November 30, 2015
Working for money, not promises
I started doing freelance Graphic Design and Illustration while I was still going to college. It was a great way to use the skills that I was learning, and make a little money. And I really do mean a little money. The most I'd made before that was minimum wage, and before that the money from my paper route. So I really didn't ask much, or expect much. So I was surprised at the people who wanted me to work for nothing, and people who wanted me to work for promises.
I must have been about 19 the first time someone asked me to do work in exchange for future profits. You know, a percentage. Sounds very business-like! It was a landscaping company, and I drew up a few sketches. And I got nothing. Ever. Not a cent. Nothing to cover the cost of the paper I used, and the gas I burned visiting the client. And there was no cheating me on the part of the client - his company simply failed. No hard feelings! But that's when I realized that I would have to ask for money, and say "no" to promises.
Back before the days of the internet, I had to sit down and talk to every potential client. And that meant getting in my car and driving somewhere. So when someone would talk to me about how successful their company would be in the future, and how I could get rich someday if I just did all of the work now and waited for the money to roll in sometime in the future, I knew that I was seeing "No Sale". I had to smile politely, thank them, and leave. And sadly, the message that I sent, no matter how polite I was, was clear. I had no confidence in their company paying me a percentage of some vague amount sometime in the future. And they had no money to pay me now, and were wasting my time.
It was great that I learned this lesson early. I learned to expect to see this, and to dodge it quickly. My best clients were investing in their own companies, and they paid me, with cash. Often out of petty cash, but they paid me!
I suppose there's nothing wrong with doing something for a future percentage, if you can afford it. I had to put gas in my car, and pay my rent, so I was in no position to be an investor in a company. I still resist it, when people start talking about it. I prefer to get paid. In money. In real time. So, I never got rich, and maybe I passed up a great opportunity. But I made a living.
My recommendation when someone starts talking about stock options, and percentages, is to ask what the job pays. If it's enough, take it. If not, walk away.
Image above: an early freelance cartooning job for an advertising agency in Phoenix. They paid me, with a company check, right on time.
Posted by Brad Hall