“Hey, man, I’ve got this great idea for a (insert imaginary project here)! I’d love for you to do the artwork for it. I can’t pay you right now, but it’s such a great idea, I’m sure that it will make us both a ton of money later.”

Well… ¬†ūüôĀ

This awkward moment is brought to you by a situation that is the inverse of the one discussed in my last post¬†. ¬†Instead of wanting to walk away owning a picture, this person gives you¬†the “elevator pitch” for¬†a long term partnership, and they want you in on the ground floor. It could be a children’s book, a script they want storyboarded, a cartoon television series, or any other project that needs your artistic vision to succeed. But for whatever reason, they can’t pay you right now. Or, perhaps they can pay something, but not what the project would actually cost. You may also hear phrases such as these: “My company is a startup.” “I need your artistry to pitch the idea to investors/studio execs/publisher.” Batting eyelashes or a smoldering gaze can also be brought to bear. I’ve even heard tales of tantalizing artists with baked goods, which are awesome, but don’t fit so well into bill envelopes. It is known collectively as speculative work.

Spec you later!

Many blog posts and internet articles warn against speculative work¬†as a drain on¬†time and resources. But much of the advice I have read on this topic stops with the old “don’t work for free, unless its pro bono, because it will never pay off” maxim and leaves it at that. You’re left¬†thinking of all these proposals as con jobs or fool’s errands.¬†¬†But I think this is an over-simplification. Sometimes speculative work can be¬†very attractive. Herein, I will try to get a little further into the risks inherent in accepting this kind of work that goes beyond “trust me, it won’t work”.

Because it actually could work.

Yes, it’s true. There is no magical reason that a hypothetical client could not use your artistic talent to make a ton of money, whether they pay you now or later. ¬†In fact, that very possibility is why we have¬†copyrights, also discussed in my last post.¬†But the possibility¬†that the client’s idea could succeed is not the issue. The big question here is what if they don’t succeed? By asking you to work without pay, the client is transferring at least part of the risk of failure to you. Are you able to properly evaluate that risk? There are a¬†number of mitigating circumstances that¬†affect your ability to evaluate the risk involved. Here are some examples and the pitfalls of each:

The idea may sound pretty good

It may be easy to walk away from the next “solar-powered flashlight”. But, suppose you really like the client’s idea? It may sound like something that would be really fun to work on. It may sound like it could succeed and actually make some money. But the hard question you should ask yourself here is, “who am I to judge?”. Because we love to have opinions. I’m an illustrator, a designer, and an animator. Sometimes I teach. But that’s “all that I yam”. I’m not any kind of a professional critic. I also don’t have a background in marketing. I don’t know how to conduct focus groups. I don’t have web cookies spying on people’s surfing¬†habits. I don’t have any idea what 20 to 30 year-olds in Peoria really like. To deliberately understand if an idea really has wings, that’s the stuff you need to know. Anything else is just fishing in the dark. You may get lucky, but also…¬†not. For every “happy viral marketing accident,” thousands of ideas fall by the wayside. Marketing, by the way, is a very complex and and respectable career, with its own college degree and everything. Fools rush in where marketing majors fear to tread. So unless you were a double major in college I wouldn’t be too quick to trust that gut instinct.

The client has charisma

They seem so competent and trustworthy. They seem to have it all together. They have a business card, a website, and everything. They may even be famous. But you could be shaking hands with¬†someone who has no idea what they are doing, or worse, an actual con artist. It does happen, trust me. But, lets suppose it’s obvious that they actually do have it all together, and their intentions are basically good. Maybe they have a lot of money, or maybe they have previous success as an entrepreneur. If so, they should have the money to spend on you, too. If not, it¬†could mean that¬†they don’t actually believe in their own idea enough to invest real capital in it, and¬†drop the project¬†at the first sign of adversity, leaving you with a bunch of “portfolio pieces” and little else. Also, if you are not equipped to know whether the client’s idea is marketable¬†or not (as discussed previously), then neither are you likely equipped to judge if your prospective client is competent as a marketer, businessperson,¬†pitchperson, author, director, etc. Just because they have succeeded in another area does not guarantee their success in this venture. ¬†The project’s success will largely¬†depend ¬†upon the client’s competence and trustworthiness. Remember, you don’t get paid until they succeed. And since you may not¬†know this person, you may not¬†know if they can or will hold up their end of the bargain.

The client is a friend/family member/significant other

Taking on a loved one as a client can ruin a relationship. But so can not taking one on. Good luck with that! One advantage that you have here is that¬†you probably know this person a lot better than someone who walks in off the street. Thus you know if you can believe in them or not. But then, your love for this person could also cloud your judgement, so be careful about that too.¬†I personally will do almost anything for a loved one. But I also try to have some paying work on the table before I take on their free work. You’re no good to anyone (as a professional) if you are out on the street, unless they want to take you in. In which case, make anything they want. I would call that a fair trade.

But I could win!

I want to take a second to mention a sub-set of speculative projects that I call collectively, “make it¬†for¬†real, then spin the wheel”. They take the form of sample requests, tests and contests, in order to obtain creative labor¬†without any guarantee of payment.¬†Sample requests or tests come from those who may like your work, but they want to be “absolutely sure” you can do the exact thing they want, so they ask you to do a little of a¬†project up front, or an example of it. They may have other artists doing the same, competing for the job. Art or design contests are¬†similar, except that it takes an idea that should be fun for kids (who don’t work for a living), and then applying it to professional adults (who do). It may offer fabulous (non-spendable) prizes, like a free video game console, if working on something for a few days straight can really be called free. And you could win, true enough. But if you don’t, you lose out way worse than someone who scratches off a lottery ticket. Because then you didn’t¬†have to design the ticket. Actual riverboat¬†gambling is a better use of your time, and as these contests gain popularity, the value of our work decreases proportionally with our willingness to participate in them.

I’m not doing anything else right now…

Boredom is not a great¬†reason to work speculatively. If you find yourself in a lull, then your time is more efficiently spent obtaining paying work, rather than occupying yourself with someone else’s “might-pay-off”. What if a paying gig comes along that you are unable to take on because you are working for a speculative client? If you are under contract with them then you may be unable to stop what you are doing. And even if you could drop them, doing so could result in tiresome drama, and possibly a damaged reputation. Plus, that’s just not the right thing to do. You should finish what you start. But here’s a better idea: if you must gamble on something that does not have an immediate payout, then why not work on your own project? You can pick it up and put it down as needed, and you don’t have to rely on anyone else to pull their weight. And if it pays off in some way, you have the added satisfaction that it was your “baby”. Another good option can be doing pro bono work, which is something that others have spoken on at length. Also, as an extra incentive it should be noted that pro bono work ¬†can actually be a paying gig.

Don’t be a venture capitalist

In case of temptation, break glass. This article is likely not exhaustive, so I’ll leave you with a paradigm that I think applies to most of these situations: As a professional artist your time and skills are worth money. When prospective clients ask you to use your time and skills for the promise of future profit, they are really asking you to be an investor, specifically a venture capitalist.¬†And I don’t know about you, but much like marketing, being a venture capitalist is way outside my area of expertise (not to mention net worth).¬†My current career is more than enough for me. Now if someone out there can do it all, then more power to you. But investing in startups is risky business, fraught with financial peril. I just don’t know enough to be expected to take on a client’s risks as my own. It’s not a reasonable request. I provide a service and a product, and service providers deserve to be paid for their work, regardless of whether the client’s idea succeeds or not. Which is not to say that you should never, ever work for free. But if you do, you should do so more out of generosity, with realistic expectations, and not with the hope that you will strike it rich. One should be generous, as much as one can, but with wisdom.

P.S. Don’t burn bridges!

The¬†person or persons who approached you could still be someone that you want to deal with in the future. Do not just brush them off! Instead, direct them to other resources that could further expand their knowledge and help them to accomplish their goal. For instance, if they want to author a children’s book, direct them to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). If a lack of capital is the main issue, you could direct them to crowd-funding websites such as You never know. If this person is determined and resourceful enough, they could return to you at a later date, and this time with payment in hand!

Bonus: here is a link to the now-famous “should I work for free” chart!

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