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Collaborator or Contractor

Karen Rile

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Published: August 22, 2014 at 6:11 AM [UTC]

"The problem is that you have the mindset of a collaborator, not a contractor."

That's what my oldest daughter said to me last night at dinner after I'd been complaining about my treatment as a freelancer. A light blinked on inside my head and I saw the problem clearly for the first time: clients are not collaborators; they are only clients.

It isn't merely an issue of my being "too nice", or lacking boundaries (as women are so often accused.) The root of the problem is that I pride myself on doing good work and making people happy, and as a result I become over-invested in client projects. I become a collaborator, not a contractor, and in doing that I am setting myself up for frustration and exploitation—often unintentional on the client's part. And that's not fair to either of us.

The collaborator-mindset is common among artists—musicians, visual artists, writers, designers. It's proclivity that comes from our training and from our "real work", i.e., serious projects with peer-artists. But if we want to improve the way we are treated by paying clients, as distinguished from our professional peers with whom we appropriately collaborate, we need to install some mental insulation. A collaborative mindset is fine for our own projects. But when we do work-for-hire, we are contractors.

I know I'm good at what I do and that I deserve to be appropriately compensated. But time and again a fixed-price freelance project ends up costing me many more hours than what I budgeted. One client turns out to be ultra high-maintenance. Another sends a disorganized barrage of emailed afterthought-requests. Because I have a generous impulse and want them to be happy, my inclination is to hand-hold needy clients for as many extra hours as they demand or to accede to the jumble of extra tasks without renegotiating the price of the job. Partly, it's because I want the project to turn out well and I want the client to be happy. But at what personal price to me? How do I react, for example, when a web design client refuses to pay for copywriting services and then hands over a mess of sloppy, incoherent text and low-quality photos? Well, I can't do good work with bad materials, so I suck it up and do those services for free. I end up losing money—because time is money—by the time the job is finished.

And that is insupportable. It's terrible way to do business. I can see it plainly, as can any of my friends—musicians, designers, writers, and other artists—who find themselves in similar predicaments. For years I've been admonishing myself: stick to a written contract. Require a nonrefundable deposit. Watch the clock. Don't be so eager to suggest extras you know you won't get paid for just because they will make the project so much better. That "better" project, uncompensated, will drain away valuable hours promised to my other projects, and will not be appreciated anyway. But then I do it, in spite of myself, because in the heat of the working moment I am more concerned about accomplishing the best result possible than I am about the money. Eventually, the situation begins to wear on me. Under-compensated and under-valued, I grow resentful, and that resentment eats at the soul. Plus, like everybody else, I have bills to pay.

I come by the collaborator-mindset honestly. From the time I was a little girl, my parents, both highly trained artists in their own right, worked round the clock in their boutique arts management agency. Their clients have enjoyed many successes as a result, yet for my parents there was never much monetary compensation. The arts, it's a hard business. Single-minded, self-sacrificing dedication made it possible for them to stay afloat for more than forty years in an industry where it's rare for a small agency to last a decade. Theirs is a lifelong project, and if it hasn't made them materially rich, my parents' vocation earned them the intangible satisfaction of having launched and buoyed the careers of many musical artists.

Well, what kind of role model was that? And what kind of role model am I for my four young daughters, each of whom is entering a creative field where freelancing, consulting, and lesson-giving is to be a substantial part of their bread-and-butter? Lucky for me, I have my oldest daughter, who has been freelancing in multiple capacities since about age 14, to reframe the freelancer's dilemma.

This morning I asked her younger sister, our family violinist, if she uses contracts for freelance gigs.

"When the gig is through my school, Career Services requires us to do a contract," she replied. (Good on them, for promoting professionalism among young performers.) But outside gigs and freelance teaching are informally negotiated, either verbally or by email or even text message—and you can get burned. Everyone does. The danger is not in the random one-off gig where you're less likely to develop a collaborator-mindset so much as in a standing relationship, such as teaching, where you can find yourself trapped in an exploitative, low-paying, time-eating situation.

Here are a few do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do tips for freelancers:

  • Educate your client. Because they don't share your experience or assumptions, much of your professional process is opaque to them. They may not be trying to exploit you; they just might not know any better. Spell out for them what is possible and what is appropriate.

  • Don't allow your enthusiasm for the project to override your control of the situation. Don't set up client expectations that you won't be able to meet without feeling resentful and exploited a few months down the road. If a prospective client balks at your reasonable proposal, politely invite them to research the going rate. They may come back, and if not—if their only criterion is to choose the lowest bid—then good riddance.

  • If their initial expectations are out-of-the-ballpark absurd (like the time my daughter got a request for a string quartet to play for four hours for $100 because "a pianist in New Jersey quoted the same price and will bring his own keyboard"), calmly counter with a reasonable price. If they argue—let them walk.

  • Don't underbid your work. It's tempting, especially when working for friends or colleagues, or when you know the client is on a tight budget. But when you undercharge for your work, your work is not respected. People value services and objects that they come to through a fair exchange, (or when they over-pay, which explains the popularity of Burberry.)

  • Never accept a pro bono job (with the possible exception of a White House invitation) only because you're promised exposure, contacts, and the flimsy specter of future paying work. That almost never happens. Remember that proverbial cow who gave away her milk for free.

  • But do pro bono work anyway. Do it for righteous charitable organizations whose missions you believe in. Altruism is good for the soul and is a fine outlet for those generous impulses you'll be redirecting away from the freelance clients who will now be paying you a fair fee for contract work.

  • Keep it in perspective. When revising one's collaborator-mindset, it's important not to swing too far in the other direction. My obsession with the quality of my own work and my genuine concern for my clients' satisfaction are what make me a desirable person to hire in the first place. If I insulate myself too much I'll grow obtunded and lose my passion for the work—and then what good will I be?

Image credit: The Graphics Fairy

Posted on August 23, 2014 at 2:09 AM
The rule for this kind of work:


Pick any two.

Posted on August 23, 2014 at 2:31 PM
And, see the problem with that is I'd naturally go for "good, fast".

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