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Common mistakes designers make with clients – Part 4: Working for family

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This post is part 4 of a series. Read the rest of the series here:
Common mistakes designers make with clients – Part 1: Not signing a contract
Common mistakes designers make with clients – Part 2: Allowing a discount
Common mistakes designers make with clients – Part 3: Burning bridges

Today I’d like to talk about a common mistake designers make with clients that almost all new designers fall prey to: working with family.

Why is this such a common mistake? Because it seems harmless. We love our families. We know our families. And our families know and love us.

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And that’s the problem.

Running a business is all about…

You can talk all you want about how much you love your job as a designer and how much you love working for yourself as a freelancer, but at the end of the day, running a business is all about profitability.

If you aren’t making more money than you spend, you aren’t profitable and you won’t stay in business for long.

If you can’t put food on the table, you can’t afford to run your own business and won’t survive for more than a few months.

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And more often than not, when you work with family, you end up losing money. Many times family members ask for a discount (ironically, they should be paying you full price if they really understand how much you and your business depend on cash flow). They ask for cheap labor, a discount on printing, or and exchange – “If you design this for me, I’ll wash your car”.

Don’t run the risk of…

A couple days ago, we talked about burning bridges with clients. Imagine if the clients who you end on bad terms with are your family.

Imagine family get-togethers and the awkward feeling that will accompany you if the project turns out poorly. There’s an added level of stress when working for family because it has to end well. There’s no wiggle room, you can’t voice your opinion for fear of offending them, and if it ends sourly, you have to live with the consequences for the rest of your life.

Some designers may be able to pull it off…

Some designers may be able to pull of working for family and do it successfully. But I know that when I get emails about problems designers are facing, many times those emails start with a sentence like “My sister asked me to design something for her business…” and it usually ends with something like “…and since we don’t have a contract, I don’t know what to tell her”.

If you’re new to running a design business, try to avoid working for your family as much as possible. Spend time trying to find other clients that you can be confortable working with.

What do you think?

Do you work for your family? Do you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea for designers to work for their family? Share your opinion by leaving a comment!

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

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  1. Amanda Kanak says:

    I’m a graphic design student and I am currently working on my biggest project yet. I’m completely redesigning a boardgame with my Step-Grandmother. At the beginning I was thrilled to be working with someone that I was close to, (I had never really thought about any issues arising while doing feelance for a family member). Although I have thoroughly enjoyed working with her, it has definitely been difficult. Our relationship is still great even though we have our differences on occasion. I can honestly say I will be exstatic when we finally get this game wrapped up and can go back to the family relationship rather than the working relationship we have going on now! I will definitely put a little more thought into it the next time a family member needs help with a project. I think I’d rather stick to clients I have no relationship with!

    • @Amanda Kanak,

      Hope all goes well as you complete your project. Keep in mind that Step-Grandmother has a vested interest (sense of purpose, your time, sense of control) in the project going on forever. And after all, everything needs some maintenance and could use a facelift over time.

      It is nice to have a family project to talk about and work on over time. Maybe this is the right one for you to stay connected. Plus following up on your first big project can provide wonderful insight as your career develops. Though a garden is nice too- and then you are not the expert needed to make every move.

    • @Amanda Kanak,

      LOL, I can totally relate!!!

  2. Working with family can be VERY sketchy. Most of the time they look for you do because you are family. I have learned that a CONTRACT will settle alot of problems. They have to understand that you are in business. I hope to establish a contract for my future projects.

  3. As a Graphic Designer and Web Developer, i must tell you that, taking risk is no good in the business. Thanks Preston for writing such a great article

  4. The biggest problem I find is family passing work onto me from friends and colleagues, often without any mention of payment.

    They don’t seem to understand why I refuse to work when they expect something being done in a matter of hours (often in the evening when I’m already wrestling with uni work and client briefs).

  5. Wow, it seems like every time I need advice you guys create a new post with a lot of the answers I am seeking!! I’m in the process of creating 2 websites for 2 family members as we speak… I really enjoy reading your articles and would just like to say THANK YOU for all of your tips, advice, and guidance!!!

  6. I will have to add “doing work for friends” It can go the same way.

  7. Great article! I have worked with two family members, both who have different businesses. I was a little hestitant as I did not want the family relationship to get difficult, if something went wrong.

    I treated them like I would any other client. I discussed their requirements and made sure I knew exactly what they wanted, wrote a formal quote and included all the conditions and got them to approve the quote. I also gave them a small discount, being family. I completed most of their company branding; logo, website, business cards and letterheads.

    Everthing went well and I just remembered to keep calm and explain things to them. I kept in close touch through the process so they knew what was going on.

    I would probably work with family again, however it does depend who it is and how they run their business. For anyone else, my advise is make sure you trust them, the objectives are very clear and a formal quote has been signed off.

  8. Business + Family don’t mix! At least for me this includes blood family, not necessarily in-law type relatives.

    Case in point: when I was just starting out years ago, my mom wanted me to do her website for her start-up. Short version, things started out great, but then went to hell very quickly. I didn’t know how to establish boundaries with her and she thought she could boss me around. Let’s just say the website never got done, and she resorted to using a template (I know, I know).

    Next up, I am currently doing a logo and business card for my husband’s dad. Yeah he’s sort of family, but I barely know him, and he gets that I’m a professional and helping him out. I treat him like any other client. So far it’s been great, he’s been really easy to work with and listens to my ideas and takes me seriously.

    So I guess it comes down to the history you have with the individual. But I agree, rule of thumb, save yourself the heartache and just say no to mixing biz and fam.

  9. I find these article informative and I think this could be a useful reminder to keep alert while working with your family as well. Thanks for sharing it and keep up the good work! Have a great day!

  10. EvilVeggie says:

    Never work for your wife, ever. It’s made me hate graphic design.


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