Working With Friends and Family — Can It Ever Work?

Sooner, or later, it’s bound to happen. If you’ve been freelancing for any length of time, then you know that eventually your friends and family are likely to request to work with you.

The request can come in several different forms. Your friend or family member might actually want to work with you as a partner or an employee (this is becoming increasingly common in today’s troubled economic times). Or, they could want you to do work for them — typically for less money than the market rate for your services.

Whichever form the request takes, most freelancers that I know dread working with close friends or family since they know that involving relatives or close friends in their business could have serious negative repercussions in their personal lives. However, there are some freelancers who successfully work with friends and family.


So, what do you do when “Uncle Joe” asks you to make a place in your freelancing business for your irresponsible “Cousin Larry” (who hasn’t held a real job in over ten years)? Or, what do you do when “Aunt Susan” asks you to design a poster for her garden club’s annual flower show at a fraction of what you would normally charge?

Unless you are very careful in such situations, you could wind up damaging family relationships, your business, or both. The purpose of this post is to give you some alternative approaches for such situations.

A Business Mindset, It’s More Than a Personal Attitude

One thing that can help you deal more effectively with friends and family members who want to get involved in your freelancing business is to get a proper business mindset.

In the past, I’ve stressed the importance of a having a business mindset for freelancers. When it comes to dealing with family, that business mindset is not just the way you think about your business, but also the way that you talk about it to others.

Many of us enjoy our jobs so much that we are guilty of making them sound too easy (or more like play than work) when we talk to those who are closest to us. The truth is that, in addition to the fun projects that you do, your business has all of the elements of other businesses: sales, accounting, collections, taxes, and so on.

When talking about your business with friends and family, make sure to occasionally include some of these more mundane topics in the conversation along with the more exciting aspects of your business.

For example, when asked how the business is going instead of just talking about the exciting new logo design project you’ve been assigned to work on you could also mention the overdue invoice that you’re having trouble collecting. (Once Cousin Larry hears about the unpleasant aspects of your job, he’s much less likely to want in on it.)

Some Alternatives For Dealing With Friends and Family

Here are some other suggestions for dealing with friend and family when they want to involve themselves in your business:

  1. Protect Your Business Interests — As a freelancer you’ve undoubtedly worked hard to build your business. While normally it’s good to be loyal to friends and family, you also have the right to protect your business interests (and they should respect that). If you know that “Cousin Larry” will be a liability that is likely to damage your business, then you shouldn’t feel obligated to let him in on the fruits of your hard work.
  2. Treat Them Like Any Potential Customer or Colleague — Another approach to dealing with friends and family is to treat them just like anyone else. When “Aunt Susan” requests a poster design, work up a cost proposal for her in exactly the same way that you would for anyone else. Make “Cousin Larry” submit a resume and provide references just like you would for any other potential hire.
  3. Make An Exception — In some instances, though, you may find that it’s better for both your personal and business interests to make an exception. For example, “Aunt Susan’s” flower show only happens once a year. If you can afford to do it, you may be able to generate some good will for your business and in your family by providing her with the poster for a low cost (or even for free). This approach is especially worth considering if the request is for a civic or charitable organization.
  4. Refer Them Elsewhere — Tell your friends and family that you have a strict policy against involving family members in your business or accepting work from family members. (Be sure to apply this policy consistently to all family members.) Mention, however, that you would be happy to refer them to a colleague who does the same sort of work. Alternatively, if you are simply too busy to handle them, you could mention that you aren’t accepting any new work right now.

How Do You Deal With Friends and Family?

Have you dealt with this situation in your freelancing business? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Share some of the approaches that you’ve used to keep the peace in the family while preserving your business interests in the comments.

Occasionally, involving a family member in your business works out well. There are many instances of family businesses that not only survive, but thrive. If this is you, we’d like to hear your story too. Tell us how things are going in the comments.

Comments

  1. says

    Great advice. When I was starting out in web development I had some family members ask me to build sites for them as favors which I tried to accommodate since I was learning and it gave me a chance to practice. Now they want me to maintain them and work on them for them and they are a big hassle. I generally avoid doing things like that now.

  2. says

    I always tell everyone (whether they are family member, friend or foe) that I can only work with independent contractors who are established in their work as my business isn’t set up to take on employees. This means that they must have an Employee Identification Number (EIN) and be registered with the state and feds before we can work together.

    When they learn about these restrictions, they begin to sing another tune and look elsewhere.

    As far as special projects for family members, most of those never come to pass. I’ve learned from previous mistakes and usually refer people elsewhere. Proofing a resume is one thing; writing it from beginning to end is something entirely different.

  3. says

    I have had some family members asking to “partner” up with me to start an XYZ business. They see what I’m doing and want either a piece of the pie or they may feel that I can do anything now. Usually, I am asked to do all of the research and legwork of course.

    I don’t think I would ever work with family members for that reason.

  4. BebopDesigner says

    Many times someone close to you really insists on “outsourcing” your stuff, to give you a hand with work overloads. (they get that impression because you’re usually busy on something).
    They end up insisting so much that it becomes awkward and annoying.

    This is my approach: I tell them that at the moment I’m strictly working on some jargon I know for sure they won’t have a clue about, and that alone scares them away.

    Honestly, Joomla has been a great shield for me in these cases. Cheers!

  5. says

    I am currently working on a new webdesign and branding for my “In-Laws” – I hate “family and friends” jobs but I can´t let them get ripped off again for a pile non-standards inline html + js crap like they had before. Just gotta bite the bullet and get the damn thing done.

  6. says

    Fortunately I have not had to deal with this situation … yet. I’m inclined to avoid working for close friends and family. Great advice in both your post, Laura, and in the comments.

  7. says

    I do both–I work with friends and family. With one notable exception or two, most of it is “getting started” type stuff and in addition to the sound advice given here I also recommend taking the attitude that you want to protect your friends/family by telling them like it is, good or bad.

    Tell them you wouldn’t be a good friend or family member by sugar-coating anything. If their new article sucks, explain WHY it sucks and tell them you’d feel terrible sending them out into the bad, scary freelancing world unprepared for reality.

    Of course, if they wind up being better than you, don’t take it personally :-)

  8. says

    I grew up working on my family’s farm and for 12 years ran a very successful Real Estate Investment business with my wife. The experience with my family had its ups and downs, but all-in-all it was very positive. Working with my wife in Real Estate was wonderful. We were on the same page and it really welded us together as a TEAM. Caps intended.

    Later, I had a brick and mortor business and it was a debacle. I had both friends and family there… and… well it was not good.

    From my experience working with friends and family will either be the best of times or the worst of times. When it works it can be truly the best. You get trust and committment and someone who really “gets” you at a deep level.

    The worst of times can be a challenge on every level and can endanger any relationship.

    Between you, me and the Internet … I am not sure that a carefully reasoned decision here is any better than a seat of the pants gut decision. Like any business decision keep your eyes open and your committment to your Mission in front of you.

    Wayne

  9. says

    Wish I read this post months ago.

    This spring, when a woman I considered to be my best friend lost her job — again, I told her I would be happy to help her break into freelance work. You know, share some of what I’ve learned in my short time as a freelance writer.

    She graduated with an English degree and is a voracious reader. It never occurred to me that she would have a problem with grammar, punctuation and the use of capital letters (she prefers not to avoid that pesky shift key).

    Still, I bought her a computer and did my best to get her started. I loaded books and magazine in my car and drove them 300 miles to her house. I e-mailed links to Web sites, like this one. She didn’t touch any of them.

    After a couple of weeks, she admitted that she wasn’t interested in writing. She thought she might try editing. I passed along one assignment. She bombed. I reworked it before turning it into the client. I didn’t say anything. She thought it was a real success.

    Then, our discussions became more and more about all of these different directions she wanted to take the business — my infant business — in. All she succeeded in doing was stressing me out.

    I wasn’t interested in those avenues. All of them meant I’d become a manager and likely not have time to do what I love to do. I got into this business because I want to write, that’s all.

    The weeks rolled on. I started to fear the death of our 12-year friendship.

    I realized she wasn’t logging into the online programs we’d discussed. She didn’t bother with the to-do list we agreed on. She suggested we hire her teenage daughter to help us with administrative tasks — for $6 per hour, 20 hours per week.

    Finally, I had to cut her off. We haven’t spoken since, though, judging by her e-mails, she doesn’t seem to understand that she did anything wrong.

    Over the course of four months, she did nothing to contribute. She did, however, demand a lot of time, attention and money.

    I’m not sure our friendship will survive. All this because I offered to help a friend in need.

    Lesson learned. Never again.

  10. says

    Wow Rhi!

    Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    What an experience you’ve been through! It sounds like everything that could go wrong in such a scenario did go wrong.

    I’m truly sorry that you had such an extreme problem when working with your friend. I hope that she will come to her senses and realize that your business belongs to you. At the very least, I hope that both of you can move past this negative experience.

  11. says

    Sad that so few people are not willing to share their skills with loved ones. Money should not always be part of the process of helping each other. I am happy to help a friend with copy for her website for her bakery; in turn, I get some awesome bread. I help an artist friend make a web portfolio and I get a piece of art. You drive me to the mechanics to get my car today. Next month, I pick up your kid from school on a day when yours breaks down. We all have something to share. Supporting others in the inner circle of my community always seems to comes back around in some form, sometimes as referrals re: paying clients. It’s called karma.

  12. says

    Amelia has a good point here. Helping other is an important part of life, and helping family and friends is prehaps doubly important. This is not the same as inviting them to be an intergal part of a business that supports our family, but there is so much we can do to spread benevolance.

    Wayne

  13. says

    One of the classic fears is doing a free job for a close friend or family member and they return for more free jobs until you tell them off (which hurts their feelings). I think it depends on who you’re doing it for; would they ask for ridiculous hours or prices, etc.

    Thanks for sharing; keep it up! :)

  14. says

    Thank you, Laura.

    My hope is time will do what it’s famous cliche promises: Offer healing.

    Right now I’m pushing forward, staying busy and hoping my old friend reads any one of the writing books I gave her and feels the stir of possibility.

    Still don’t think I’ll ever try to include a friend or family member in my business again. Helping them start their own? That’s different.

  15. says

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for sharing and opening this topic. It’s really pretty hard when you are the situation of a workplace where your friends and families are working with you. Aligning two different relationships, that is co-workers or family relationship is not an easy task. Although we can achieve harmony sometime, the fact is there will always be a conflict on it.

  16. says

    Some really great content and advice here!
    When I decided to “go it alone” due to my health (M.S.), my friends and family all laughed at the possibility of a disabled person being successful in any way.
    They now see what is happening in my life and they want a piece of the pie.
    My problem is that I do not know if I should help them after their initial attitudes.
    I have a real ethical dilemma :o(

  17. says

    My husband and I were both working full time jobs when we started making money online in our spare time. When we were making enough we decided to quit our full time jobs and work exclusively for ourselves.

    We are coming up on three years of full time self employment and things could not be better. We work very well together and have the trust and respect for each other that goes beyond any other co-worker relationships either of us have ever had.

    Many years ago while vacationing we decided we wanted to spend everyday together and made that a long term goal. We didn’t know that it would be an online business but that wasn’t the important part, it was just being together and working together day after day.

    I recommend working with your spouse if you like spending every minute together and have the same long term expectations in your careers, it really is amazing.

  18. says

    I recently finished a web project for my aunt and uncle’s business. I approached the project just like any other project. I required them to sign my standard contract and the estimate. This made them realize that they were dealing with me in a professional capacity. The project went off without a hitch and they were happy with the results.

    It helps to set the ground rules early and explain your process. If they won’t allow you to work as you would normally, don’t take the project.

  19. says

    I prefer not doing work for friends because it’s really hard to treat them like clients. It’s just too hard for me anyways. I feel bad sending them bills and such. I once sent a bill to a friend for some programming work and he thought it was too high. I thought I gave him a deal. 4 hours at 30 an hour. So, since then he seemed to try not to ask for more requests. I would have wanted to do it for free but he also said he wanted to treat him like a client. So, overall, I prefer not to do work for friends.

  20. adri says

    My husband and I do web design/graphic desing/video editing. We have done so many projects for family who are in ministry. At first my husband use to do it for free, after we got married, we had a talk with them and mentioned it was not fair to us so they agree to start paying us a discounted price for the many things we did for them, it worked fine for a year. Then they didn;t have any money but REALLLY NEEDED to get this or that done, since we knew they really didn’t have any money we helped them with a couple of websites/video editig projects for free. What frustrates me? Now that they might be able to afford to pay for something they still expect us to work for free, when we put a price to the project they just ask they get offended. Then they go and pay somebody else to the job. Seriously? So if we don’t do it for free they’ll rather pay somebody else than pay me? I don’t think I’ll ever be doing any free work for them even if they are in REAL need. I’m sorry but it’s just not worth it.

    …and yes, this happend recently, I guess I haven’t gotten over it yet! Sorry!

  21. Mo says

    I made a rule that I do 1 free project for any family member that would like one — after that I refer them elsewhere if they want more work since I don’t feel comfortable charging fam. That’s worked pretty well. Because the 2nd time around, they can’t claim I don’t care about them because I’ve already done something for them in the past. I clearly let them know that, yes, we’re family, I love you, but I have to pay bills too.

    One easy way to squash free work requests from friends is, make them do all the pre-project groundwork — gather pictures, do the necessary research, etc — in the same effect of what Matt Keegan mentions above — show them it’s not a simple process. I don’t ever have to say “no”, and I’ve found that they never mention it again.

    There’s a danger to the general “I rub your back, you rub my back” policy that Amelia Sauter story sort of encompasses in her comments above. Sometimes, someone can’t repay a favor to a friend who’s helped them when that friend wants it. It’s happened to me, and nearly destroyed a friendship. I prefer that either money changes hands, or it’s known from the start that it’s free — no “favors” — because the gray area is hard to navigate.

  22. Radek says

    I have been thinking about this for some time now. I think one good approach would be to tell friends/family members that you can do something for free (As Mo said, limit it to 1 project) BUT this thing will have the least priority.

    Inform them, that you have not set any finish date because client work comes first. If anything important comes up, their project will be postponed. It is quite polite, if you play it right, they might understand the situation without problems. This will also make them more likely to pay for your service ( you can offer a small discount ).

    Regards,
    Radek

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