When you’re first starting out in a new business venture, finding leads can be a little difficult at times. As a hand lettering artist, I found myself regularly making creations for myself and my Etsy shop, but I knew that I didn’t want it to stop there.
I had dreams of making wedding invitations for celebrity weddings, designing pillow covers and having them featured by Joanna Gaines, and have a line of t-shirts featured at Target.
I’m all about realistic dreams, as you can clearly see.
But, surprisingly (ahem), none of those things came to me out of the blue.
So, after about a year and a half of plugging away at my business and not making it too far, I decided to make a post in the Goal Digger Podcast Insiders group on Facebook. (This is an amazing entrepreneurial group for people who listen to the Goal Digger Podcast with Jenna Kutcher- it’s one of my favorite podcasts and I highly recommend it!)
My post looked like this:
I got several helpful comments, recommending things like reaching out to wedding planners and illustrators. I took those ideas and kept them in the back of my mind (where they remain, because I’m not quite confident enough to cold-email anyone quite yet)!
Several others commented and said they would be interested in working together; I decided to pursue those routes first because I knew they were already mostly on board after seeing my work!
I ended up contacting three different ladies, and I got different types of responses from all of them. I learned a little something from each of them, and I will outline each one (without incriminating anyone) so you can learn from my mistakes, as well as from what I did right!
Potential Collab #1
The first person I contacted (through her website’s contact page) had told me that she was very interested in working together for her website. When I emailed her, she responded back and let me know she would brainstorm some ideas and figure out how to make it work for both of us. She ended it with asking,
“What are you looking to gain? Exposure?”
And, like a naive small business owner who didn’t understand her worth, I responded with,
“I definitely am interested in exposure at this point. Eventually, I plan to move to paid projects, but I’m just trying to get my feet wet before jumping all in.”
Now, here’s the thing. That may have only been 4 months ago, but I wish I could go back in time and shake the hell out of that version of myself.
My current stance is: Unless you approach an organization yourself and offer to do charitable work for them*… do not work for free. Do not work for exposure. Do not complete unpaid work ‘to get noticed.’ Just don’t do it.
Your time and experience, the amount of hours that you have spent practicing and perfecting your skill, your passion… those are worth something, and you deserve to be compensated for them.
Something else to consider- someone else will make money off of your work. If you make a logo for someone, they will profit off of having a beautiful logo on their website or social media page. If you design an infographic for someone, they will make money when someone visits their website to learn more. If you design a shirt for someone’s e-commerce store, they will sell them.
And, sure, you’ll probably get exposure… but exposure doesn’t pay the bills, or buy you new art supplies, or a new microphone for your podcast. Exposure doesn’t feed your family. Exposure doesn’t allow you to make a living off of doing what you’re passionate about.
I am actually quite lucky because that person has not contacted me again. If she did, I would absolutely correct my willingness to work for free (and might even ask them to consider that it’s not a great business move to reach out and ask someone if they’re willing to work for you for free).
*Here’s the caveat: if you are incredibly passionate about a certain brand or nonprofit and are willing to donate your time (and supplies, and whatever else is needed) to help them grow their mission, do it! And do it well! I have done several free small projects for the nonprofit my husband works for for, because I love what they do there and believe in their mission. As another example, I have volunteered to manage my school’s social media on a volunteer basis because it’s important to me to see the school grow. It’s completely fine to do things for free… if you choose to do them for free.
Potential Collab #2
The second response I got was from a small business owner who was looking for some updated designs for her e-commerce shop, specifically mugs and shirts. We briefly discussed payment (mostly, that neither one of us knew what we were doing) and she asked for a couple of samples of the designs she was looking at updating before deciding if she wanted to continue.
And I agreed.
Then, I spent several hours creating designs that incorporated the phrases she was looking for. I tweaked them and sent them to her via email, even including a bonus design that wasn’t quite what she asked for but still fit within her brand’s aesthetic.
Two days later, when I hadn’t heard back, I sent a follow-up message to confirm that she had gotten the designs. Six days after that, she responded, saying that her kids had been sick and she hadn’t had time to look at the designs. She said she would respond later that evening with her feedback.
Five days later, she emailed again and said that she liked one of them in particular, but was looking for bolder lines and wanted to know if I could edit them.
So, I did. I spent another hour tweaking the design to make the lines thicker and re-sent them.
Seven days later, she got back to me and said that she loved the design. She asked about my pricing and whether I could be comfortable with a specific amount that she mentioned. She then named 3 more designs that she was interested in seeing samples for.
At this point, I was kicking myself after seeing red flag after red flag (taking up to a week to return an email, not being willing to pay for samples after seeing my previous work, etc.) and continuing to work for free.
At this point, I spent a couple of days drafting a response and decided to ask some clarifying questions, including-
- Do you want exclusive rights to the designs (so only you can sell them and nobody else)?
- Will they be used on anything other than shirts?
- How long do you want to license the design for (or in perpetuity)?
- Do you have a ballpark amount of how many shirts you expect to sell?
I sent the email in hopes of being able to come up with a mutual agreement for the designs I had already completed, as well as the new ones that I was eager to get to (but wouldn’t begin work on until we had agreed on a price).
A full month went by without hearing back from her. In that time, I had developed a contract and set prices for another small business I was working with (more on that in a minute!), so I included the cost per design and licensing fees in the follow-up email I sent.
I had already committed hours of work to this project, so I was hopeful that she would at least offer to pay for the time I had spent on her designs (even if she decided not to license them), but I never heard back from her.
Looking back, I should have never agreed to even begin working on her designs with a deposit of half of my design fee. I especially should not have worked on 3 separate designs without having some sort of contract or deposit in place.
It is definitely disappointing when I think about all of the things I could have been doing with my time instead of working for someone for free, but it was an important lesson to learn and I certainly won’t be making the same mistake again!
By the way, I keep close tabs on the social media accounts associated with this e-commerce shop to make sure that my designs don’t pop up on her products. At this point, I can’t do anything about the fact that I allowed someone to steal my time, but they’re not going to steal my designs and profit off of them!
The third person I heard from was the co-owner of an e-commerce shop with her husband. (Spoiler alert- I’m talking about Allison from The Nelson Shop!)
From the beginning, she and I really seemed to click. She gave me some ideas for shirts that she was wanting, and I got to work on them straight away.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Becca! You literally just said that you wouldn’t do that again!” please keep in mind that all of this was happening at around the same time.
And, while I definitely don’t recommend jumping in with both feet with no systems in place, this was one of those rare instances where it worked out very well.
I made a couple of designs and emailed them to Allison, and she was thrilled with them and said she was ready to move forward. We discussed some licensing ideas and other options (such as- agreeing on a commission of a certain percentage of sales + non-exclusive rights [so I could sell the designs in my own shop] or paying upfront for each piece + exclusivity [so nobody else would be able to sell the designs, not even me]) and the partnership officially began.
My favorite thing about working with Allison is how easy she is to communicate with. She responds to emails and Facebook messages quickly, and so I know I can go to her with quick design or technical questions.
She was also willing to let me bounce ideas off of her regarding licensing- for a short time, I was considering time-based licensing (so someone could purchase a license for 3 months, 6 months, or a year and sell unlimited amounts of the designs within that time).
(That was not a good idea for me and I ended up changing it soon after, but she gave me some good feedback about it and gave me a new perspective to think about!)
Eventually, Allison and her husband ended up investing in a bundle of designs and will purchase the licenses as the designs are rolled out. They are also gracious enough to give me design credit on all of the sale pages that feature my designs, including a picture of me and a short bio.
Working with them has been a dream, and I am so happy that she reached out to me and that this partnership worked out!
If I had to sum up this blog post in terms of take-aways, I would probably sum it up as such:
- DO NOT work for free unless you actively choose to
- Having a contract in place is incredibly important for making sure that you are compensated for your time and skills
- Finding the right person (or people) to work with makes all the difference between wasting your time and being part of an amazing partnership
So, there you have it! My biggest take-aways for working out a new collaboration and exactly why I will never work for free again.
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