Sam Brown

Why you should reconsider working with friends and family

So your friends and family know that you make websites, but do they really realise how much effort and work goes into creating each site you work on? Probably not. This is likely because of a fundamental lack of understanding of what it is you actually do on a day-to-day basis.

You know the situation, someone in your family needs a website and knowing that is what you do, it almost becomes your duty to create that site for them. You are thrust into the limelight with little or no choice, just like the mechanic in the family fixes car related issues or the DIY guy gets roped into small around the house jobs. Here are some tips, ammunition if you will for getting out of this tricky situation that will likely go wrong or become awkward down the road.

The underlying problem

Your friends and family likely do not know how it is you do what you do. They may know you make websites, but the process you go through will be completely alien to them. Sadly with the prevalence of WYSIWYG editors, cheap reusable themes and off the shelf “websites in a box” we are already on the back foot.

I create custom websites from the ground up. My process (in short) will lead us through many stages from first contact and idea generation, to sketches and wireframes, initial design comps and revisions, to final design sign off, front end coding, user testing, backend integration and launch. This is several weeks work, not something easily accomplished in the evenings or my free time, if you want a serious result.

There are many great tools out there to create ‘websites’ (I’m using that term loosely here), Apples iWeb and other WYSIWYG editors allow just about anybody to, temporarily, become a web designer. Sadly this is the plight of our industry.

Money – the root of all evil?

While money is not the be all and end all, this will be a decidedly touchy subject should you happen to be accosted by a family member looking for a website. How much do you charge? Full price, “mates rates”, can you even charge them at all? Do you want to tell your family and friends what your day rate is? This may back-fire come time to pay the bill on your next big night out.

If I was to take this project on I would feel inclined to lower or dismiss my hourly rate, this is akin to asking my wife to take a week off work to baby sit your children for you. Of course she would love to do it, but is it practically feasible? You’re asking me to work on a project for little or no benefit at all when I could be spending that exact time working for a proper paying client, this is unfair and unrealistic.

To charge or not to charge? Doing so will keep you honest and bring a level of prefessionality to the project, on the flip-side it could quite easily cause unnecessary strain on your relationship.

Work hours vs social hours

It doesn’t matter whether you work 9-5 or not, taking on work with a friend or family member will undoubtedly bite you in the ass if you socialise with them on a frequent basis.

I quite enjoy a quiet drink at the pub with you and coming over for sunday roast but I do not want to turn these social events into a breeding ground for project discussion that would have been ideally suited for an actual weekday meeting.

If you must, schedule all meetings during your work hours, not evenings, weekends or your free time. Make them put serious effort in just like all of your other clients.

In my experience…

Personally I avoid close friends and family members as clients at all costs. This has bitten me before and is a lesson you should perhaps try and avoid before learning the hard way. The solution to the problem is two-fold, if they are very serious about getting a site designed then perhaps you could recommend a colleague of yours, if it’s a whimsical idea with little or no budget perhaps referring them to something like iWeb may be the best option.

Have you done work for friends or family members before? Had good or bad experiences? What was your solution? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Harry Roberts 11 March 2009, 23:41 #1

Just learnt this one myself the hard way. Blood love the babysitting analogy though, Sam. Genius.

Julian Schrader 12 March 2009, 00:31 #2

Thanks a lot for that babysitting analogy! Great post on a very difficult topic. I’ve worked for friends and family before—it’s like going through hell.

I spend time on projects I feel I can’t charge my usual rate for, have my real clients wait (!) and all that’s in for me is a pint at the pub in the evening. That can’t work out well and therefore I don’t do it anymore.

Thank you for giving us some very well verbalised arguments for discussing such a case with friends or family!

Wolf 12 March 2009, 01:25 #3

Recently my father started up a project at the company I work for; I told him he could do it, but under a few conditions a) I wouldn’t be involved (my colleagues would handle the job) and b) we wouldn’t talk about it.

Of course b) doesn’t work out; during what you call social hours we seem to have these impromptu meetings about a project I don’t even know about. He just wants to talk about it for some reason.

When friends ask me for a website I just say; small websites start around €1500 – and I don’t work for free, just like a police officer, a lawyer and a doctor don’t work for free. That kinda puts a stop to it :).

Tim Van Damme 12 March 2009, 04:04 #4

Superb article! Nothing more to add. Might forward it to a couple of friends/family members :)

Sean Nieuwoudt 12 March 2009, 04:08 #5

Thanks for the nice read.

I was once asked to build a website for my mothers boyfriend – they ended up breaking up and things got ugly as he felt he no longer had to pay me for the work.


Ollie Kavanagh 12 March 2009, 04:15 #6

Hit the nail on the head right there Sam, suck a sticky road to go down. I don’t think I have ever done one project where it hasn’t lead to arguments or far to much work on my end for no payment because its ‘family’ or ‘friends’. It’s best to steer clear and as you said recommend someone else so they might actually realise how much what we do is worth.

Gaya 12 March 2009, 04:21 #7

Oh I know this one.
I’ve done this one time, and it was the last time. It’s the fact that they think they can call you whenever they want, because they know you. I once got a call on Saturday around 9pm about the website. That’s when I realized this doesn’t work. Got payed good though… but it’s totally not worth it.

People just don’t see the amount of time it costs for us to make a website. Referring them to iWeb is a great option, I prefer giving them Frontpage (it gets them frustrated and the results are bad, and suddenly they realize what great work you do)

Jonathan 12 March 2009, 04:22 #8

I remember learning the best “get out” for the old Mates Rates trap:

> Of course I offer Mates Rates! Double for friends, triple for family!

It gets a laugh, makes them feel a little sheepish for asking in the first place, and also cuts to the real underlying issue – even if you do charge, you’re going to end up being expected to overservice.

That’s the real trap, and is why working with anyone you can’t be professional with is a non-starter. If you can’t say “no”, then you’re all in trouble.

Jason Cale 12 March 2009, 04:23 #9

Great post, and I very much agree.

The blurry line between web professionals and hobbyists is much an addition the problem.

I set my day rate such to scare off most people, leaving only the crazy ones who really wanna work with me.

Mates rates? Pff, almost like asking for a quick go on my missus..

kat nevile 12 March 2009, 04:55 #10

Great article, sam! We all want to help each other out, but, as you say, lawyers don’t work for free, so why should we? (I also just spent the last hour trying to find a dilbert comic that summed this up completely, but alas, it’s not in the past 4 months).

Basically, some guy asks, “Can you help me fix my computer?” to which Dilbert replies, “Sure, I’ll be over at your house fixing your computer, while you regrout my bathroom.” the guy says, “Why would I be doing that?” Dilbert says, “I wasn’t the one who forced you to major in english lit.” hahhahaa! Okay, probably funnier if you say the comic.

Jelle Desramaults 12 March 2009, 05:09 #11

@Wolfr, I think your dad is just trying to connect with you :) Maybe you should take up fishing?

This friday I have a meeting with my dear aunt about her website. She needs a blog and an e-shop… budget €800. Shopify to the rescue!

Kushal Pisavadia 12 March 2009, 05:11 #12

Brilliant article. I’m still not so sure about charging for projects. I can’t compare to most of the guys (and girls) that do this full-time, since I’m currently an office junior but have previously completed projects for:

1. A friend at a rate of £5/hour.
2. A student-run group for free, since the project was very interesting.
3. An expected amount for a simple print layout.

All of which were fun to do, but I will definitely steer clear of the first option. I’ll gladly do a project for free, if it involves thinking in new ways and trying out new techniques due to the learning value. However, I’m going to take your advice about passing them onto a colleague since it involves less on my part, whilst still allowing me to give an honest opinion throughout as a friend.

Si Jobling 12 March 2009, 05:12 #13

I’ve recently taken on a couple of projects for family and friends – it’s been a mixed bag in all honesty.

Working with my mother was probably the hardest one as I don’t get to spend much leisure time with her anymore anyway so any conversation we had tended to be around her website. At the end of it all though, I was glad I could contribute towards her career and I managed to learn quite a lot from the experience.

The hardest part was the rates. I could not charge my mother as she had very little budget and, well, it was my mum! It was difficult allocating time to her project when I had other paying clients demanding work at the same time.

It’s interesting reading your thoughts and suggestions though. I found myself agreeing with almost everything in there and will definitely consider some of the reactions in the future.

Andy McMillan 12 March 2009, 05:17 #14

Will be designing a Wordpress theme for my girlfriend in the coming weeks. Breaking all the rules – but I also value certain parts of my anatomy remaining attached to my person – so I’ve had to make the compromise.

Nicholas Pellant 12 March 2009, 05:21 #15

Fantastic article – I’ve been in the position before of working for family and it never ends nice.

Sam Brown 12 March 2009, 06:57 #16

Thanks for the comments everyone. I am glad I’m not the only one who has made this unfortunate mistake before! :) I do realise you can’t always get out of this type situation but you need to make sure that everyone knows where you stand before it gets underway. Nothing worse than ruining a friendship or causing a stir in the family over it.

prisca 12 March 2009, 06:59 #17

strange to read so many bad stories… I’ve only ever had positive experiences when working for/with friends (have not worked for family) and found them the most pleasant clients to have ;)
I guess everyone might be talking about larger sites here – mine were mainly small little promo sites, done either as relatively static or WordPress sites. But I’ve enjoyed every one of these projects as I had more creative freedom as well as more influence over UI and page design so in the end everyone was happy. I have their trust in delivering a good site – their appreciation for the work I’ve put in as well as the best word by mouth promotion I could wish for.
I have done sites for free in the past – and usually found that my friends came back to me for updates or re-designs but with the decision to pay me at my full rate for any further work – though I have also had friends insisting on treating the project as a professional working agreement including full rates.

guess I can just be grateful for having such wonderful friends ;)

Sam Brown 12 March 2009, 07:09 #18

@prisca: I’ve had good experiences too, but I feel it is important that your friend or family member is aware of the situation they are putting you under.

True be told, I’m currently working on a project with a friend at the moment but we are treating it entirely as a professional job. We are adhering to the things I outlined above to keep business and social completely separate. I don’t think it is impossible to work with friends or family but I do think that quite often you could easily be taken advantage off.

Wolf 12 March 2009, 11:45 #19

@Jelle I figured, but still. I mentioned this article today as a hint.

@Gaya good example about the odd-hour calls!

Chris Wallace 12 March 2009, 14:21 #20

I think it’s ok to work with family or friends, but only ones who have gone through a design process before. It’s essential they understand how a designer works, what it typically costs, and why it doesn’t take 20 minutes, a copy of DreamWeaver and a GoDaddy account.

Sam Hardacre 13 March 2009, 09:57 #21

A really great article Sam. I’ve not come across this situation very often to be honest as I don’t really seek freelance work outside of my full-time job.

Recently, I was asked by a friend to help him set up a basic portfolio site to promote his graphic design work. Of course, I said I’d help in any way I could but wanted to talk about it before jumping in.

He had a list of things he wanted the site to do and after asking a few questions (what value some features would have etc.) it turned out that it really boiled down to one basic thing. He wanted somewhere he could regularly and easily upload work and give people a URL to see it, so I pointed him to Tumblr and so far it’s working out pretty well.

I think the point I’m trying to make is I’d probably have a discussion before dismissing it completely because sometimes you can come up with a solution in 20 minutes over a pint and then it’s over and done with, you get to keep your social time while doing your mate a favour. Obviously this won’t always be the appropriate solution and I’ll definitely be taking your advice when the situation arises : )

Phil Thompson 1 April 2009, 00:59 #22

Every business book I’ve read suggests that when you start your own business you should let your family, friends, neighbours know about your business so you can get any work from them as a start but in my experience this is a terrible way to do things – it might work if you’re a plumber but not a web designer.

I get enquiries from people who think a website should cost £200 and that’s fine, I’m polite and I move them along to someone who can do it cheaper. That’s fine with complete strangers, but say if my mum tells her friend at work that I make websites and consequently that person gets in touch, it can cause problems i.e. they can end up thinking ‘why is my friend’s son trying to rip me off by charging me more than £200 for a website.’ And that causes my mum’s friend to be pissed off with her and my mum to be pissed off with me.

Referrals are the best way to get work but only if they’re well targeted.

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Sam Brown co-founded Iterate, and was previously VP of Design at Foursquare. Based in NYC.