Ever heard of spec in regards to techies? How about when someone you’ve known all your life asks you to “help” them with a little CSS or HTML? Is this spec?
First of all, let me just clarify that the reason for my last article wasn’t to scare you away from doing free work. There are lots of times when it’s a great idea to work for free. You should weigh each request for free work and try to determine what the reason behind the request is, and also whether or not you are willing to do the work for free. A lot of times, even legit requests for free work aren’t something you should agree to. It just depends on the situation.
For example, I love to write. I do it for free for others all the time. However, if you are an auto mechanic and you ask me to write a blog for your site for free, I probably wouldn’t do it because I don’t know anything about that topic, and gaining exposure on that blog wouldn’t benefit me or the business I am trying to build. Or maybe you are starting up a craft blog (which is related to what I do) and you want me to guest post. I might refuse your request because I don’t know you, or your blog has no entries yet, and I have no idea what I am affiliating myself with, or I don’t have time right now.
The magazine that wanted me to submit a craft article for “possible inclusion” in their magazine wasn’t offering me anything. I didn’t even have a guarantee that my project would appear in their magazine or on their website. They just wanted people to do hours of work and hand it over so they could pick their favorite articles and get killer content with no work or money extended on their part. This is a core principle of the content contest model, by the way (logo design contests, etc.) — to get people to do a ton of work in vain hope that their work will be singled out and they’ll win a “prize.” (In this magazine’s case, the “prize” was that a few people would have their project featured in the magazine with credit to them, plus possibly appear on the magazine’s website.)
I just think it’s kind of shameful when a big corporation who I have no personal relationship with expects me to work for them for free. Even when they tempt me with “free exposure,” generally THEY are the ones getting the best end of the deal. Sometimes “free exposure” is the only currency someone has to barter with, but in the case of a magazine with a budget for each issue, this is not the case. They are just trying to get something for nothing.
Dave, someone very important in my life is the family tech support (for everyone in his entire family, including parents & siblings), and while it can be inconvenient, tiring, or annoying, he pretty much always does it. And he wouldn’t accept any payment in return. I think any time you want to help ANYONE for free, it’s totally fine. Obviously, you are more likely to help family and friends for free.
I am even fine with you doing free work for other for-profit ventures (like if you helped with CSS or HTML for someone you know, even if you only “know” them via the internet). Helping others when it’s within your power to do so is beneficial in many ways. Putting good stuff out into the universe is never a bad idea. Maybe I’ll write about that next time!
So back to your question specifically. If someone you know asks you to help them with a little CSS or HTML, check yourself (“search your feelings, Dave.”) Do you feel resentful that they asked you to work for free? Are you going to help them for free, but feel begrudging about it? If they offered to pay you, would you feel better? If you are happy to do it for no pay, then go for it. If you aren’t happy to do it for free, then tell them that you can’t afford to do two hours of work for free, but you’ll do it for <insert the price that will make you feel good about it here>. Or if they have something you want (like, an advertising spot on their website or a mention that you helped them with a tech problem on their blog, and your contact info), then maybe you can barter for your services. Lots of times you can come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial, even if no actual money is exchanged.
Now if that fictional auto mechanic who wanted me to write a free blog for her* offers to trade her mechanic services or a discount in exchange for my blogging, I would probably take her up on that.