work for free

The do’s and don’ts of working for free

Sinead McIntyre
Sinead McIntyre
August 10, 2017

We’re all guilty of it, and sometimes, during the course of our careers, it almost feels like it’s deemed necessary, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Many freelancers, especially in more creative or artistic spaces are offered to do free work in return for “exposure”. There is a hefty amount of conversation that covers this issue online, including a very popular Imgur post, a famous comic, and  a whole Twitter dedicated to it. The burning question here then is, when does writing for free for exposure cross the line of going from a win-win situation, to downward spiraling into plain and simple exploitation?

Why does this happen?

It’s reasonable to assume that a client is concerned that you’re going to flake out on them, like the last guy they hired, or they want to give you some sort of test to see how competent you are; and in the worst case, they want you to work for free to “test” if you even have the ability to boost their conversion rates, or any other KPIs for that matter, prior to signing a contract with you.

In addition, they feel as though “exposure” is a form of payment, which, no matter how immense it can be, is usually never worth the exchange. This is comparable to a scoring system between you and client, and it consists of an array of different factors (experience, references, ability to deliver exactly what they want), and these factors place freelancers somewhere between ultra-risky and the perfect choice.  Here are some examples of clients that you might come across who are part of the problem:

  • Undervaluers –  For those of you in artistic fields, this is for sure. Many clients who aren’t familiar with what you do will assume that a logo “just takes a few minutes” to whip up, or a quick sketch (usually in the context of a brief) that could take an artist 15 minutes to make shouldn’t cost money. The truth of the matter is that while these jobs may seem quick to execute, it’s due to the artist’s skills and experience that they are able to do work so efficiently. 
  • Big shots – (e.g. a major publication, a successful startup) This is the type of client that tends to expect freelancers to get on their hands and knees begging to do any kind of gig for free, just so that they can add it to their portfolio. 
  • Nonprofits – These types are usually ones who can’t pay, but wish they could, and unfortunately, this is where things can get a bit complicated. On one hand, it’s for a good cause, but on the other, time is money and no one should be forced to work for free. Because of both points, it’s up to you to decide if this is a worthy endeavor.
  • Startups/entrepreneurs –  Many early-stage startups hope to keep their costs at a minimum, or plain and simply think that their concept is all that and a bag of chips, that they sometimes exploit freelancers, manipulating them into thinking that free work is a great idea for their career (whether or not that’s true is completely irrelevant, and a relative matter, regardless).

Why you shouldn’t agree to it

If the client gets you to agree to do work for free, and it you did a great job, naturally, your score will increase- obviously, that’s a very good thing. However, the unfortunate aspect of this scenario is that you just wasted x amount of hours, time that you will never get back, when you could have been making money during that specific time period.

In turn, this decreases your worth; and no, not as a person, but gradually, as a profession. If, for example, you’re willing to do a couple of days of free work, then you’re more than likely to be willing to negotiate your rates, thereby selling yourself short. And if you’re in a position where you don’t really care what you’re getting paid, perhaps getting paid on time won’t be much of a priority, and so on (if you get where I’m going with this). In short, you’re killing your value as a professional. Also, keep in mind that as tempting as exposure can be, the likelihood of it actually boosting your career with this one project, is pretty slim (unless it’s one of the exceptions, which will be mentioned later on in this post).

Freelancers, get all your payments from clients and marketplaces

How you’re shooting yourself (and others) in the foot

Despite a client’s’ best intentions, and how much sincerity lies in wanting to give you future work, more than often than not, such situations will end up backfiring on you. Often times, your work won’t end up being used by the client, or, because it’s free (synonymous with of little to no value), it’s subject to be completely destroyed and meddled with. By the time something like this happens, your aspirations of being regarded as a skillful, valuable professional are in the toilet, in the event that the client returns for all of the work the promised you for later on.

Bottom line? By working for free, you’re reaffirming the client’s idea that not only your work should be done for free, but future freelancers that they might hire, as well.

Should you ever agree to do work for free?

So now that we’ve cleared up why you shouldn’t ever work for free, even in exchange for exposure, there are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If you truly want to work for free exposure, be sure to calculate the opportunity cost of the chance to do so, and weigh out if it’s a worthy endeavor. For example, if you take on a free piece, in hopes of, say, finding customers for your latest digital products, then that’s awesome. The best way to navigate the opportunity would be to give it a short trial run, and then evaluate whether this or not said free gig is helping you get closer to your end goal. If not, then there’s your answer.

It’s worth mentioning that a great way to gain traction as novice freelancer is to simply offer your services at a lower rate, but not for free, until your portfolio is built, and you gain more clients and hopefully retention contracts. As in every field, with experience, you will have every right to increase your pricing, so there’s no need to worry about that, but nor should you be willing to work for free (especially with the hopes that it will benefit you in some way).

In addition, a great way of displaying work in marketing is through education, such as tutorials, videos and social media Q&As. Not only is it an excellent way to gain exposure on your own terms, but it’s also one of the most optimal methods you could use to get potential clients, and even create a community. Keep in mind that a majority of prospective clients will “score” you based on how competent, trustworthy, and agreeable you are. Via educational content, you can easily display and prove all of these qualities in one sitting.

How to handle clients who don’t want to pay

You might run into situations in which a client really wants his work for free. In such predicaments, here are options as to how to respond to some all-too-common manipulative requests:

“This will lead to paid work.”
“Actually, I don’t work for free, as my time, as well as yours is precious. These are my rates: XXX”

“It won’t take long, I promise.”
“I believe you wholeheartedly, however, my work is time spent, and therefore, I always expect to be compensated accordingly.”

“Feel free to just be creative… let those juices flow.”
“I appreciate your willingness to give me creative input for this project, but “letting my juices flow” takes time, which will cost you money, and unless I’m compensated for the time I spend presenting you with possibilities, I’m not interested in working for free until you make a decision.”

Key Takeaways

Don’t give into manipulative clients, simply to gain exposure. Opportunities to gain exposure can reveal themselves at so many other times, and surely when you are getting paid. Instead, always remember your value as a professional in the industry, and simply weigh out the price of your precious time (not just money), before agreeing to a free gig.

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