Throughout my career, I’ve been approached by startups, offering the world to me if I would just do all their graphic design work for free. There are promises of being employed “later,” making “plenty of money… later,” and how it is a “unique opportunity.”These seem to be the identical reasons every startup uses with every freelancer.


My late uncle was one of the worst because the “later” never arrived yet he would send me pictures of his new sports cars, and postcards from exotic locations around the world. When he approached me with yet another “opportunity,” after the bank had once again repossessed his cars and house, I demanded past due balances.


“There will be plenty of money later,” he said, but I held my ground, his startup failed after he hid his profits in an offshore account and died. His kids got to enjoy the thousands and thousands of dollars he made, partly from my hard work to help brand his company. Just about every graphic designer can relate to this story, and problem.


Are Startups Broke?


The big question is why do startups ask for free branding and design work? Do they ask for free rent from landlords, legal advice from lawyers, accounting from CPAs, etc.? Why are graphic designers so lucky to be asked to invest time and effort to help a company achieve its goals?

  • Design is “fun,” so why get paid for it?
  • Those who ask actually do mean that they will pay some day in the future… like $100 for a logo, ads, web site, etc.
  • Designers are stupid and will believe the promises that don’t have to be kept.
  • Everybody does it, so why shouldn’t I?
  • I could do it myself on my computer in an hour or so, so why should a designer really want money for the opportunity of having their work seen by the world?
  • I’m a cheat and a liar.


Why This NEVER Works!


Professional designers steer away from requests for free work because it takes away from their paying clients. They also hear the same promises all of the time and it never works out. The same designers who fell into the trap decades ago now teach at art schools and warn their students against it. Some designers still do the work, but do you really want someone who values their talents at $0?


  • You get what you pay for.
  • Do you really want an inexperienced designer to handle your branding and logo, which is how customers will identify and view your company?
  • An inexperienced designer will make mistakes, especially with copyrights and YOU will be paying for that down the road… paying BIG TIME!
  • A bad job now will cost more to fix later on and that will be from a top professional who has rates you won’t like, but they are standard.
  • A practiced, professional designer will see through the vague promises you make and you will quickly gain a negative reputation that can grow with a viral post somewhere.
  • If you mention the free work being done to your other suppliers to get them to lower their rices, you’re just cutting your own throat.
  • Karma’s a bitch, baby!


Getting the Best!


When I am approached by a startup now, it is usually easy to search the net and find their startup financial backing. If you have the money, spend it on quality. Would you really take advice from an attorney who gave you constant free advice or live in a house that had free work from an architect or carpenter?


Graphic design is not “fun” (which is why it’s called “artwork” and not “artplay”). It’s a business and the next non-professional you use could go psycho on you and cause copyright problems with your very company identity.


As with any vendor with whom you wish to create a working relationship, a graphic designer is an important part of creating your brand and helping to maintain it as your company evolves and grows. As with any strong relationship, it takes trust, respect and, as in business, fair pay for a fair days work.


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