On Doing Free Work

We frequently write about the importance of asking to get paid what you are worth and how essential it is to running a small business. After all, all small business owners in the languages industry have a very limited resource to sell (our time) and it is crucial to our (business) survival that we make enough to have a fulfilling career and life. Now, we are the first ones to give back to our profession and to donate our time to worthy charities and non-profits, especially to translation and interpreting associations. We have done so for many years and are very proud of the positive impact that work has. We recently even donated our time to a government agency, and even though we were quite torn about it, it's a great service to the community. However, we do not donate our time to for-profit businesses, nor do we quite understand why we should. Note: this is an article about services beyond translation.

Photo by Judy Jenner.
So today we'd like to address this concerning trend: the increasing amount of companies who approach us and other colleagues and who expect us to donate our time and insight to their bottom line. Essentially, we would do work for the customer who then financially benefits from it. We've gotten many requests like these throughout the years (which we usually delete immediately), but we've seen an increase in recent months. Here are some comments and thoughts on this very sensitive subject:
  • We have worked very hard to get were we are, and our insight and expertise have value. Clearly the companies who ask us for advice recognize this. It's really quite simple: Just pay us for our work and we will share our insight. It's called consulting.
  • 15 minutes. We recently received a request from a company that wanted to "pick our brain for 15 minutes" (it's never 15 minutes). In that time, the company's representative wanted us to basically explain the entire industry to her and hoped we could design her business plan since we were at it. We suggested that we send her a quote for consulting services, but not surprisingly, we never heard back. We don't get it. If we tried to start, say, a restaurant, we wouldn't go to some of the better-known restaurateurs and expect to be able to pick their brain for free. Have we, as linguists, conditioned others to think that our time and hard-earned insight have no value? That would be quite troubling, and it's food for thought indeed.
  • You will get exposure! We usually have a good laugh when companies who are trying to get free work from us promise us exposure in return. As we mentioned, we have worked very hard to get where we are and we don't need exposure, as that doesn't pay our bills. We have plenty of paying clients, but in general, we want clients and not exposure. 
  • Yes, we charge for our services, and that's how it should be. In our industry, it's (oddly) been quite common to not want to talk about money. Of course we charge for our services, as does every businessperson. But companies have now caught up to the fact that the m-word in our industry makes some feel uncomfortable, and have perhaps gotten some linguists to donate their services to they can then reap the financial benefits. Not cool. Yes, we charge for our services. Doesn't everyone?
  • It's about all of us. It's really begun to bother us that so many linguists receive these "work for us for free!" offers, but the reason they keep on coming is because linguists keep on accepting those offers. Just don't do it and perhaps this trend will stop. The "delete" button is your friend!
  • For the record, we wanted to point out that of course we also get approached by plenty of lovely companies who ask us to send them quotes for consulting services. The folks who want to take advantage are still relatively few and far between, but they leave a lasting negative impression.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this, dear colleagues!


Revé on February 2, 2014 at 4:16 AM said...

"We usually have a good laugh when companies who are trying to get free work from us promise us exposure in return."

Wouldn't logic tell them that such "exposure" is not needed? If I respect someone enough that I'm seeking their business advice, wouldn't that imply that there are more successful than I am and my "exposure" will only do so much for them? lol

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 3, 2014 at 7:56 PM said...

@Revé: Yes; you would think, wouldn't you? Quite amusing indeed, but these are probably mass pitches anyway... or maybe they are serious that they respect our work and still want us to trade if for exposure. We prefer trading our services for payment, though. :) Thanks for reading and for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insightful article about this. I couldn't agree more with your stance on this topic. Unlike yourselves I have a lot of translation agencies in my clientele. Recently, I was approached by one of them asking me if I would be willing to do a free translation test. Not because they wanted to know I can deliver the expected quality (I have been working for them for quite some time, so they know my work), but because this was part of a bidding process for new customer. I was actually quite upset about this request as I thought it was totally unreasonable. First of all, my language combination is very common so they cannot not guarantee that I will actually get the work for this client if they win the bid. And second of all, as a freelancer I do not have any control over the way they handle the relationship with the client so why should I do this for free? If they do not win the client, this a business risk they took and so they should be willing to pay for it. If they don't want to do that, they should not be running a business.

Jesse Tomlinson on February 17, 2014 at 2:10 PM said...

Free work—it's something we can look at from a couple of angles. I agree with your post. Companies who have money and are well established and are looking for your "help" must pay! Yes, consulting, that's it! :)
What about colleagues that ask you for help or advice? What is the protocol there? As a budding freelancer I have asked more experienced translators for advice, in fact, you have given me some great advice. :)
The only person we should be doing work for free for is ourself, that's more advice that I have been on the receiving end of. But then again, I have done some small projects for free for colleagues and am happy to continue doing so, when it's something small.
I also recently asked an experienced technical translator to review my work, a technical diagram of a thermocouple, and I did so with every intention of paying him. To my utter shock and delight, he did the revision for free, saying that it was too small a job to charge me. His comments really made a huge difference and I learned so much from them.
Do you have a rule or way that you deal with these kinds of situations? Where do you draw the line at giving free advice to colleagues?

Biurai Vilniuje on February 20, 2014 at 1:36 AM said...

Well business actually has one main goal - to make profit. Translations sector is not an exception. Therefore, we should not forget what is our main task and focus on this. Paying for service takes clients to understand the real value of your work.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

Translation Times