Working (and Staying Friendly) with Friends & Family
There are a lot of strong opinions floating around the blogosphere on whether an up-and-coming creative freelancer should accept work assignments from friends and family. It’s a tricky problem, to be sure, because it’s hard to attract clients without a portfolio, and hard to build a portfolio without clients. For many young creatives, friends and family represent a low-risk market that can be tapped for initial collaborations and feedback.
If you’re self-taught and self-started like me, the friends-and-family model can be useful, but for many, it has pitfalls. Many creatives run into snags like awkwardness about pay or lack of boundaries when working with people they know personally. I’ve had the good fortune of only working with friends and family who have been respectful of my time and labor. The following are notes on how I made the friends-and-family model work for me as a professional springboard.
On choosing clients
Be selective about which friends and relatives you choose to work with. Before you agree to an arrangement, consider the client’s history and note any interpersonal friction or accountability issues. Maybe Cousin Robert picks fights with you. Maybe Aunt Sally never pays her landscaper on time. If you wouldn’t lend money to them or if you wouldn’t own a business with them, you might not want to freelance for them.
It’s also important that you’re able to decline projects that aren’t a good fit for you, even when a friend or relative is involved. This can be daunting, since it’s hard to know whether rejection will be taken personally. I’ve cultivated gentle, open-ended ways to decline projects. Thank you for thinking of me, I often say. My calendar is packed right now, but let’s talk another time. In time-sensitive situations, I’ll refer them to someone else.
On discounted work
There are some who never charge friends or family “full price” out of concern for their relationship. But I’m of the mindset that if your friends and family respect you, your time, and your skills, they shouldn’t balk at the idea of paying market price (i.e. what a creative of similar skill, experience, and niche in your city would charge).
Additionally, the market price for your work changes over time. While it might have been fair for a friend to give you a $20 gift card for a LinkedIn photo when you were learning to use a camera, it’s not fair for that friend to insist on the same payment after three additional years of experience. At any given time, know where you stand relative to the market, and be fair to yourself when invoicing clients, regardless of who they are.
On trust and confidence
I used to catch myself making excuses to decline a booking with friends or family: I’d say someone else could do a better job, that I was busy, or that I didn’t have the right lens. It took a lot of pep talks from friends for me to see that this was avoidance due to fear of disappointing people I loved…and it was causing me to stagnate creatively. If you find yourself second-guessing your work or thinking that your friend should’ve hired a photographer you saw on Instagram instead, know that your friend didn’t want a stranger’s work – they wanted yours! Trust your loved ones when they show you they love your work.
On boundaries and expectations
Put agreed-upon terms in writing. It will protect your relationships with friends-and-family clients. Ideally, also specify the circumstances under which you will or will not communicate about a project. This minimizes the likelihood that you’ll squabble over expectations (“but you said the album would be done LAST week!”) or resent each other for “shop talk” during social engagements (“This was supposed to be a chill hangout, why can’t you stop nagging me about fonts and colors?”).
On making the leap to an expanded customer base
In my experience, starting with a friends-and-family model led to some fortuitous moments when a friend or relative connected me with someone they knew on a business basis – and those contacts lead to even more business contacts. This is often when an up-and-coming creative makes the leap to becoming a bona fide word-of-mouth creative professional.
Here, previously set boundaries and expectations again come into play. If you’ve been lax with these standards, you run the risk of setting a convention with new contacts that they, like friends and family, are entitled to monopolize your time, escalate requirements without notice, or pay a less-than-fair price for your work. Once that convention is set, it’s difficult to steer a client away from that expectation.
On the other hand, if you’ve been firm with friends and family about the value of your time and labor and the importance of boundaries, new contacts are less likely to come crying that your Aunt Carol, a customer of their bakery, received work for free, and so should they. So set those boundaries and expectations! Be firm and confident! Get paid! You will be all the better prepared for clients outside your friends-and-family network.
Allie W. (based in SEA + HTX) is a consultant, writer, editor, and photographer with a background in literary criticism. She has served on the editorial boards of two literary journals and currently operates a multipurpose creative studio with a special focus on brand, outdoor, and event photography. She is a sucker for clear lakes, dark skies, and tartan shirts, so she spends her spare time hunting those things down…as well as chasing her cat away from attacking tweed furniture.