Dr. Freelance, I’ve recently experienced a rash of potential clients suggesting I should be working on commission. (I do a lot of PR work, so they want to pay me based on how much press I get them, for example.) I’m not sure if I’m giving out some sort of weird vibe or if this is just a temporary thing, but I know for sure that working for free is no way to pay the bills. Any suggestions on how to handle these situations?—The Commissioner
Commissioner, I think you’re correct calling it a “rash”—it gives me hives just hearing about it. My guess is that these people aren’t making much money right now, and so they’re trying to figure out ways of doing things on a shoestring. Your shoestring.
Working on commission — or its evil twin, working on spec — is a terrible idea for a freelancer. A commissioned salesperson gets paid when a customer buys a product for a price. There’s readily identifiable transaction. Part of the problem with a communicator working on commission is defining what result equates to what pay level. Getting a story placed in the “Around Town” section of your local weekly is quite a bit different from coverage in the Wall Street Journal; either way, your fate is determined by the whims of someone else, not necessarily by the quality of your work.
That said, I’d firmly state something to the effect of “Working on commission isn’t possible, but I’m a businessperson too, and I understand budgets are tight in the current economy. Your project sounds exciting and I’d be happy to come up with some alternatives on how we can work together.” From there, you have a couple of options:
- Tell them what your rock-bottom price is for completing the proposed project
- Ask what their ballpark budget is on the project, and explain what you can do for that amount
- Consider a discounted price with a performance kicker when you achieve XYZ
The final possibility is, of course that you thank them for their time and walk away from the deal. Each of us draws that line in a different place, but my experience has been that the earlier you do it, the better. Save your “free” work for your own benefit or for your favorite charitable cause.