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Fee, Free, or Flee? Three tips to contracting with a client

This surely ranks as one of the top FAQs for new (and even some seasoned) visual practitioners. Should I work for a FEE (what would be right?), for FREE, or just FLEE from the job that’s offered to me? Here, we share three perspectives on what’s worked for us. Clients, this article is just as well for you if you’re wondering what you’re paying for, and what you are getting.

When to charge a fee (and what fee should you charge?)

  • “We need a graphic recorder in three days’ time.”
  • “Please include all materials and transport in your rates.”
  • “We’re looking at this super large-scale board, about 20m across…”
  • “We prefer someone local.”
  • “Can you train my people so that they can do the same work?”
  • “We only need a few hours of graphic recording.”
  • “We need high-resolution post-processed visuals of your work.”
  • “We’re trying this out the first time and are not sure about the value.”

You might have an idea of how much it takes to sustain a passion. But have you estimated how much it takes to sustain your passion as a business?

When I first started my #vizbiz I had a rather naive idea of how much I needed ($$$) to live on. Then I realised very quickly that even reusable items like markers cost money and will run out. Hello, Adobe Creative Suite is an annual recurring subscription. Even though I could afford to give time, giving time to some types of work meant I couldn’t do anything else with that time.

Before you decide to price cheap to oust the competition, let me tell you a cautionary tale. A workshop graduate of mine was looking for someone to help a “friend” graphic record sessions at $150 per session (no further reimbursement for materials). I was surprised at the low rate and decided to find out more from her. She shared that she used to help the client at that rate (which didn’t matter to her, since she had a full-time job), as practice. Now that she had a new job, she couldn’t find the time to help out. The client was also sticky about the rate, as that was what they had been paying her for her (voluntary) help.

Upon further probing, it turned out that I knew the client. They used to hire graphic recorders at their full rates, but now would not pay anything more than $150 a session. While she promised to check with the client if they would raise their budget, I never heard back from either of them.

When to work for free (should you even?)

Clients who ask you to work on a pro (or low) bono basis will often give lofty reasons why you should agree to their terms. Sometimes, you might seek out precious opportunities that you’d gladly barter your professional services for. So yes, sometimes there may be great reasons to agree to work for free. I’ve done so for community conversations with fascinating personalities like Philip Yeo, and in leading a graphic recording contingent to the World Institute of Action Learning Regional Conference.

But unfortunately, many of the reasons clients give for expecting you to work for nothing — or worse — for “exposure”, usually come from a client-perspective of entitlement: they feel that because they are “big”, they are therefore able to demand a service from you, and that the value of the work is wholly on their side, instead of you bringing a value to the project. Not only won’t they consider that you have bills to pay, even worse — they expect to profit from the work you have created for them, while hindering you from doing the same! Sometimes, in such cases, you are not even able able to take on paid work during that contract, so you’d need to be very careful in your excitement to get “work”.

Be discerning when you hear “persuasive” reasons such as…

  • “We’re looking for a first-timer.” (So that you have no experience when they pull the wool over your eyes.)
  • “You can get to practice with this audience.” (You can choose where you want to practice!)
  • “We’ll get you exposure.” (And exposed, you will be, to exploitation.)
  • “We will share your work.” (Thanks for doing their publicity work free.)
  • “You will get to learn whatever we are teaching at this workshop where you’ll be graphic recording.” (But you are not participating as a participant… it’s not the same experience…)
  • “I’ll print your work in my book.” (But in the process you will face multiple rounds of revision and angst for no pay.)
  • “This is a community project and you’ll be helping [insert beneficiary].” (Is a graphic recorder critical to the experience and benefit?)
  • “We’re a non-profit.” (Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit… and it doesn’t mean they live on love and fresh air…)
  • “I volunteered to run a workshop free, so can’t you do graphic recording at my workshop for free?” (True story. When I refused, I was even pestered to find her a “replacement” who could do it free.)

Not sure whether to take the job FOC? Just ask: “What’s in it for me?”

What we found useful when working for free is to find a mutually equitable term to work, where value can be found on both the client and our vizbiz side. This would mean contracting well, for example, ensuring that material costs and transportation are paid by the client, or the client endorses the work in all their collaterals to the public. The value of the work is also in presenting an invoice to the client, even though it’s “free”. Doing so would remind the client of the value of the work you’ve granted to them gratis, so that they will be more appreciative of your gesture.

When you should just flee

Sorry to say, but some requests are so ridiculous and near-impossible. I would (hand on heart) without hesitation recommend you flee right away. Such requests challenge your personal integrity, common sense, and sanity – often simultaneously. You feel disrespected as the other party expects you to pander to their whims. However, they are not necessarily genuinely rewarding you appropriately, if at all.

Here are some real requests that I’ve run away from. If you encounter semblances of these, say NO. It is not worth selling your soul for such work, which are more offence than opportunity.

  • “Your grandfather died from smoking? You don’t smoke? It’s okay. But we can still work on this session on promoting tobacco, right?”
  • “Can you listen to the Chinese discussion, then graphic record it in English?” (Read: Graphic recorder needs to interpret/translate while graphic recording.)
  • “We want to add value to the Board of Directors we’re working with, but we’ve already agreed with the client on the total fees. Can you work for cheap? Oh, and sorry, you can’t share the work because it’s confidential.”
  • “Would you prefer to quote as part of my team instead of working directly with the client? You’ll be working under my brand so you can’t solicit. We might be sharing your work as ours. We’ll take a cut from your fees as commission.”
  • “Can you do a sample graphic recording on this topic, before we decide if we want to hire you?” (This is spec work.)
  • “Can you do a full-rehearsal of the graphic recording, but pretend you’re doing it for the first time live on the day itself?”

How then, can I get the right jobs to grow my #vizbiz?

By now, you’re probably wondering, “How might I make serious business (read: profitable and sustainable) out of visual facilitation?

And maybe, you are looking for specific answers to how to price and contract, in your set of client situations.

You might also realise that your answers would be unique to you. After all, you are fearfully and wonderfully made as a visual practitioner. However, in answering this question for yourself, you are also answering as a member of the visual practice ecosystem, shaping it for better or worse.

These are the questions we hope to help you with as you craft out your #vizbiz plan. If that is what you are seeking, join us at The Business of Visual Facilitation on 8-9 March 2018 at Suntec Singapore. See you there!

And we’d love to hear your other questions about #vizbiz. Comment below! 🙂

[Special thanks to Brenda Tan for her feedback, input, and co-authorship on this article!]