand more than was originally agreed, because "I am paying you!".

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+1 for "Does he own a bar and constantly gives you free beer?" Points noted. Thank you. –  wleao Sep 9 '11 at 17:45
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My rule is: If they expect to make money off of it then I expect to be compensated for my time. No exceptions. Otherwise it can easily snowball and you wind up being taken advantage of (or are blamed when it all goes to pieces because you stopped working for free).

Alternatively, if it is hobby related (perhaps a fantasy football league, family photo album etc.) where no money is involved, I might help if I also find the 'hobby' in question of interest. I.e. if I would be likely to use the resulting site. It does however depend on the scale of the project and exactly who's asking.

I never work 'for publicity'. I'm well past needing some two-bit website to advertise my credentials. That may however be a point to consider if you are were new in the business.

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If you are going to do a free website, do it understanding that it will not give you any benefits beyond helping a friend. In my experience, the whole "it gets your name out there" argument is pretty much garbage. I've done a half dozen websites for free, and have never had a paying job come of it. Nor did I expect one.

If people ask me to do a website for them for free, I decide if I want to spend the time, and say yes or no. If I say yes, I specify exactly what I will do, which is typically set up the CMS/Wordpress/Site/whatever, with a free theme, and show them how to update it. If it ever broke, I'd probably help fix it, but I don't promise that. It's vital that you be absolutely clear what they should expect from you, and that you are NOT their personal web developer on call 24/7.

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The answer is:

NO, I NEVER WORK FOR FREE, EVEN IF IT IS ENJOYABLE.

The reason is:

This action ruins the IT market. Yeah, you do your friend a favor. But then another friend comes in and expects to return with full hands. This way, your friend thinks that gaining an IT solution is really cheap. Next time he won't pay for someone else's work.

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How do you handle the situation where half the population in the work market worked hard on their free time and learned every detail about the technologies, and then you'll need to eventually compete against them while creating products for your company? Refusing to do it will not work, as it only gives you disadvantage and changing everyone in the world is just not possible... –  tp1 Sep 9 '11 at 16:04
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No, it does not 'ruin the it market'. Did the open source movement ruin the it market? Would it ruin the car repair market if I help somebody fix his tire? Does it ruin the restaurant market if I cook for friends or have a barbecue with them? –  thorsten müller Sep 9 '11 at 20:57
    
Baloney. It's not hard to educate the friend who expects you to work for free, and helping one friend out doesn't obligate you to work gratis for everyone you know. –  Caleb Sep 9 '11 at 21:32
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"Free" is no problem - you do it if it amuses you; and there are no obligations to do more, better or different than you feel like.

"Bargain Rate" is a big problem. I Just don't do it. There's no limit to how large a bargain project can become, and once you start accepting any money there's an expectation to see the project through.

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  • Is the favor reasonable for our friendship? (My fiancee can ask for something more time-intensive than a facebook acquaintence),
  • Do I think its worthwhile? (I don't like wasting my time),
  • Do I have the relevant expertise? (I'm not going to learn adobe flash for a free project),
  • Is it fairly enjoyable (I'm not going to volunteer my free time for something I will hate),
  • Do I have the time?
  • Will they appreciate the favor?

If I do a favor, I also like making sure they put in their share of the work. They want a simple javascript action on their website? Make sure they fully specify in writing, what the behavior they want is (and I'll let them know the finished product may differ), with as little to no ambiguities. Also make sure the friend is there while I'm developing (not looking over my shoulder -- but around so I could ask questions)--say they make me dinner and I'll do a couple hours of coding for them.

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