Would you ever work for free? Most freelancers have been asked to do unpaid work at some point in their career, and usually the golden rule is to grab that big red flag and say no. After all, exposure doesn't pay the bills. But what if there are some situations where it makes sense? In this episode, Louise Shanahan shares three scenarios where working for free might be worth it.
Louise Shanahan is a freelance health copywriter and content marketer. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
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Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host, Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind the scenes stories, and nuggets o' wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help me navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So, grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe!
Hello, this is episode 34 of 15 Minute Freelancer, and today, I want to talk about a grizzly little grumbly question that comes up time and time again in freelance land, and I’m sure you’re no stranger to it, whether you’re brand new to freelancing or you’re a little more well-seasoned. Should you ever work for free? Is it ever ok to provide your freelancing services for free?
If you’re self-employed and your business is providing a creative or B2B service of some sort, chances are someone has come to you saying ‘we can’t pay, sadly, but you’ll get great exposure!’ or ‘we have an amazing opportunity for someone who wants to get a foot in the door’ or ‘we don’t have a budget yet but we’ll pay you in equity.’ Ugh. In most cases, these would be ginormous flashing red flags with sirens blaring in the background. But are there occasions where unpaid work could be worthwhile? How do you decide?
Emotions run high when we talk about whether it’s ever ok to work for free. This is because there are so many examples of freelancers being expected to work for free, or being undervalued. I want to dispel the myth that freelancing means you’re always desperate for the next project, living hand to mouth, and therefore that you’ll bite the hand off any potential client who offers you a morsel of paid work. Of course, there are challenging times and there may well be times you take on work you’d rather skip because you have bills to pay. But it really grates when clients assume that this is your situation and trying to get free work or a big discount on that basis. I think a lot of folk will immediately say "No! You should never work for free! Know your worth! Those clients who promise exposure or bulk work down the line are trying to get one over on you! They don’t value you!" And to that I say, yes, often, unfortunately, that’s the case. But I do also think that if you position yourself and your service carefully, you’re less likely to get inquiries like that. And I think that once you’ve been in business a while, you start to develop a kind of gut instinct about these ones. You can spot the red flags and just say no thanks and move on.
But I think there are good reasons to work on projects where you’re not financially compensated, or not at your regular rate. And I want to dig into some of those today. I think there are 3 scenarios where maybe it’s ok to work for free, and those situations depend on where you are in your career.
So, scenario 1, where working for free might make sense, is when you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or you’re moving into a new industry or specialism, and you don’t have samples to prove your skills yet. How can a client feel confident in hiring you without any relevant samples or testimonials? So you might do some work for free for experience. If you’re just starting out, doing some spec work could be a really effective way to show people what you can do, and give you something to put in your portfolio to get the ball rolling when you speak to new clients. So you might create a piece of work for an imaginary project for a brand you like, and then share it with them. They may or may not use it, but you can put it in your portfolio and make clear that it was spec work. This can work because while big brands and big publications should pay people for their work, if you have absolutely no evidence that you can deliver, then you’ll be struggling to get hired.
Another example here might be if there’s a particular person or team you really want to work with, but they’re not hiring, or maybe they’re kind of out of you’re league, so you might offer to do some work for free just to see behind the scenes on their processes. I’m thinking here about really well-established, big names, and you need to do something out of the box to catch their attention. These would be situations where you have a huge amount to gain from the relationship or experience, but not that much to offer in return. They’d be taking a chance on you or letting you in with no real need to do so.
What else? Another situation in this category would be when you’re learning a new skill and you want to test it in the real world. Let’s say you’re a copywriter who normally writes websites, and wants to move into email copywriting – maybe you’ve done a course and you want to find a client who's willing to be your beta tester. In that case, you might just charge a lower rate rather than working for free, but there may be times where that makes sense.
So doing some unpaid work in those early days can make sense to help you show your skills, build relationships and start to attract more clients. If you send something on spec and they use it, I’d say they should still pay you, but if having that brand’s name on your resume will help you attract more clients who will pay, it’s worth it. The key here is that it’s your decision. You reached out to them. This is something you have decided to offer yourself. If someone comes to you with an offer of unpaid experience, if you’re a student or an intern, that should be paid. Legally, internships in the UK must be paid, so working for free has to be a strategic decision, or you’ll end up selling yourself short and contributing to the culture of unpaid work and undervaluing freelancers, which we do not want!
Ok, scenario 2, is when exposure really could launch your career. Again, this has to be your decision and it has to be strategic. You have to be sure you’ll benefit from the exposure to a degree that justified the lack of payment. If someone comes to you promising exposure, I’d be wanting to know why they can’t offer financial compensation, and I’d be wanting some evidence of how they’re so sure that exposure will manifest itself. Generally, I can’t see how doing creative work for free results in much exposure, unless it’s a huge brand or influencer who will be shouting from the rooftops that you did the work. I think the exposure line applies more to speaking engagements, creating content for someone’s online course, that kind of thing. I’ve done speaking engagements for free before and it was a lot of work, I didn’t see a huge bump in new inquiries, so it was a bit of a disappointment. Now that’s not to say it was a waste – maybe it was good to get the chance to practice my public speaking skills without too much pressure, I could reuse the content, and being seen as a public speaker maybe gave me a little credibility boost, but in reality, looking back, it was not worth the work. Lesson learned for next time!
But these are the things you need to weigh up. Consider the value of the relationship beyond what’s on the invoice, whether that’s a new network, new audience or industry, new experience, or for a cause you care about. When you’re further on in your career, this kind of ‘exposure’ based justification for free work might apply if you have a book or a course to promote, and you go on someone’s podcast or speak at their event. In those situations, it’s clear what each party brings to the err party, sorry, I didn't know how I was going to say this! And how each one benefits. But that’s maybe a bit different from providing your normal freelancing services for free. Again, it has to be a conscious, strategic decision.
The third scenario where I’d say working for free would be ok is when it’s for charity or for a cause you really care about, where the budget isn’t there to hire you. Beyond those early career opportunities, once you’re a bit more established, there are fewer times when you’ll want to work for free. But pro bono is one of them. Many charities, indie ventures, and good causes don’t have the budget to pay, so if there’s something you feel very strongly about, maybe you’d want to consider offering your services for free. I think you do need to be really clear about what the scope of the work is and that they are getting something for free that would normally be paid for. You don’t want to get sucked into providing a small project for free and then feeling guilty when they ask for more.
So those are three scenarios when I think unpaid work may make sense – for genuine experience you can’t get elsewhere, for genuine exposure that really could launch your career, or for a cause you really believe in.
What about the times when you should say no? One specific thing I would say no to is when someone asks you to do a test project for free. I don’t know if this happens to other service providers, but copywriters and content writers are often asked to do an unpaid writing test before being hired. I understand that clients may worry about jumping into a contract with a writer who turns out not to know a spacebar from their elbow, but that doesn’t mean anyone should work for free. I think I’ve done one writing test for free in my entire career, and it was someone I really wanted to work with and thought I could learn from, although in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘ugh, this is disappointing that they would do this.’ And it didn’t work out. I think that because I was aware that it wasn’t paid, it wasn’t my best work. You end up rushing, because the time you spend on this unpaid project is time you could be spending on paid client work. You end up resenting it, and it puts you in a position where you’re having to prove yourself to them, which isn’t a great way to start a working relationship where you want to be equal partners. If it’s a paid test project, you get to suss them out too. They get to see your writing skills, and you get to see their invoice-paying skills! By all means, if someone isn’t sure about jumping into a full-blown project yet, you can suggest a smaller test project to see if you’re a good fit. They get to see what it’s like to work with you without making too big a commitment, and it’s a paid project so you don’t lose out.
So, times to say no would be when the client can clearly pay and just doesn’t want to; when the client offers exposure that is clearly not there; and when you can’t afford to.
Don’t contribute to the culture of unpaid work. It’s bad for business for everyone, and especially people in marginalised groups.
As I say, with most of these examples, it’s very important to have clear boundaries and make sure both parties know what’s expected, so you don’t get roped into doing way more than you intended. Make sure that where it’s something that a client has come to you with, rather than you reaching out to them, you get the terms in writing so the scope is clear and the client knows they’re getting a strategic freebie. Some people even send an invoice with the usual rate discounted to zero, to make that point. There’s always an exchange of value, and both parties need to understand and acknowledge that. And we also need to remember that it’s an exchange of energy too. You need to know the value of your time and if you choose to do something that’s not financially compensated, make sure it’s intentional. You might think that people would be grateful to get a freebie, but in actual fact, people tend to feel more excited about things they paid for. As humans, we just don’t value things we get for free so much. Projects work better when we each have skin in the game. And this is why you should think carefully before doing free work for friends and family too! It’s up to you of course, but the stories I hear of freelancers offering mates’ rates never seem to end well. It gets awkward, you start to feel taken advantage of or resentful about it, they wonder why you’re leaving their WhatsApp messages on read. Basically it gets icky. And true friends will want to support your business.
Never undersell yourself, but if you feel that an unpaid opportunity could genuinely lead to bigger and better things, and you can afford it – go for it. The bottom line is that if you feel excited about it, you feel good about it, then go for it.
Ok! That’s my tuppence worth on whether you should ever work for free. I would love to know what you think.
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me, Louise Shanahan, freelance health copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want answered on the podcast find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing!