The High Price of Free

Doing business in the web industry has unbelievably low start-up and fixed running costs. You need little more than a computer and an internet connection. The overheads of freelancers and small agencies that build websites and applications for other people, or develop a digital product, are tiny in comparison to a traditional business. Your training can be free, as so many industry experts write and teach and share this information without charging for it. Even the tools you use to build websites can be downloaded free of charge, or purchased for very little.

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As an industry we have become accustomed to getting hundreds of hours of work, and the benefit of years of hard-won knowledge for free.

My free time in the last couple of years has been put into looking at the Grid Layout spec. I start most days answering emailed questions about the examples I’ve posted, before I get down to the work that pays the bills.

I’m not unusual in that. Most of my friends in the industry have tales of invites to events where no payment is offered, a queue of issues raised on their personal project on GitHub, or people requesting general web development technical support via email.

What pays the bills for me, and enables me to spend my spare time doing unpaid work, is my product Perch. Yet we launched Perch to complaints that it wasn’t open source. There are very good reasons why someone might want, or be required, to use software that has an open source license. However, when we ask about it, people rarely cite these reasons. When they say open source, they mean free of charge.

I’ll be 41 this year. I don’t feel 41, but the reality is that at some point I won’t be able to keep up a pace of work that encompasses running a business, putting together talks and workshops, writing books, and contributing as much as possible to the industry that I love being a part of. I need to make sure that I am building not only a body of work and contributions that I’m proud of, but also financial security for when I can’t do this anymore. Yes, that free work does sometimes result in someone trying my software or offering me paid consultancy, but not as often as you might think. Despite having very marketable skills, I don’t own a home, much less have a pension and savings in place.

I wondered how other independent and freelance web workers dealt with this conflict between earning money and contributing back. I also wondered if I was alone in feeling that the clock is ticking. I put together a survey (the responses to which probably will be the background to several other pieces of research), and a few things stood out immediately.

Of the 211 people who responded and said they worked for themselves, 33% said they had some provision but not enough to fully retire, while 39% said they had no pension or retirement savings at all. In fact, 30% of the 211 said that they live pretty much “month to month” without so much as a contingency fund. Even filtering out the under-40 age groups, those percentages remained roughly the same.

I asked the question, “Are you involved in open source projects, writing tutorials, mentoring, speaking at events-that you do free of charge or for expenses only?” 59% said they were not involved, with 27% of those people citing time constraints. Some people did explain that they were involved in volunteer work outside of the web. By the time I filtered out the under-40s, the non-involvement figure rose to 70%.

We know that not paying speakers and not covering speaker expenses causes events to become less diverse. The ability to give time, energy and professional skills free of charge is a privilege. It is a privilege that not everyone has to begin with, but that we can also lose as our responsibilities increase or as we start to lose the youthful ability to pull all-nighters. Perhaps we begin to realize how much that free work is taking us away from our families, friends, and hobbies; away from work that might improve our situation and enable us to save for the future.

If you are in your early twenties, willing to work all night for the love of this industry, and have few pressing expenses, then building up your professional reputation on open source projects and sharing your ideas is a great thing to do. It’s how we all got started, how I and the majority of my peers found our voices. As I get older, however, I have started to feel the pressure of the finite amount of time we all have. I’ve started to see people of my generation taking a step back. I’ve seen people leave the industry, temporarily or permanently, due to burnout. Others disappear into companies, often in managerial (rather than hands-on) roles that leave limited time for giving back to the community.

Some take on job roles that enable them to continue to be a contributing part of the community. The fact that so many companies essentially pay people to travel around and talk about the web or to work on standards is a great thing. Yet, I believe independent voices are important too. I believe that independent software is important. For example, I would love to see more people who are not tied to a big company be able to contribute to the standards process. I endorse that, yet know that in doing so I am also advocating that people give themselves another unpaid job to do.

The enthusiasm of newcomers to the industry is something I value. I sit in conference audiences and have my mind changed and my eyes opened by speakers who are often not much older than my daughter. However, there is also value in experience. When experience can work alongside fresh ideas, I believe that is where some of the best things happen.

Do we want our future to be dictated by big companies, with independent input coming only from those young or privileged enough to be able to work some of the time without payment? Do we want our brightest minds to become burned out, leaving the industry or heading into jobs where the best scenario is contribution under their terms of employment? Do we want to see more fundraisers for living or medical expenses from people who have spent their lives making it possible for us to do the work that we do? I don’t believe these are things that anyone wants. When we gripe about paying for something or put pressure on a sole project maintainer to quickly fix an issue, we’re thinking only about our own need to get things done. But in doing so we are devaluing the work of all of us, of our industry as a whole. We risk turning one of the greatest assets of our community into the reason we lose the very people who have given the most.

23 Reader Comments

  1. Great bit of exposition, Rachel. I’m a little further along the “years on this earth” path, but everything you say rings quite true, still.

    While the long overdue across-the-board recognition of the value of designing for great user experiences is obviously a great boon to all of us who passionately invest our time and expertise in doing just that — as well as promoting it, evangelizing, speaking, writing, contributing, and so on — at the end of the day we have to make sure that there is bread on the table. All of the above means nothing to my family if we can’t pay the bills. They won’t care that I am a great designer, that people want to hear me talk or read my words, or that my peers think I’m a swell chap with a lot to offer.

    Sometimes it *feels* as if that view is selfish, but without getting too Ayn Rand, a certain degree of selfishness is not only healthy, but necessary. In fact, it is in many way more selfish to keep giving to others instead of giving to my family. I chose/made my family, and they must come first.

    I have never been offered a dime to speak or write about UX. My guess is that there are probably only a few dozen UX folks out there that can truly claim to make any real money by doing such things, at least on a regular basis. Good for them! But for most of us, that’s probably not going to happen. And you know what, that’s okay. I mean, ultimately, a speaking event is not like a product that is going to make the organizers rich over time, so paying speakers who cannot guarantee by name alone that seats will be filled may just be unrealistic.

    Like others, I don’t have much time left in the day after my 9-5 job, my commute, my domestic errands and chores, a pretty healthy night’s sleep, and a tidbit of time with my wife and daughter, for anything else. That smidgen of time is insanely valuable to me, and that means that what I do with it had better prove valuable. In short, if I’m going to be working on something “on the side,” alone or with others, it had better have the potential to pay off, and I don’t mean some teeny tiny chance, either.

    Creating and selling mobile apps seems to be one area where there is a pretty clear path to profit. Sure, you may not be able to retire off it, but even an extra couple hundred bucks each month can be crazily helpful. I did a few myself, and while I don’t currently have any available anymore, I made enough money from them to feel that the time spent was worth it.

    The other way to get paid for on-the-side UX efforts is a little less straightforward, but it can prove even more lucrative. In short, work on things that will impress the type of people that you want to next hire you — in a much better paying role. Don’t work on what tickles the fancy of your peers: they can’t hire you, and they often can’t provide any real influence over those who will be hired above them, so to speak. So, focus on the C-suite folks and their ilk. Write about stuff that is important to them in the area of UX, and publish it in places that they will find it. Start connecting on LinkedIn not with other designers, but with the VPs and Chiefs and design and experience at large companies, putting your work in front of their eyes. They are the people to impress, and should you do just that, the career boost they can provide will be vastly worth it.

    Ultimately, I think you have to find a balance. Yes, it’s great to contribute to our “community,” to put out freebie UI kits, to make cool designs just for Dribbble exposure, to write astonishingly professorial online articles, to toil over a major presentation and wallow in the applause at the end of the show, and to help out other UX people in forums, repositories, and elsewhere. And we should, to a certain extent. It’s what keeps us happy, engaged, and gives us a sense of accomplishment. But we must also contribute to our family — even if that just means ourselves. We must earn a good living, seize opportunities, make sacrifices, and spend time with the people that will open the doors to greater financial reward. Because, at the end of the day, that too provides us a very different and yet even more necessary happiness and sense of accomplishment.

    No design I have ever created has given me a greater sense of self worth and pride than being able to give my daughter the present she wanted, take my wife to an expensive show, or just let them know that we are going to be all right…because I’m a pretty good designer.

  2. As a industry of problem solvers, it seem strange that we don’t have a means to sustain the system. A support for the contributors and innovators. Adoption != Income.

    At 26, I’m at the young and hungry stage, where I’m looking to take on as much as I can handle, to advance as quickly as possible.

    I’d love to give back, whether it be with time or resources, and would prefer collaboration over competition. Am intimidated by the barriers to entry into open source; how do you select a nobel project? I don’t have free time: married to a woman with ailments that limit her independence. Spare technical time is spent keeping up to speed with the industry standards.

    Rachel, what are your thoughts for the up-and-coming generation of developers giving back/contributing? Would a Pantheon, or Humble Bundle platform be effective in supporting a series of industry-centric causes?

  3. I’m less than a handful of years younger than you, and these issues keep me up at night a lot. Far from the entitlements our baby boomer parents received on a plate, I’ve dumbed my life’s goal down to living in a house that has a backyard and central heating by the time I’m 50. Retirement? I had a pension for 7 months in 2004. I’m going to work until the day I drop dead. That’s not down to my lack of initiative. That’s life for our generation. I love what I do and I do what I love. But I can’t plan for thirty, twenty, or ten years in advance. We get through each month and that is all. Sometimes we don’t.

    Yesterday I was working on a post about yet another upcoming e-commerce law we all have to comply with (…sorry Rachel…) and thinking “why am I blogging this for free? Someone should be paying me to write it.” That sounds quite arrogant. And yet, for the generation that came before us, that was normal. Our parents’ generation did not get a backyard and central heating on the back of micropayments and free giveaways. Me? I think I’m going to have to start being that little bit more arrogant.

    As someone so recently sang in a coded goodbye letter, “I can’t give everything away…”

  4. And for the other side of the table…

    Freelanced full-time for less than a year out of college (back in 2009), went full-time to a small design studio where they offered 401k, and now am a UX Manager at a decently large software + development firm with respectable salary, 401k w/ matching, myriad healthcare and workplace benefits. Been full-time for the last 7 years. Don’t regret a single second of it. Yeah sometimes the work is not all that exciting but financial security is very exciting!

    As for your financial security – don’t feel bad. It’s not like it was something most of us were taught at a young age. It took me MANY years (and i’m still learning to this day) how to become financially responsible and to save for the future. Yes having a steady income does help and I try to squirrel money away when I have a surplus rather than spend it but with a family it’s very difficult.

    Still at 41 now is the time to take responsibility for your financial future and start socking away those duckets! 70 will be here before you know it…

    Good luck!

  5. Heather Burns nailed it in a previous comment above. Goals have realigned significantly since my 20s, rather than the 1950s. House, heat, food and clothes for the kids, enough income to allow free time to be spent learning more about technology because I’m lucky enough to love my work so I give enough of a 541t about it to want to keep learning. In 2016 to have the luxury of all those things that requires work, work , work and I think that’s the same for everyone these days regardless of age. I was never afraid of work but the lifelong rewards just aren’t promised the way they were (or seem to have been) for my parents’ generation so my attitude is work until you can’t and just make damn sure you put enough aside to cover yourself when the time arrives that you can’t work.

    And income insurance. If you work for yourself get it. Or play russian roulette. Whichever you prefer.

  6. As a note on income insurance, if you are self-employed read the small print very carefully indeed. A lot will only pay out if you are completely unable to generate any income, so if you have a product for example that brings in some money even if you are not actively working on it you might find they don’t pay out.

    The insurances are often more designed for people who are employed or for who work means them showing up and doing the labour. There are also (in the UK at least) insurances that will pay out on diagnosis of a range of conditions, cancer and so on, which are not tied to income. I have one of these so in the instance of me needing treatment for a significant illness I wouldn’t have the added stress of covering the bills. As we get older and therefore more likely to get some sort of illness these seem like a good plan and I was surprised at how inexpensive it was.

  7. Working as a creative is indeed a challenging prospect. I have taken a different path. I am an Assistant Professor in Web and Multimedia design at a local community college. I speak at local networking groups and “un-conferences” where I can. I take on some design jobs when I have to the time. But mostly, I keep abreast in order to keep our academic program current and well – it’s fun. My academic salary takes car of most of the bills, and benefits.

    My M.Ed. is in eLearning Design, so I apply most of my design to online learning projects. I like to remind my students that web coding is like desktop publishing or word-processing; in that you don’t have to be a “web designer” or applications developer to use and benefit from knowledge of web standards. Having some knowledge of it is becoming expected; like knowing how to use Microsoft Word. Learning how to talk to the browser is becoming a cross-disciplinary toolset.

  8. Really great article. Being self-employed has forced me to become financially responsible, so whatever happens in the future, I’m glad I have been able to do it, but the hours are definitely longer, and the amount you can give back to the community truly fluctuates.

  9. “If you are in your early twenties, willing to work all night for the love of this industry, and have few pressing expenses, then building up your professional reputation on open source projects and sharing your ideas is a great thing to do.”
    I’m going to disagree with this. I think our industry needs to get over the sacrifice of personal time to demonstrate passion across the board. I burned my 20s doing this and, frankly, regret it. Privilege isn’t just a youth thing.

  10. In freelance, one has to find a vein of work for which others are willing to pay.

    I’ve noticed that there are many people working freelance who are just not cut out for running a small business (sometimes it’s just no fun/stress levels are high).

    I think Derek Kapa nailed it above: if you aren’t cut out for some sales (and bill collection), then join a group or a company where others are good at those skills, relax and do your work. While enjoying (hopefully) a good salary.

  11. Very thought provoking reading, thanks. Just a heads up: the “share this on Twitter” button seems to generate a dead link, please check this out.

  12. Great article, I agree with the enthusiasm of newcomers part entirely. The freshies we have are the only reason we still contribute via free workshops etc.

  13. This is a great post. I’ve always wondered why something so obvious is so easily missed. “Free” as a business model should have died with the dotcom bust, but so many of the people I see in this field are too young to have been making a living when that happened. It’s as abstract to them as Teapot Dome is to me.

    I would like to respond to Heather about one thing though. And I understand where I think she’s coming from. Every year it’s gotten harder and harder to get started in life. The world’s gotten meaner, it seems. Those of us who are older had simpler times. But I’m still a little stung by one remark.

    The “entitlements our baby boomer parents received on a plate” didn’t go out to all baby boomers. Birth to a privileged family might have gotten you the things I believe you are referring to, but some of us old farts came from families of less wealth and standing. College wasn’t an option for me. My chosen career was gutted by the Internet. I left it in time, but now I’m staring at 60 and having to learn the same technologies 20-year-olds pick up in computer science class. I’m not going to have much of a retirement besides my market-based 401K, which is pretty much a Wall Street scam. I have a back yard, yes. But I won’t have a golden age of sitting in a rocker sipping lemonade. I won’t ever be able to stop working.

    I know you and your generation has it tough. I feel for you. At the same time, I know people in mine who are terrified about what will happen in the next 5-10 years. It isn’t easy for any of us.

  14. When we gripe about paying for something or put pressure on a sole project maintainer to quickly fix an issue, we’re thinking only about our own need to get things done.

    We’re all guilty victims of bounded rationality — that is, making the best decisions we can with the info we’re given, but usually harming ourselves and the health of the system at large because we don’t have the full picture.

    If we were armed with more information, we might be enticed to make self-centred decisions that nevertheless benefit the entire system (”I’ll sponsor this person’s blog because if we all nurture web dev bloggers my future employees will have more chances to develop their skill, and I’ll spend less on training”). Or people could appeal to our conscience. I do think that part of the solution is to have a broader awareness of how the whole system functions.

    Articles like this are good, because they start broadening people’s awareness. But I don’t know how to solve the problem that people will still try to optimise their actions for their own short-term benefit, even decent people.

    I really like how open-source developers are running crowdfunding campaigns; it gives the community at large the chance to offer some sort of sponsorship. Wonder how well it works.

  15. “If you are in your early twenties, willing to work all night for the love of this industry, and have few pressing expenses, then building up your professional reputation on open source projects and sharing your ideas is a great thing to do.”

    I guess that this is how many of us started, and let’s hope that this is going to be the case in the future, because we need “fresh ideas”, and those ideas might not come out from big corporation.

  16. The internet has created a race to the bottom that seems to never end. Globalization has also broke down so many barriers. I have to compete with people willing to outsource on websites such as Upwork. The funny thing is that our parents are always slamming the younger generations for not “putting in their time” but their version of putting in their time was in the mailroom. Sure, it wasn’t glamorous. But at least it wasn’t “Free”

  17. Interesting article. I’m a freelancer and still in my 20s, so I suppose my standpoint is a little different. I use the unavoidable slow times every business faces once in a while to create contents or prepare for the next conference.

    Giving back to the community feels great, but you can also use that as a marketing/branding strategy, especially if you work in a competitive industry – anything that helps you stand out can really help.

  18. A good question to ask might be “how do other industries handle this”? After all, web development is a very young profession, relatively. Could we better develop our professional associations or organizations to take a role in supporting the community, with us in turn helping to support them? Is there much real point in worrying about preserving the influence of unaffiliated individuals on spec development in a world where it’s already really up to big companies (the browser makers) what gets implemented and how? There’s even the question of whether “free” is that important of a goal after all – a project built on someone’s spare time and voluntary community participation is inherently unreliable, which makes it risky to use. Likewise, even if the speakers at these events are unpaid, the people attending the events still paid for their tickets (or had someone pay for them). How much of the perceived importance of “free” is ideology rather than practicality?

  19. The problem I have is I find it very easy to say “Sure I can do that,” and a few minutes later I realize that I just volunteered several hours of my time for something that someone may not even appreciate at all.

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