Not for profit share

Jo Watson


It’s a testing time, right now, and for freelancers, self-esteem can be as low as the funds in our bank accounts.

It’s a time to be wary of those who may swoop in not to help, but to help themselves.

As freelancers, we’ve all entered into the debate surrounding whether or not we should ever work for free. It would seem that having that root-word in our title, potential clients believe it’s more than fine to put it forward as a suggestion in securing our products and services.

This is especially the case in the present day, where people are more open to blurring the boundaries in the hope of a business boost.

Perhaps for some people – maybe depending on their circumstances, the point in their career they find themselves at, or their fledgeling level of experience – working for free is a feasible move.

But whilst the claims on both sides can scream fabulous things about the “exposure” to be gained as the currency on offer for our talents, we’re all too familiar with the rapid retort that reminds us, “exposure don’t pay no bills“. It’s not even acceptable grounds for getting an extension on paying them, either.

Freelancers have to find their own feet in their journey to settle on a business model that pays its way.

And though there are countless coaches and a myriad of mentors out there to tell them what to do and how to do it, ultimately, they have to learn from a few mistakes before the biggest business lessons can be learned.

This piece isn’t to share my mistakes (I have a word limit I’d like to keep to) but it is to say that whilst I’ve learned a few of those mistakes the ‘exposure’ way (Jesus, that really sounds wrong), there are other traps that can be fallen into when it comes to the prospect of getting paid.

Or not, as the case may be.

I’m talking about a profit share proposal. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s what that means:

The client approaches you for your help, and suggests that they don’t pay you your going rate now (or within your invoice terms after the job is done).

Instead, they’ll split the profits with you when the project you’ll be supporting them with “really takes off” or “cleans up”. Usually, projected figures will follow in the proposal, and undoubtedly, they’ll be high in £££s and low in researched facts.

The issues with this, in case you need to hear them:

  • The only guarantee with this proposal is that you’ll be offering up your time, talent or product for free to help someone else’s cause. The client doesn’t have to do anything that they wouldn’t be doing anyway to build or promote their own business. Note, you could be using that time to do the exact same to catapult your own business. Wouldn’t that be a better use of your ‘investment’?
  • The client can only go ahead with their project if they have you on board, and therefore, your input is actually far bigger than just providing the asset they physically asked for. You’re providing a piece of a puzzle that results in the completion of a big picture – for someone else’s business. Imagine if you put that time and creativity into sketching out your own ideas and visions.
  • No matter how much you like the person making the proposal – and in some cases, no matter how well you know them – without a legally binding contract (which ironically they’d have to pay a solicitor for), there is nothing at all that guarantees that the client will indeed pay you at any point. Yes, they could run off into the sunset with your share, but similarly, they could sit pretty at home, swearing blindly that they never even made any money from which to give you a cut. “Sorry about that”.
  • Because you’ll know incredibly little about the real facts and figures behind the business you’re supporting, you have to accept that there’s every chance the project won’t make much of a profit to share in the first place – if it even makes a profit at all. I hate to come down to semantics (oh who am I kidding, I’m a writer), but that word, ‘profit’… Just remember that the money you’re (hopefully) going to get a share of is going to be divided up after all deductions have been made – tax, insurances, undefined expenses… A project can turn over thousands and sound impressive, but if it cost almost that much to implement in the first place, then the money you’re left with at the end is little short of disappointing, if not thoroughly depressing.
  • With all this talk of profits, can we talk about the flipside in business, please? Loss. Why would you ever sign up to something where the only person who stands to lose after helping someone else, is you? The client will always be quick to talk about profits, but there is always a risk of potential loss – it just may not be a physical cash sum. Anyone who dismisses this scenario quite simply isn’t a business person, so run a mile. A proposed profit share, no matter how honourable, is literally no loss to the client at all. Remember that they wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to attempt to make any money at all had you not given them the help; by which point, you’ve certainly lost your time, if nothing else.

Of course, after any or all of these scenarios, the client may apologise until the cashless cows come home, but wow, I don’t think that’s really going to make you feel much better, is it? You’ve only got their word for everything in all this talk of sharing, and let’s be honest, even if this whole thing does work, gains may only be made months down the line, so I hope you’re happy and able to wait for your payday. If, as I’ve already mentioned, it ever comes at all.

At least with the ‘payment in exposure’ thing you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for from the outset in the fact that the client isn’t actually selling you any false promises.

It’s completely up to you as the freelancer in that position to gauge whether a) there will be any genuine exposure at all, and b) it will be of the quality/scale/focus that will actually mean anything to you. Operating on a profit share, though… messy, tricky, and potentially a slap in the face.

I know, you’re a good person, but please don’t ever be manipulated into compliance as a result of cries of poverty, either… “I’d pay you, but I just don’t have the budget”.

Well, sadly, Keith, there are lots of things I don’t have the budget for. The result? I don’t fucking buy them, love. Oh, how lovely the world would be if we could just have things anyway regardless of not having the money to buy them…

I know we all want to believe in good things, great opportunities, and god-honest business people, but please indulge this freelance creative a little longer, if you will?

Even if you measure everything up in terms of time and finance, and believe that if the worst comes to the worst, you’ll be able to bounce back from a payday that never comes (you’ll just ‘suck it up’, etc), are you really going to be okay dealing with the non-financial impact?

I’m talking about the hurt and betrayal at being let down at best – and screwed over at worst.

I’m talking about the anger and humiliation at being lied to and having misplaced your trust.

I’m talking about the kick to the stomach of being told that the reason the project didn’t take flight and start parachuting money was because your input failed the whole thing.

I changed a lot of things about how I run a business straight from having suffered those scenarios and being forced through those feelings and setbacks.

Yes, it’s all worked out better for me in the long run, and those people have probably done me a favour and blah blah blah, but does that stuff still sting? Hell yeah, it does. Those feelings and experiences can cause even more damage than an unpaid bill, should everything go pear-shaped.

Are you okay with all of that?

If not, may I suggest you join my little ‘not-for-profit share’ revolution. Know your worth, stick to it, and know that if something seems too good to be true, it’s probably a profit share pipe dream. Somebody else’s.

First published on agoodwriteup.comre

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