The Virtual Tip Jar… Patronage or Patronising?

Would you ever charge someone for your hobby?

I wrote a while ago about how asking to be paid in line with the value your work creates can positively impact relationships with customers (and potentially your bank balance!). For a few months now, I’ve been investigating what has come to be known as the sharing economy. It’s a broad and sweeping definition that seems to encompass everything from taxi services like Uber, to accommodation rentals (Airbnb), small work ‘gigs’ through Fiverr and other equally diverse services.

Although I’m still no closer to earning my target of £4,000 through the sharing economy, for reasons I’ll outline when I finally make sense of this industry category, it’s been a real eye opener. This week I took some time to discover Patreon and it’s made me feel conflicted. The overlap with some of the other themes I’ve encountered in The Work Project has been significant and looking at Patreon has brought me right back to some of the early ideas such as how we assign value to our work, being unafraid to ask for things and even how we define ‘work’ itself.

The premise of Patreon is that you create some work and ask people to pay for it, as patrons. You can either attempt to fund a single piece of work in a way similar to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, or accept subscriptions for a regular piece of work, such as a podcast or publication. The variety of projects and level of success on the platform varies wildly, but the platform touts itself as a way to earn an income from things you create.

As part of my sub-experiment in the #sharingeconomy I considered signing up for Patreon. It would actively encourage me to put a Patreon button on The Work Project site, essentially a tips jar for my blog. Or maybe it could help me to start the Workplace podcast I’ve been threatening to do for months now. It’s all a possibility, but unlike a conversation with a customer about how a requested piece of work is paid for, for some reason I’m just not comfortable with asking for money in this way.

When I wrote about how value is assigned to our work, I touched on the notion that we increasingly expect to access information for free. Last Friday my friend Lee sent me a link to a story on The Financial Times website. When I discovered it required a paid subscription to read, I baulked. A quick search helped me find the same story reported via a different, free, website. Most of us would have done the same.

It’s hard to get momentum and sustainable finances when you’re setting out your work stall in a different way, so maybe collections of small revenue streams for the different things you’re doing could be a viable way forward. I owe it to The Work Project to experiment on that for insight, so maybe I should suck up my reservations and dive in to Patreon, but for some reason it just feels wrong.

No one asked me to start The Work Project. I did so partly for myself and partly so that people like John might discover new ways to think about work and be able to change their relationship with it. So why should I charge for it – do I have any right? Launching a podcast on the other hand – a specific item designed as a service, could work. At that point though, Patreon becomes a means of collecting subscriptions rather than a virtual begging hat. Maybe I’m just overcomplicating it and actually the two things aren’t different. Is this the transition into a new way of work, where we earn money from anything anyone is willing to pay for?

When I started The Work Project, I wrote about how afraid we all are to ask for things (specifically help). Maybe that’s the problem, maybe I and many others just aren’t ready to make asking our standard starting point. There’s a culturally-ingrained drive for self-sustainability that many of us seem to carry and I’m not sure how right or wrong it is.

I could start charging subscribers for The Work Project, but I’m not going to. The whole point of this exercise was to prove that there might be a different way to look at ‘work’. By charging, the project in itself becomes the work and that defeats the object.

I could add a virtual tip jar to the project and although I’m less uncomfortable with that, it still feels like sacrificing some of the purity of the project. Would doing that detract from the art of the project? Or, would it just allow people to show their appreciation in a way that works for them. After all, even the great artists like Turner had patrons.

I have a hunch that the only way to work this out is to try it for a limited time as part of the exploration of what the sharing economy actually is. I’m just not sure I’m ready!