By Ron Hall/Editor-in-Chief

You’ve probably heard the phrase "people in the cheap seats boo the loudest." From my experience people in the free seats boo the loudest.

The phrase came to mind recently during a conversation with the owner of a Michigan landscape company. This is a guy that’s been in the business for more than 20 years. He’s an owner that I respect and turn to from time to time when I have a specific question about the industry. Or, sometimes, just to chat.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation turned to some free landscaping his company did for a close friend some time ago, but it did. The project involved two of his employees and it took about a day of their time. Close friend? Let’s correct that to "former close friend" even though the person getting the freebie work paid for materials. And, let’s be clear, this wasn’t a community service project or anything like that.

There’s no need to go into the details about how these kind of deals sour relationships. If you’ve "given away" work (even in anticipation of the recipient gracing you with a contract or a reciprocal favor in the future) you’ve likely come away from the deal ruing your foolish generosity.

Not that I wanted to one-up him, but after hearing his tale, I had one of my own to share. Here’s a bit of backgrounder: In the mid 1970s I was part-owner of a photograpy studio. In spite of the studio’s strange name (Spittin’ Image), we were incredibly busy. My weekdays were spent writing and editing a small-town newspaper, and stringing (reporting) for several non-competing metropolitan dailies. Most of my summer Saturdays I devoted to Spittin’ Image, photographing weddings, reunions and even the occasional bar mitzvah and quinceanera.

After five or six summers doing this and getting increasingly busy and with a young family, I realized I wanted  my summer weekends back. Accepting a payout, I turned over my half of the company to my partner and his wife.

But even now, even after all of these years, every once in a while a family friend (usually one of their children or, gasp!, their grandchildren) will ask me to photograph their weddings. in almost all cases I beg off, claiming that I’m not proficient with digital photography or I’m going to be busy that weekend or some other excuse. 

In the spring of 2011, softening to my wife’s entreaties, I reluctantly agreed to photograph the wedding of the daughter of one of her close friends. It was to be the second marriage for the daughter and also for her older beau. Foolishly and with misgivings, I said I would do it as our wedding gift to her daughter and her new son-in-law.

The wedding turned out to be a bigger deal than I had been led to led to believe, a day-long affair that lasted into the evening. Photographing a wedding, while it may look easy, comes with big risks and a fair amount of work and stress. You only get one chance to do it right.

To wrap this tale up; even now after deliverying my work to the couple almost a year ago, (work that I was proud of), I have yet to receive as much as a thank you call or card. Or, for that matter, acknowledgement from my wife’s friend for the day I spent making her daughter’s day more special. OK,  I’m being petty, but who doesn’t like their efforts being appreciated?

Ok, here’s the take-home message-and one that I vow to heed myself.

I’m not giving away free services or my time again unless it’s for the benefit of my family, neighborhood, community or some other cause I feel strongly about. Otherwise, it’s a paying gig.

Like my Michigan landscaper friend realized. While you may gain experience from doing free work (as in "I’ll never do that again."), you will likely lose a friend. Or at least think less of that individual.

But the bigger issue is that you lose the time you spent deliverying the favor. Time is worth more than anything else that you have. You can’t get it back.