Ah, an old question that almost every self-employed person has had to deal with at some point – usually early – in their career:
Should I work for free?
Ask this question in any standalone group on Facebook or Reddit and you won’t be short of people with strong opinions. For some unknown reason, this issue really gets on the nerves of the liberal community.
The answer to the question, however, is not so black and white in my opinion.
In some cases, yes, I think it’s good to work for free.
In other cases – perhaps in most cases – I think that working for free is not a smart decision.
But before I dive into the caves of controversy, here are some basic assumptions:
- Your work has value. Unless you’re completely incompetent. But in this case, why do you offer anything at all?
- There must always be a change of value for your work. In most cases, it is money paid for services rendered, but there are other forms of value outside of money. I’ll deal with you later.
- You are most likely a new self-employed person. Someone for a pipeline full of prospects it will almost never work for free.
The most common (bad) reasons for free work:
1. You have been offered “exposure”
This is a smooth move often used by companies looking for cheap labor. In almost every case, the promise of exposure doesn’t mean much in the end. You need it payment customers, and the myth of “exposure” rarely leads to paying customers. You can’t pay a mortgage with exposure, you can’t buy food with exposure, you can’t do anything with exposure.
2. You are not yet satisfied with customer billing
As a new coach, designer, writer, artist, or whatever you are, it’s always annoying when you first ask someone to pay you money for something. Most 9 to 5 employees are not used to these conversations with potential clients, which makes many new self-employed workers feel as if they are not yet “ready”.
3. You want to add a high-status client to your portfolio
A customer with a high status can afford to be paid for your work. If they say they can’t, something is wrong. If any of these prospective clients offer free work, run to the hills.
4. You are told that it can lead to paid work with that client
More often than not, this is a classic bait and replacement move that companies like to use to get free labor. If the company suggests it, it’s another important red flag. If they want you to work for free, do you think how well they will pay you when you finally have the “privilege” to do paid work? Probably well below the industry average, as they already know you’re willing to work for free!
“This could lead to paid work along the way” is a highly desirable phrase “we don’t want to pay for your work, but even if you do a great job, we want to leave ourselves the option of not hiring you”. Stay away from this arrangement.
5. The client says there is no budget for the project
If there is currently no budget for the project, there is essentially no chance that there will magically be a budget for the project in the near future. There is no advantage to free work here.
Have a tangible plan for capturing the value of your work
If you’re going to do free work for someone, it’s up to you to make sure there’s still a fair exchange of values going on, unless the work is for your mother or a charity that’s close to your heart. Without capturing the value of your work, you aren’t actually moving forward or accomplishing anything.
In addition to money, there are other ways to make money from your work:
- Part of the portfolio
- A case study showing the transformation
- Request for referral
- Conversation points for future sales calls or interviews
- Street cred
This is important. Always think about how you can take advantage of the work you do, whether it’s free or paid.
How can you turn today’s work into an opportunity for tomorrow?
Self-employed workers who regularly look at their work through this lens are the ones who end up being the most successful. Becoming a better self-employed person is much more than just perfecting your craft; it is about putting together a whole “value puzzle”.