Are Your Friends Sabotaging Your Business?

Are Your Friends Sabotaging Your Business?

I met Lisa when she hired me for a business consultation about her new copywriting venture. She had a picture of bright red, luscious cherries on her site… and I couldn’t resist liking her from day one.

So when she sent me this guest post that outlines some of her learning curve lessons as a new freelancer, I was thrilled – here was someone who’d gone from zero to being a confident writer who could stand up for herself, and for her business.

I think you’ll learn a lot about confidence and how to be a better business owner (one who makes more money!) from Lisa – enjoy!

It was a hot and muggy day. I had been working from morning to night on multiple projects at less than half my rates as a favour for a few friends. My own work had fallen behind, and I had just a little over $200 left in my bank account.

Overwhelmed, I broke down.

No longer do I have an external boss whom I can blame for being overworked and underpaid. This was all my doing.

My weakness was clear: I just can’t say no to the people I care for.

Friends and former colleagues, many of whom are either managers or are on the entrepreneurial path, often come to me needing help for their business.

Here’s the jagged little pill. They didn’t approach me for my EXPERTISE. They wanted my HELP.

Every single one of them would begin their request with, “I really need your help but I don’t have much money…”, or something to that effect.

As much as I love my friends and don’t blame them in any way for requesting discounted (or pro bono) services, I realised my principle to be a “good friend” led me into making some bad business decisions.

I didn’t want to be “a bad person” who turns away a friend in need. So even though I knew I should have said no, I just couldn’t.

Why is it so hard to just say no?

Cliche advice like “put your foot down” and “you can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first” and “business is business” were just poetic nuances that didn’t arm me with actual strategies to say no without feeling terrible about it.

I needed a way to say no and still not feel like a wretched person.

I spent some time in serious self-reflection and finally determined a new perspective on my time that could help me separate my business life from my personal life – allowing me to say no without being a “bad friend”.

These are my 5 new rules on how to view my time so I can set the rates I deserve – and finally learn to say no when I need to.

Rule #1: Stop thinking of time in hours, think of it as percentages of potential income.

I need your help for just 1-2 hours, that’s all, thanks!” Just 1-2 hours? Sure, no problem mate. But when I consider instead that in a typical 8-hour day I allocate 2 hours on business development, I’m left with only 6 hours for client work to earn income.

If 2 out of those 6 hours are given away, it just cost me 33% of my potential income. Eeek, that’s higher than tax! It makes it a lot easier for me to say no to that pleading friend when I realize what he’s really asking for is “just 33% of my potential income”.

Rule #2: If you really want to help out a friend with a favour, spare time on weekends only.

When I was a full-time employee, weekends were the only time you could spare to do extra work for friends. Why should that change now that I’m my own boss?

Often, I really do want to help out a friend, but I must check and balance my time by sparing only my free weekends for favours – instead of doing the favour mid-week and winding up working all weekend long on client projects. But since I don’t want to work on weekends at all – even on a favour for a friend – this helps me overcome my weakness of saying yes to the immediate demand for my time, unless it’s a project that truly is close to my heart which I really want to help my friend with.

Even if I might have said yes to a Wednesday favour – and wind up working on Saturday in consequence – I probably wouldn’t say yes to spending extra hours in the office on the weekends “as a favour” – especially when I’ve just put in a full work week.

Rule #3: Don’t forget you spend time working as an employer and an employee

After leaving my full-time job, I charged the same rate to the long-standing clients I had freelanced for. Because well, after 5+ years of working together, it’s not nice to suddenly significantly raise my rates, right? Wrong.

By the time I expensed medical, insurance, retirement etc, I barely broke even. I learned to readjust my rates so I could provide myself the same benefits any employer is otherwise obliged to provide me. Because why should I, as an employer to myself, treat myself worse than the tightfisted boss I resigned from?

Making a point to remember this reassures me that I’m not ripping off somebody when a friend painfully winces, “Oooh, that’s sooo expensive,” after I explain my rates.

Rule #4: Charge for learning time and training materials

This is a given. People hire me for my copywriting expertise, so I need to continuously sharpen the sword. If I give discounts, the first few things sacrificed are my learning time and training investments because I need to focus on pulling in more jobs and cutting expenses to make ends meet.

By reminding myself that I must invest both time and money into learning as part of my job, it’s easier for me to say no to favours that will sacrifice my learning.

Rule #5: Remember, your time is limited and non-returnable

“If I give you more projects, can I get a discounted hourly rate?” Hah! I’m not falling for that one again. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of cash flow, I quickly said yes to this arrangement, thinking it was advantageous to secure future income.

But in the long run, I can see that it was plain foolish to do more work and charge less. Especially since at the time, I had not yet incorporated marketing and learning costs into my rates, leaving me zero buffer to even offer a discount for returning clients. Overworked and underpaid? Yeah, I brought that on to myself.

Executing the new rates were scary, even though I rolled them out in stages to ensure I completed what I had promised to do at my former rates. Many friends and old clients discontinued my services as they didn’t have the budget for my full rates. My fears were suddenly realized, and I started to second-guess myself.

Did I do the right thing? Am I going to be able to find new business at my full rates? Did I just set my business on a time bomb?

However, losing those clients meant I gained a ton of free time – time I used to finally launch my website, complete some much needed on-ground research, and start networking with social media and public relations networks.

Very soon, I began to see traction for my efforts.

I had gotten the research information I needed to complete my direct mailer packages. I accepted a PR invitation to be quoted as a restaurant marketing expert in an upcoming print book. And I was discovered on LinkedIn and contacted through my website for a potential job.

Clearly, I made the right decision.

At the time I’m writing this, it’s been just a little under two weeks since I stopped offering discounted or pro bono services for friends. I have yet to see any real monetary results and I’m still living on a shoestring, but the work I’ve completed for my own business, and the number of potential business and networks this has led to, has got me excited about my work again.

Most importantly, I now feel so much more valued for my time. And it’s paying off.

Post by Lisa Zahran

Lisa Zahran is copywriter who happily writes for food, serving her expertise to restaurants so they can have seriously delicious marketing. She still prefers to be paid in lots of cash.

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  1. That’s really good stuff. It’s actually something I’ve just gone through so it’s nice to I’m not the only one struggling with these things. It’s so good to help a friend but man does it cost!

    Nice post, glad to see finally got it up here 🙂

    • Yeah, it’s like a slippery slope isn’t it? You think you’ll be fine doing one favour or two and then before you know it… uh oh!

      Aww shucks, thanks Martin 🙂 Tho if it wasn’t for your push the post would probably still be in my mail drafts folder! 😛

      • I smell a conspiracy… 😉 Glad to hear Martin gave you a shove, and it’s my pleasure to have your post on our site, Lisa!

      • Lisa Palmeno says:


        I had to stop chasing discounted ads for my paper! I gave super rates to a handful of “broke” people who took advantage: Numerous calls to get the money, trips to them to get the money, useless visits where they didn’t show up, etc. I finally stopped calling on them and replaced them with ads priced from the rate sheet. My bank balance hasn’t gone up yet, but I’m sure it will as sales is the crux of the business and now I can put something that actually pays a normal, affordable rate it place of the others that were wasting time.

        Same thing with employees: those who have wasted time and stalled are now on the backburner, maybe permanently. I moved on without them and got the work done much sooner, with much less headache.

        Lisa Palmeno

  2. What a great post Lisa. I especially appreciate the help vs. expertise contrast. Right now I tend to be more of the “friend” asking for help from friends vs. the roles reversed. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Bruce! Oh it’s a cycle of give and take, and I don’t deny that I am where I am now because I have received help, support, advice and favours from many (which of course, I am now even more grateful and appreciative for).

      In my Malay culture, there’s a saying, “murah rezeki” — which literally translates to “flowing income” — meaning things will flow in to you more freely as you give more freely in return. And I haven’t given up on this belief, I’ve just had to learn from experience how much it is I am able to give at this point in time.

      It’s a tough line to figure out though isn’t it? But I think it’s a line everyone needs to know where to draw for their own current situation. When I had a comfy full time job, I certainly was more able to give help, and I hope that in the future when my business grows, I’ll be able to give back even more too 🙂

  3. Great post, Lisa.

    Funny enough, I got into copywriting through “favours”. Someone I knew asked me for a couple of articles — they knew I was a decent writer, and although I wasn’t doing it professionally at that point, asked me for a quick favour. Through that connection, I had someone else ask, and then someone else, and then suddenly I had a career in copywriting.

    I should point out that these were all paid favours, BTW. However, I’ve also juggled the other side. What I found is that people don’t value your work nearly as much if you give it away. It often leads to heartache, hurt feelings, and a big creative drain on your paid gigs.

    So I think that anyone who gives it away has to be very secure in why they are giving it away, and (especially if your work is going to earn someone else money) why they don’t want to pay for it.

    And never fall for the “if you give it to me cheap now, you’ll get more work in the future…” line. Those clients will never value your work.


    • Wow, what a way to fall into a copywriting career – I’m jealous! And some great advice, thanks! Yeah, I totally get what you mean about the creative drain. It was the emotional impact that ended up hurting my business the most actually — when I felt undervalued. And you hit the nail right on the head there — people didn’t value my work as much when I was giving it away…

  4. You have to separate the to..if not you will go broke and end up doing a lot of free work and maybe not even getting paid for them..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  5. Hi Lisa,

    Just about every small business owner will be able to relate to this super post.

    Something magical happens when you charge rates that reflect your juiciness – you start radiating charisma! You start to feel good about YOU and prospects get drawn to that. Folks don’t actually buy copywriting or some other service, they buy something more intangible – they buy the feeling that you can deliver whatever it is they really desire.

    Best wishes for your copywriting biz!


  6. Great post, Lisa. Sounds like you discovered the hard way what I’m constantly telling writers I mentor — you can’t equate your hourly rate as a freelancer to the hourly rate you had as an employee! It’s an entirely different equation when you pay your own health benefits, self-employment tax, life insurance, equipment costs, and so on.

    They’ll say, “I’m making $25 an hour, so I’m doing great!” Until they add it up at the end of the year, and realize they’re broke. I tell writers to aim for $100 an hour – may not always get it, but that should be your target to really earn well.

    • Hey Carol, I wish I had had someone give me a ballpark figure goal earlier on. I remember when I first started, the people I asked told me not to have an hourly rate, and that everything should be charged project basis.

      But that didn’t help me figure things out in my head. Cause even if I say, quoted $1,000 for a project, am I allocating 5 hours? 10 hours? Plus, add on to the fact that when I checked out job boards like elance and saw rates as low as $10-15 an hour… well, it had me very confused!

      Thanks for great tip! I’ll keep that in mind as my goal 🙂

  7. Great advice, Lisa. Sometimes it seems like people in every other profession get to raise their rates and no one questions that. But freelancers? We’re supposed to never increase our rates – or give deep discounts whenever asked. Your post drives home the point that we must have the confidence needed to stand up for the value of our work.

    • I know! In conventional jobs, the standard practice for salary is normally based on your degree or qualification. Bachelors? Minimum salary is xxx. Masters? It’s xxxx. But what then is the yardstick for freelancers? How do you measure your experience and skill and equate that to demand a minimum salary in the marketplace? I guess, like you said, we gotta have the confidence ourselves to stand up for the value of our work, eh?

  8. Great timing to see this post, for 2 reasons.

    I’m working on building my business up and I have a conference tomorrow. Well, a friend asked me to help him with some computer stuff, which took up over 4 hours because instead of getting it done and moving on he wanted to do lunch and ask more questions. Next thing I knew I was working on stuff til 11pm just to have less to work on today. I’m glad I helped him, but I should have waited until next week when I had no conference on the agenda and pushed him to a specific time slot.

    As for charging enough – everyone I’ve talked to as an outside source says I’m charging too little! I guess I have to up my rates, right? Right. Starting lower just hasn’t helped me, and I’m glad you pointed it out here, too.

    • Yup, sometimes we have to remember that even if we do want to help out a friend, we need to allocate time slots, just as we would for any other client. It’s not about dropping everything to help them (unless, of course, it’s a life or death situation!)

      And yes, do go ahead and raise your rates! You’ll be glad you did. Oh, and good luck for the conference tomorrow!

  9. Oh yes I can relate! yet when the higher buck type jobs come along everyone has a friend, brother or neighbor who can do the job

  10. When a friend gives us the “I really need your help but I don’t have much money” line, maybe our response should be, “I’d really love to help, but I don’t have much money either.” To take it further, maybe we “don’t have much money either“ because when we said to the plumber, “I really need your help but I don’t have much money,“ he said, “Sorry your sink is clogged, gotta go!”

    I also think that when friends ask for favors like this, we can’t blame them or feel resentful, because we’re the ones who need to value ourselves enough to set boundaries. If we did so, I don’t think they’d dream of asking. Not REAL friends, anyway.

    All much easier said than done, of course!

  11. I have also learned the hard way that my skills are valuable. It is hard to say no to friends, so if I help I try to strike a barter. Right now, I am in the process of negotiating tutoring time for my child in exchange for a logo design.

    • That sounds like a good deal! Sometimes though, barters can be tricky for me. If not careful, one side could feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick.

  12. This has been a hard lesson for me as well. I love to help people – especially people in my life that I care about and want to help them bring their brilliance to the world. But each and every time I’ve taken on something in the past for free or cheap b/c of a friendship I’ve either dropped the ball b/c of lack of time or they don’t respect my opinion. I learned to just refer them to some of the great resources that I’ve found to learn about online marketing and if they are passionate enough, they’ll learn it themselves! 🙂

  13. Great article Lisa and James. This really makes me wonder about how much time I spend wasting in between freelance articles I write. I’ll definitely take your advice about working more for less money. I feel like the more I freelance, the more I spend on this site, and the more I feel like I’m going somewhere with my life.

    I’m also touching up my own website, so I’ll definitely be doing a lot. Take care. Hope everything works out.

  14. Your post made me realize at which point I’m stuck with the “I can’t say no” or the “I can’t raise my prices” negative scheme of thought. I’ll need to work into that…

  15. great post— sometimes friends get mad when I say I can only see them on the weekends to give them help, but weekdays are for my work and my relaxing time.

  16. When friend requests come in I tell them I will be happy to take on their work, but it will literally be at the bottom of the pile under paying clients. I very honestly say that I may well not get around to their work for a month or two.

    Funnily enough, they never mention it again.

  17. Vangile Makwakwa says:

    This is a great article (I love rule number 1) because I could so relate. I had to go away for 10 days just to get perspective on my friendships and how much I was giving of myself to others. My realization was that it is all in me and no one was to blame: if you keep giving your time and never say no then people will keep taking because they do not know where you stand. I found that when I started telling my friends that I could only help them and see them on Saturday and Sunday Mornings because I was busy they all respected that and worked with my schedule. In fact they now call to find out when on Saturday or Sunday they can call me or see me.

    • Very true. We can’t blame our friends if we don’t draw the line first ourselves! I’ll have to admit that many of my friends — or ex-colleagues in particular — were used to having my dedicated time available for projects (including the “whatever it takes” overtime) back when we working in the same office together. With new circumstances, I had to draw the new line — though it took me some time to figure that out for myself!

  18. Very interesting post! Definitely a dilemma…Sounds like you have the right approach.

  19. Absolutely Outstanding article. Your tips make it easy to logically justify an otherwise tough decision. It’s something I’ve gone through more than a few times and wish I could have ready this a few years ago.

  20. Such a great post, Lisa! My mindset definitely changed once I began to think of my time in terms of percentages of potential income. Time is the one thing you cannot get back so guard it carefully. Just shared this on FB, too 😉

  21. This is really well written and it’s made me realise my biggest weakness. The reason I feel like I’m over charging my customers and have doubt about my prices may actually be because I treat customers too much like a friend. Do I need to draw a line when it come to customer care and relations?

    • Yes, yes, yes! I know exactly how you feel – do it ALL the time. How do you draw the line between treating customers like friends (because that’s how you connect, that’s how you do customer care, even that’s how you WANT to feel) and treating customers like clients? I think it’s a mental rather than literal line, a way of thinking, but I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. Even when I quote a price I know is right, I still feel guilty, feel like I should do a “but just for you because you’re special” rate. It works both ways too – when I hire someone and that person acts like a friend, but then switches to business mode (as he or she should), and I have to remind myself that this is a business relationship, not a friendship. How do you cultivate a relationship with a client, and maintain that business distance at the same time?

    • Hi Chris and Carole, those are some really good questions you’ve asked. In short, yes, we do need to draw a line between customer care and “friend-like relations”, but that doesn’t mean we stop being friendly!

      I think the distinction here lies between “friend” and “friendly”. We can be friendly to our clients, but that doesn’t mean that your clients can call you up at 2am when they have a problem, such as your friends can, right?

      If you draw the line from the beginning, clients will respect that I believe. In my experience for example, I have found that clients often want many changes, and sometimes these changes could even take as long as the original work took. Learning from this I began including in my future quotes some Terms & Conditions that include “up to 3 minor revisions” and “major changes that require new research, copy angle or target market outside the scope of initial consultation could be charged as a new project”.

      Whether you have a Terms & Conditions, or an FAQ page — the fact is you are transparent with your clients from the beginning, and respectful clients will not think you’re not nice for that. In fact, they’ll only think you’re “not nice” if you pull something out of the hat that they don’t expect later on…. so having a transparent professional policy is important from our end as service providers too!!

      If we have our professional policy clear, we can still be friendly, without falling into the friend trap. I hope that answer helps!

    • Oh, and PS: Here’s an example we can learn from our very dear James! I once wrote to her with interest for her writing coaching program, but explained that given the steep currency exchange, I couldn’t afford it. I asked if she had a payment plan option for me.

      She replied, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to stretch out payments on this one. Sometimes I can on other services, but the rate of demand makes it really tough. Sorry about that! (And you were right to ask. Always ask! It was worth a shot!”

      Notice how in her reply James did not bend on her professional line — and I fully respect that. But at the same time, she spoke in a friendly, caring manner — and she didn’t make me feel bad for asking. Plus, additionally, she later sent me a follow up email that told me of an upcoming program she’s working on which could be more affordable for my situation, showing me that she did listen and does care (not that I ever doubted that James!) 🙂

    • PPS: Another example I just remembered (bear with me!)… again from James. After my first business consultation with her, she sent me an email with an offer for a discounted price on my next business consultation, but the offer is only valid if I confirm the order before a certain date (if I recall, it was a 4 or 6 week buffer time which I was given)

      Notice how she had provided a returning customer discount which I appreciated very much, but again maintained a professional line — making it clear to me that this isn’t a “forever friend discount” 😛

      So when coming up with a business policy to stick to — look at all scopes of your business, from customer relations to marketing costs to brand positioning of our own selves. Do you want to offer a “just for you” price for returning customers? Then be sure to include marketing costs in your “new customer” prices, otherwise the returning customer discount will cut into your profits. Or maybe you want to position yourself as “affordable” or “most competitive price” — where you give your lowest price from the beginning — and so there’s no way you can give discounts even to returning customers!

      • Great advice, Lisa – thanks! I’ll definitely be printing this one out. And I’m not surprised that James turned up as your examples. She’s one of my role models as a business person (same goes for Sonia Simone). Thanks again!

        • Aw, you guys are great. 🙂 I’d say something wise and profound right now but it’s too early in the morning for me to think straight.

          @Lisa – I’m glad you mentioned the difference between friendly and friends as being part of the “how to draw boundaries.” That’s important.

  22. It’s often these friends and families that never offer a return favour. Completely oblivious…

  23. Nice article…

    I am also a freelancer, providing web development and design services, and right now I am in a very difficult situation since a friend chose me to do his website. He is not complaining at all about prices or anything and I am able to charge him full for my time, but I feel that our friendship could be ruined because of this. The website will end up being over $3K since it’s a very big one, and I am afraid that I could be blamed if, for example, his website doesn’t make much money (which might be the case in a social network since few of these websites actually make decent profit).

    So I am in a difficult spot because he is willing to pay, but at the same time I feel our friendship could be ruined when we start talking about money more seriously. I’m about to tell him that, but not sure what to do. Any ideas?

    • Hi Anduco,

      It sounds like you’re in a good position in that you have a friend who is treating you as a professional for your professional services! My advice is that you need to be clear on what you are providing as a professional, vs what you are providing as a friend.

      As a professional, your job is to create a website, correct? So as long as you do a wonderful and professional job on that, then you should have nothing to worry about.

      Your hopes as a friend that his business will succeed is a different matter. As a a friend, you may encourage or advise him on how he can bring more traffic to his site, or brainstorm marketing ideas etc etc. But be very clear with yourself, and with your friend, the professional services you’re charging for, and the friend support you’re giving because you want to see him succeed.

      Think of it this way. Your friend at the end of the day is driving the business. He’s hiring you to design the car. I’m sure your friend knows that even with the best car, if he drives the wrong direction or is on the wrong road, it’s not the car’s fault. What he’s paying you for is not the road map for his journey. He is paying you to give him the best car for his journey, and as long as you meet your end of the specs, there is no reason that you — as a professional — should feel responsible for the outcome of the journey. As a friend, of course, you can provide the support and advice you feel will help him maximise his success of this journey.

      Hope that perspective helps 🙂


  1. […] Are Your Friends Sabotaging Your Business? – by Lisa Zahran, […]

  2. […] Are Your Friends Sabotaging Your Business? – An excellent guest post on the Men with Pens blog, with advice on how to separate your business life from your personal life and learn to say “no” to friends’ requests for your expertise. […]

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