Categorized | happenings

Google “does no evil” by screwing artists

A Gary Taxali original in honor of Google business practices.
A Gary Taxali original just for Google.

Google made $1.42 billion dollars in profit last year and, despite the recession, will probably hit pretty close to the same target this year. All the more surprise, then, that the company whose motto used to be, “Do no evil,” is asking professional illustrators to work for free. Those of us in the creative business here in Hollywood are used to cheesy or starry-eyed operators looking for creative talent to work only for “opportunity” and “exposure,” money be damnded. Periodically, some crusader slams a screed down on Craig’s List about how illustrators, writers, or other creatives should always work for industry standard fees and decrying these operators as, well, scumbags. But most of these scumbags really don’t have the money to pay! However, for one of the largest, most profitable companies in the world to stoop to the “exposure” ploy is a new low in scumbaggery.

But there are important lessons for struggling startups here. Because entrepreneurs frequently find themselves in a position where they need the work but they can’t pay for it. And not just illustrators, but programmers, bookkeepers, and, yes, plumbers.

Google has a serious PR problem. At one time, in the very distant past, Google was the slappy, scrappy start-up that took on the big bullies and won. Google was a company of ideas and ideals, whose culture was summed up in the quasi-religious mantra, “Do no evil,” and their quirky, incomprehensible billboards. But Google from the start wanted to be a big company, and “big” is often something you can’t achieve without a generous primer coat of “evil,” so Google is as aggressive, competitive, and ethics-free as the best of them.

As a result, Google has been finding itself the impersonal and imperious kommisar in a number of evil empire news stories, such as their efforts to steal — oops, scratch that — digitize books and their control of their monopoly over the search advertising market.

And now that the antitrust avengers are zeroing in on Google, the company has put the “love me” PR campaign into hyper-warp overdrive, even though, like Benjamin Linus, they’re not entirely convincing when they say, “We’re the good guys.”

All the more wonder that Google, with both its billions and its PR headaches, would reach out to the top illustrators in North America with a job that pays only in “exposure.”* In an effort to light a fire under its Google Chrome browser, which is failing to ignite any fires of its own in the user community, they offered illustrators the once-in-a-lifetime chance to design “skins” for the browser for the staggeringly high price of “free.” “But tons of exposure!”

These aren’t ordinary illustrators who are struggling to put macaroni and cheese on the table every night, these are the big folks with agents who can command thousands of dollars per illustration, like Gary Taxali and Melinda Beck. And, when Gary Taxali asked the Google representative how he was going to pay the bills while working for “free” or whether or not that Google employee was working for free, he was greeted with silence.

“I can’t pay you, but the exposure (or the addition to your portfolio, the gain to your reel, or the line on your CV) will be wonderful!” is the oldest line in the scumbag book. The second oldest line is “I can’t pay you (or can pay you practically nothing), but there will be a lot of work in the future!”

“A lot of work at the same level of compensation? Why would I want that?” is what any rational person would reply.

However, there are times when it’s justifiable to hire for little or no pay. And you, as a startup, may find yourself in just such a position more than once — looking for excellent, top-notch work without the bank account to pay for it. Or, for that matter, any bank account at all.

If it’s evil for Google (and it is), are you, as a struggling entrepreneur, passing over to the dark side when you hire for nothing?

Not necessarily.

First, many entrepreneurs struggling with start-ups are not only not making money, they’re draining money from their regular income for months or years. If you’re bootstrapping your business, book, or film from a miniscule or negative stake, you have some ethical ground to stand on by asking a hire to work for little or no money.

Second, you should target talented people who are not getting exposure, who really will benefit from doing the work. You should make a generous effort to find people who have the drive and ambition to succeed in their highly competitive field rather than people who are simply “cheap.”

And you should stay away from sweat shops, like online logo designers or business plan shops, that pretty underpay the talent for you.

What’s important about the second condition is that there are people out there who are genuinely struggling. The creative disciplines, such as illustration, photography, writing, are all massively competitive with the lion’s share of compensation going to the folks at the top. And the folks at the top have a vested interest in staying at the top. But for the vast majority at the bottom, finding work is a grueling, disappointing, and demoralizing affair. They know they can do great work, but they don’t have the opportunities. In many instances, a partnership between a struggling entrepreneur and a struggling creative (or programmer or database designer) is the best possible solution.

But just because you can’t pay well (or at all) and someone is willing to take the work, it is never ethical to underpay someone (because you can’t) and then, if you end up making a pile of money, leave them in the dirt underpaid.

So, as the third part of the ethical puzzle, I always advocate “two-tier” contracts to govern compensation. I use them religiously when I do work for independent filmmakers, who never have any money. The first tier is the “failure” tier and the second is the “success” tier. Let’s say you need a logo and you can only pay $50 (which is highway robbery). That’s the “failure” tier — this is what you will pay your designer initially and, if the business does not reach a certain plateau in one or two years, that’s the full extent of their compensation. If, on the other hand, your company achieves that plateau within a year or two, you will pay industry standards for the original work, which will run somewhere between $500 and $2000 for a custom-designed logo by a highly-skilled logo designer. In other words, you agree to pay industry standards if the business (or book or film) succeeds, but, if it doesn’t, you can only nominally compensate or simply pay with the “addition to your portfolio.”

Because I work with independent filmmakers on marketing, planning, finance, writing, design, and, yes, illustration, I charge them my going rate of $200 an hour, but only if the film meets a success plateau (financing, distribution, a certain level of box office). That’s my “second tier.” If (and only if) I’m passionate about the project, I’ll offer a “first tier” as initial compensation that’s considerably lower (sometimes as low as $5 per hour). If the film crashes for lack of financing, or distribution, or an audience, then the first tier compensation is all I end up with. Oh, that, and the exposure.

You can also offer a “stake” in the winnings, which I advocate if you can’t pay anything at all. Your business plan says you’ll be making $500,000 in profit by next year (yeah, sure). You give your “free” or low-compensated hires a stake in the profits, say, 1%. That’s how George Lucas hired his underpaid actors for the first Star Wars — let’s just say that after a few years, they never had to work again.

It is no different than start-ups hiring full-time executives and offering them absurdly low wages but a healthy chunk of the company’s equity. If we succeed, you get the house in Bel Air and the flat in London. If not, well, good luck putting macaroni and cheese on the table.

So the struggling designer (or artist or writer or Web programmer or database designer) gets two things: a chance to add to their marketability by getting good work (hard to come by for the up and coming) and the chance to work at industry standards of compensation (but only if your business or book or film or whatever succeeds).

But if you’re just trying to find someone to do it cheaply and that’s the end of the game, you’re building your business or project on a bad foundation. And in business, as in everything else in life, I have a saying: “You begin the way you wish to become.”

There’s a basic lesson in character that the computer troika of evil — Apple, Microsoft, and Google — haven’t learned: it is always better to win without screwing good people.

Don’t believe me? Then ask Microsoft and Google why they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to burnish their tarnished images. Ask Microsoft and Intel how much money they’re losing by being bashed by the antitrust stick. Ask Google how it likes being firebombed by the DoJ. Ask Nike how it felt to lose over a hundred million dollars of revenue over its slave labor policies and suddenly have to dump tens of millions of dollars down the PR toilet . . as well as backtrack on its highly profitable sweatshop strategy.

Spending money on defense is always a loss.

In the long run, good character pays off.

*Since picked up by the New York Times and the media race is on!

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