New to freelancing- need help with this situation

Dear Core Freelancing community,

I’m new to freelancing, and am in need of help navigating a certain situation.

A little background: I recently quit my corporate job of 3.5 years to change tack and move closer to family. I’m currently interning with a company that is a little bit outside of the industry, but much closer to what I want to do professionally. To help pay the bills though, I’m trying to pick up freelance jobs.

I was put in touch with someone who runs a product business (I won’t get too specific as it doesn’t really affect anything.) The products are pretty lame, and nothing I would put in my portfolio or on my CV. It would basically just be relatively easy work to help pay the bills.

So here’s the problem: the individual running the business basically wants me to do free work for him before deciding how much he wants to pay me.

I met him in person expecting to have a relatively quick intro, but he spent 2.5 hours jumping into what they do, their method, etc. He basically started off giving me a sales pitch about the company and then showed me projects they were working on at the moment. At this point some bells in my head went off about having to sign an NDA (?), but he seemed fine just showing me everything they were working on, and I have no thoughts of sharing them with anyone anyway. He asked me for my thoughts on the projects and what could be done to improve them. At that point I already felt a little unsure of what I should say as I didn’t want to act as consultant without already agreeing officially to any specific official freelance relationship. I tried to offer some thoughts without getting too detailed.

I brought up the subject of compensation, and for the first time he got a little cagey (as opposed to Salesman Congenial.) He replied that with the designers he currently works with, he basically has them come up with ideas and then pays them for the ones that they decide to pursue. This to me also doesn’t make any sense, but I didn’t say anything. I proposed we start to work together at a daily rate several days a week, or even one day a week, and he was reluctant to agree. I mentioned briefly my internship, and he ran with that and said that I could do an internship with his company-- which is obviously ridiculous given my background. I regularly travelled to Asia with my corporate job, and would be basically the most senior designer on his team if I end up working with him-- and he wants to start me off as an intern?

He went on a two-week vacation right after I met him and he said that in that time I should go out into the market and do some research and come back at him with ideas. I felt uncomfortable with this not having agreed upon any sort of rate (why would I do market research for him without getting paid?) and so I emailed him saying again I thought it would be best if we could agree on a day rate and go from there. He emailed me back (when he returned from his vacation) saying that the reason he met with me so long before he left was so that I could have stuff for him by the time he got back. He says again he wants to see what I can do before agreeing to any sort of compensation or to an ‘actual role’. I understand that to some degree, but not paying for any work, especially given my level of experience, is just ridiculous to me. Other potential clients I have spoken to were happy to discuss a paid trial project to see if we would be a good fit working together, so I don’t see why this should be any differnet. Not to mention the fact that my very first internship was in his sector of the industry (and it was a true hands-on design internship, no coffee-buying or anything like that), so it’s not like I have zero experience in what he’s doing either.

Can anyone offer any advice as to what I should do? My thoughts at this point are just to say ‘daily rate to start or forget it’ but the other problem is that I could really use the money going forward. I’m not really worried that he wouldn’t pay me going forward, it’s just that I don’t think doing pro bono work in a situation like this is acceptable.

I’ve never done freelance, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

Did you show him your portfolio? Why not try to show some work from the internship you did that was in his sector of the industry? Obviously just examples of what you have done previously for other companies.

Couldn’t you just have him sign an NDA? So then he can only use the ideas he likes. Not sure exactly how that would hold up legally.

Either way if does seem odd that he wants you to do work before he even talks about compensation. I’ve always understood freelancing to be done in stages. (ie. X amount for Y concepts, then XX amount after prototype, etc.)

Personally, I would explain to him your situation. That you don’t work for free, and back it up with your experience.

Pure manipulator. He is preying on what he perceives as a weakness in you. It is an opening exploit and just the beginning.

No. This is spec work. Spec work can yield a good payout, but you want to have the right terms so that you get a return on your investment in time.

Sounds to me like he’s just farming for free design work. So let’s say you generate 50 concepts and he picks two to move to production, what’s the payout?

One approach would be to agree to do the spec work, but set conditions that you own all the conceptual IP unless he pays you for the work he wants and you establish concept pricing. That way you can sue if he takes it and runs with it without paying for it. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that, but if he disagrees with this arrangement it will give you a better idea of his intentions. You’ll probably want to work with a contract lawyer to set up a contract.

Another term agreement for payment in lieu of a daily rate would be a royalty agreement, which could be very lucrative if what you’re designing sells in volume. That way you could do the spec work where the payout could meet or far exceed any daily rate agreement.

If you lay out a range of payment agreements and he doesn’t go for any of them then bounce, it means he’s looking to get something for nothing.

I’ve done a small amount of freelance and so I am not well versed in negotiating and setting up these kids of contracts, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Greenman is correct. This is spec work.

I personally don’t do spec work, but if I did, I would approach it as any form of gambling. If it hits, what’s the payout?

But since this potential “employer” refuses to lay out the odds, I’d walk.

At least a casino will give you odds.

Thanks for all the responses.

I did of course show him my CV/portfolio/website in the first email I made to him. He didn’t comment on any of these at all. I think my (at the time) current employer was enough information to tell him I’m capable of the job. I also made sure to emphasize the fact that I interned in his sector of the industry which, when I reminded him in person, seemed to make him excited/confident in working with me.

He did mention that we could discuss whether I want to do royalties or an hourly rate once we establish a working relationship (his business is all about volume so I imagine royalties would be the way to go)- but at this point, upfront money is more useful to me and while he is doing significant volume now, his growth will likely come at a later stage (if at all.)

Can anyone else weigh in on having him sign an NDA if I were to do the work he is looking for now?

Greenman: what you say about setting conditions to own conceptual IP unless he pays for what he wants makes sense.

Re: spec work- is this something that some clients will just ask for upfront by name? Or did he avoid using the term spec work because it carries a negative connotation?

I think that in general, the best way to proceed with this relationship for both parties is for us to sit together and work together to see if it would be a good fit anyway. I do think that if we can just get to this point, it would be clear that I am more than capable of doing the job. And that way I make a little bit of cash, he gets the work he wants to see-- it would be mutually beneficial. And then he is also happy to have me work remotely once a relationship is established, which in my current situation would be ideal.

One way I see this whole thing is that I need to make some money and I am new to the freelance game, so it feels like I need to do whatever I need to do to at least gain, if nothing else, a learning experience to grow off of. I do not think he’s one of those clients that doesn’t pay after work is received, it’s just that his opening terms seem pretty ridiculous.

Do I suck it up and just do the stuff upfront (honestly it wouldn’t take very long or require much brain power… it’s just the principal of the thing). I have no doubt that I am more than capable of doing this job and that he would be happy to give me more to do afterwards. I fear though, that if I agree to his terms now, it sets me up as someone who will be easy to walk over going forward.

Or do I stick to my guns and reiterate that given my experience (and that other clients offer paid trial projects as opposed to expecting spec work), I feel it is only fair to proceed under some sort of agreement for compensation (whether it be royalties, day rate, whatever.)? At risk of losing the opportunity? (i.e. spec work upfront, but likelihood of getting some money ultimately)

I also just want to add that I was pretty uncomfortable in my initial meeting with him- I didn’t like how he tried to sell me some sort of salespitch (since I’m not buying anything from him??). I understand that’s just his way of operating with people in general, and that he’s relatively new to working with designers etc so I take it all with a grain of salt. But by no means do I want to be taken advantage of.

I haven’t done a lot of freelance, but it sounds like he doesn’t plan on paying you. I’ve run into a couple similar situations in years past, and I’ve just quit dealing with those types of proposals; “ain’t nobody got time for that”. My best suggestion (based on my very meager freelance experiences) is to write up a proposal that you think would be best and throw some paper at him. He can take it or leave it. I have a pretty good idea of which one that would be.

I wasn’t going to read anything below:

as I knew my answer, but read ahead anyhow. Didn’t change my answer.

Walk away. This is not a job. No good can come of this.


PS. NDA would be to his benefit, not yours. If he doesn’t ask for one, no reason why you should bring it up.

I will refer to this info graphic, published by Core77, for my recommendations on how to move forward. It doesn’t matter how new or experienced you are with freelancing, the feeling is the same.

Re: NDA, this is what I thought, that’s why I didn’t say anything. It was weird to me that he was so eager to share so much information without having me sign one, but oh well.


Hah. I hadn’t seen this one.

sounds like you should walk for sure. Just keep it simple. You want me to do work? It costs x.

This is a slightly over the top comparison, but what you have described about asking you to research and come back with ideas while he goes on vacation is directly analogous to the below story I hear years ago.

What I would say was that a person who has issues of self-worth and low self-esteem would probably be a better candidate to become a □□□□□□, or a □□□□□□□□□□, than someone who didn’t. Now, that sounds fairly obvious to anybody who would hear that. They’d say, well, that’s pretty obvious. But the thing about it is, is that it’s not something that people necessarily wear that’s so obvious to see in a person. And so I think that’s what makes some good □□□□□□□□□□□□ is the little probing of a person to find out where they’re at.

I’ll give you an example of a very simple probe a friend of mine used to do. He’d be in a club, and he’d meet a girl. And he would go up, and let’s say he’s having a cocktail. She’s sitting at the counter next to him. And he would, after a bit of banter and small talk and conversation, he’d say, buy me a drink. Now obviously, some girls would automatically say, buy your own drink. Or you buy me a drink. But some women would buy him a drink.

That’s the little kind of probing stuff that people do. You see, because just through five minutes of little conversation, now all of a sudden, he’s seeing that he can exert his will over this woman, that she, not even in a conscious way, is basically giving in to his will. And sometimes it’s that simple, something as small as that.

Pimp Anthology on This American Life

Like Richard says, walk away.

Update on the situation: I emailed him again to reiterate that without agreeing on a pay structure prior to doing work I couldn’t do anything for him.

He emailed me back to say that he WAS going to pay me for the work he had wanted done while he was on vacation. I told him this was entirely unclear and that we hadn’t discussed it specifically, nor had we signed or even discussed any sort of contract. I said that I don’t know any designers who work before getting any of those two things settled first, and he said (not verbatim but close), “we know plenty of those people, we work with them all the time. We agree on a rate and pay as we go with a monthly check.”

So I just want to make something clear here. Is there a whole legion of freelance designers out there who operate like this? As far as I have learned, I would want to sign a contract with any and every freelance client that I work with. And yet somehow he has worked with aaaallll these people who are happy to just work with him, not sign a contract, and trust that he’ll pay after all the work is done? Am I missing something here?

(And as far as getting contracts written up going forward: is this something a client should generally produce, or am I expected to present one to them? How do I go about finding a good/reliable/trustworthy contract lawyer? How will I know they are not ripping me off and/or that they are actually telling me everything I need to know?)

He then went on to say that because I hadn’t done the work for him, he no longer wanted to work with me. Oh well.

Thanks everyone, again, for your advice.

His loss.

Nobody should work before a contract is in place and a deposit is paid for a new client. You write the contract/proposal.

How could he agree to pay you if he didn’t even know your rate? Makes no sense. You don’t want to work with people like that.


Sociopath. He’ll probably be in the newspapers for the wrong things in a few years.

If on the odd chance you don’t listen to the people here and run, just email him back and tell him that its normal to get an upfront engagement fee of $1000 (or whatever you think would cover your time on it). He will then abuse you and you will have dodged that bullet.


At first, as a young design student with barely any experience yet, I thought I couldn’t offer any good advice on this and just wait for the story to be released as a ‘True ID story’ but then I realised I would say this:

Please don’t do this job, I don’t want to leave school and face people who are used to having talented designers work for free!

Unfortunately, he already is working with at least one recent grad.