"Fire" reminds me of working for Burning River Web, a now defunct web design company. I designed a logo and website for them as well as designing multiple web sites for potential clients on spec. For those of you who don't know, that's speculation potential customers will like the work and agree to pay for it. In other words, I took all the risks and the business would make a tidy percentage of the profits if my efforts worked out.
I was willing to take risks because I was between jobs and wanted solid web experience for my portfolio. I sucked it up and did my best until it became too much. I finally said just pay me for the work I did for the company (not the spec work for clients) and let's call it quits. He refused. I sent him a tersely stated email and he responded...
"You have some nerve calling my ethics into question while having executed a poison apple strategy..."
?! All I said was that I wanted paid for the non-spec work. When did I agree to be exploited? I could've pursued the money legally, but I gave up. It just wasn't worth it, and there were extenuating circumstances causing me to back off, but it galls me that there are people who think they can get work for free. Well, he did get it for free so I guess he was right. The only justice I got was when his lawyers told him to quit using the logo and website. That didn't do me any good though.
I could tell you of many more times when people tried to rip me off, and spec work isn't the only tactic. The first and best thing to do to prevent this is to sign a contract before doing anything, allowing for the unexpected. For example, I used to design logos but could get swamped with endless revisions. I wrote a contract promising 3 initial layouts and final art. Revisions would be billed at $__/per hour, payable on delivery. Simple. Everybody knows what they're getting. Which of course didn't stop some people from trying to rip me off, but I got paid or they didn't get the work.
Creative people are often exploited. We want the joy of creating, the pleasure of seeing our work in print. How much can we pay you for the opportunity? Cut that out! You can do something your customer can't. That has value and you deserve to be paid. There's no glory in being a starving artist -- unless you're dead, and then who profits? I wish I knew how to get creatives to unionize.
Creatives are also too often optimists. We think we'll get the project done in 4 hours when it will really take a week. We undercut ourselves when we think about how much we should bill per hour. We're afraid we'll lose the work if we charge too much. Maybe you will, but maybe you'll get paid fairly and develop a good relationship with a continuing customer.
If you call a plumber there wouldn't be any talk of spec work. You'll probably get a bill just for the house call to get a quote on the actual work. You won't bargain the plumber's $50 or $100 per hour rate. You just want your pipes to work. I really should've gone into plumbing. Let's all start thinking like plumbers.
When I started this post I intended to show my work for Burning River, but thinking about that still makes me burn. The box above was a happier project I made for Mrs. Fields.
If you're wondering about burning rivers, the web company's name was inspired by the Cuyahoga River which winds through Cleveland, Ohio and famously caught fire a number of times. These fires were caused by wide-spread chemical dumping by businesses. The fires inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an important government agency that has been under attack by the current US president who is well-known for stiffing contractors.