Should I work for free? 5 scenarios where you will be tempted


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”

A comic depicting an artist working for 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.

Offer free work only if:

If the prospective party really has a large audience and

  1. Your name will be prominently displayed on the part
  2. Do you know where and how your work will be shared (social media, newsletter, etc.)
  3. Your ideal customer is part of their audience
  4. You have a plan to present your work in a portfolio. This is the key.
  5. You are confident that you can ensure that your customer is familiar with potential customers

Some of this relates to how coordinated your spider senses are, but in general, if you can’t form a very clear path in your mind where exposure = direct customer acquisition, it’s best to stay away.

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”.

Offer free work only if:

  1. You use it as an opportunity to learn new skills beyond your usual range. If things don’t go smoothly, you can practice on the “right” party without guilt.


  1. You are just starting out as a self-employed person and you have set a limit of 1-2 free customers to gain a basic experience. After that, start charging no matter what.

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.

Offer free work only if:

  1. If you are the one who suggested free work.
  2. You have a list of potential clients that you plan to contact immediately after the project, where you will take advantage of your new part of the portfolio. All of these potential customers should be well acquainted with the high-status client you just worked for.

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.

Offer free work only if:

  1. You are the one offering a free, small project.
  2. A project is a smaller part of the larger, paid project you want to carry out. Example: designing a wire frame for a new home page design and then charging the client to design and build other pages on the site.
  3. It will not take much time to complete the project.
  4. You are transparent with the customer about your prices, so there are no surprises after the free work is done.

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.

Offer free work only if:

  1. An organization is a nonprofit or similar group that really can’t afford your services
  2. You strongly feel their mission and want to support them
  3. Do this without any obligation. In return, you get nothing but a sense of help, and you’re fine with that.

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:

  • Experience
  • Statement
  • 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”.



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