Freelancing for friends can be a minefield, but it can also be magic. In some cases, the pressure of the friendship can make working together an experience of unadulterated, white-knuckled stress; in others, the insights born of a close knowledge of the friend-client provide greater freedom than usual, and present the opportunity to do truly great work.
But whether the job turns out to be a nightmare or nirvana, none of us wants to lose a friend over work. So what can you do to help protect your relationship when you’re working with friends?
1. Consider the friend, rather than the work.
If a friend offers you work when you’re low on cash, it can be tempting to take up their offer on the spot. Yet this is one of the few times in life that you’ll have some idea of what the prospect might be like to work with, so try to think about the “opportunity” objectively.
A friend asked me to write some copy for his new website. He’d just taken the project to a second design agency, because the first one couldn’t come up with a look and feel he liked, though he couldn’t explain what he didn’t like about it. When I heard this, alarm bells started ringing: I had the feeling I’d really have to work at it to drag a decent brief out of this guy. I already felt that there was a solid chance he’d be unhappy with my work, because he seemed to have trouble communicating, from a creative perspective, what he wanted.
Once I thought about his offer, I could consider objectively whether or not I really wanted to take the job on. This is a really important step, because if you don’t feel you can work with a friend, it’s best to diplomatically bow out up front, rather than later, at a point that might jeopardize the project and the friendship.
2. Delineate your friendship from your working relationship.
Not all the work I’ve done for friends has resulted in more work. But that fact hasn’t undermined my friendships with friend-clients.
If you decide you want to work with friends, it’s a good idea to sort out in your own mind where the working relationship stops and the friendship starts. There’s always going to be overlap — sure — but that doesn’t mean that if the friend-client isn’t happy with your work, they don’t like you personally.
Before I start work with a friend-client, I consciously remind myself that I am not my work, that they may not like my work, and that it may not be the raging success we all hope for from the outset. That may sound negative, but a number of factors may be more likely to affect this working relationship than would impact a more typical freelancing job.
For example, your friend might offer to use you because they like you personally, or have heard you’re looking for work. As a consequence, they may not be as objective in assessing your capabilities or product as they would if they were putting the project out to tender.
Similarly, a fear of damaging their relationship with you may make them hesitant to be specific about their needs, desires, and opinions of your work. It’s important for you to realise this, and to accept that, despite everyone’s best intentions, the nature of the situation may make it more difficult than usual to achieve your typical benchmark of success.
3. Be honest and open.
If you’re concerned that you may risk a friendship by working with a friend, express your concerns with your friend-client. If you can both agree that you don’t want anything that happens at work to impact on your friendship, then you’re off to an honest, open start.
Continue in the same vein: make sure details like rates, deliverables, specifications and payment timeframes are agreed to in writing, so everyone’s on the same page. If an issue crops up, speak to your friend-client as soon as you recognize it.
Being transparent about your feelings, work, and intentions will help put both yourself and your friend-client at ease, and form the basis for a good working relationship — and the continuation of your friendship.
4. Behave professionally.
As with any client, it’s important to treat the friend-client professionally, fairly, and respectfully. You are, after all, gaining something by doing the job, be it income, a cool folio piece, or perhaps a foot in the door of a new market segment that would be much harder to penetrate otherwise. Treat your friend-client professionally, and you should find that they’ll show you the same courtesy.
Remember: like any client, your friend-client wants to get value for the money they’re spending with you, and to feel as if you value their business. Treating them professionally is the easiest way to communicate your respect for them, but good treatment also has the potential to really impress them.
If your friend-client receives great treatment, they may well become an advocate for your services since they know you personally as well as professionally and, as your friend, are keen to see you succeed.
5. Keep perspective.
As experienced professionals, we know and accept that things can go wrong with projects. So if something goes awry as you work with your friend-client, don’t let it get out of proportion. And don’t let your friendship get in the way of a professional response. Instead, consider what you’d do if this situation arose with a typical client, and act accordingly. Although every client is different, this can be a good way to ensure that your behavior and responses to any kinds of problems are rational and professional.
It’s important not to give unfair or undue concessions to a client because they’re you’re friend, but it’s equally important not to take things more personally than you would with a typical client. Be objective, keep perspective, and hopefully you’ll be able to maintain the friendship even if the project doesn’t turn out as well as you’d hoped.
These are the tactics I use to try to protect my friendships from the pitfalls I sometimes encounter when I work with friends. So far, they’ve worked for me. What are your tips for successfully working with friends?