In my years as a tech, I have done different kinds of work. I worked for IT companies that do out source work for other companies who don't want to staff an IT department, I have worked for ISPs, I have worked in the IT department for larger companies, and I have done freelance work. Each of these positions bring a different point of view and a different set of experiences.
For instance, when working for an IT company as a tech, you are the money maker. You are why the company is around. Sales people, accountants, etc. are all support for the work you do. Because of this, you have a serious sense of pride (and ego).
Working in the IT department of another company, your role is changed dramatically, now you are the support staff. No one cares how awesome of a job you are doing (well they might, but its not something they can typically put a dollar value on).
Freelance work is a beast in it self. You are on your own. You are the company. But one of the hardest parts of doing freelance is figuring out your worth. A lot of young freelances make the mistake of offering the services they provide at really low or free rates. I see this a lot especially in the web and graphic design, people are so eager that they offer to do work for dirt cheap or even free just to get "exposure", in reality, they are saying there work is worth nothing. I see ads on craigs list and other forums asking for "green" designers to come work on projects with claims that there work, while not getting them a pay check, will be great for their portfolio. But the logic used in this is flawed.
The companies that are big enough to really create buzz around your work don't want rookies messing with their designs, they want pro's. If they see a rookie's work and like it, they certainly would pay for it since they recognize quality when they see it.
In addition to this, if a company who you did free work for does get successful and start dropping your name, price of the work will be discussed, and if they say "oh he did it for free" or "he did it for reallylowprice" the next person calling you will probably expect that. So you really are setting your self up for failure.
Another time I see a persons professional worth being diluted is doing work for friends and family. Now, I have no problem being the family tech. My mom or dad give me a call and I have no issue helping them out. Aunts and uncles, sure if I have some time I'll hook them up. And for really close friends, no problem. The issue comes when you start doing work for friends of friends or friends of family. You should be charging them, discount it if you want to be nice, but don't do work for strangers for free. Not only do you value your work at $0 but you also devalue the work of others in the profession.
I recall my aunt calling me one night and asking me if I had some time to stop by her friends house because they were having some problems. turns out, she already told her friend I would, and I have never even met or spoke to this person in my life. So its an awkward situation because I don't want to let my family down, but she shouldn't be promising people I'll do work for them. Not to mention she didn't even as how much I'd charge to do it. I told her I would stop by, but let her know that I had no problems drumming up my own business and would prefer she not promise people I would help them out. She could give them my email address or phone number and Id decide if Id take them as a client.
The way I "charge" people is as follows.
Immediate Family: I don't charge. (My mom tends to cook me dinner while i'm there...and that rocks)
Close Friends (really close): I don't charge (although buying me a drink the next time we are out doesn't hurt.
Secondary Family/Friends: If it is really simple, and not out of my way, I wont charge them but if its something that I'll need to take time out of my normal work hours (and in the process lose money) Ill give them a discounted rate.
Fiends of Friends/Family/Strangers: They get charged full price. The only time I have done free work for people I didn't know was when it has been for schools or other non-profits that I wanted to help. I consider it a way to give back.
The point is, know what your talent and skills are worth. If you aren't sure, look around and see what others are charging. There is nothing wrong with undercutting the competition, but make sure you are getting what is do to you. If you really just need experience, go find a firm that specializes in the work you want to do and see if you can get an internship. You will learn from the pro's and thats where you will get the experience. If you need exposure, then do some mock up's and create a portfolio out of those. People will pay for quality.
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