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Should You Work For Free?

By April 12, 2013January 25th, 2016Marketing Insights & Strategy
Should You Work For Free?

This topic came up in a podcast I was listening to recently called Let’s Make Mistakes.

And coincidentally, it also became a topic of conversation when a fellow Carnival member wrote about a company that decided to host a “design our logo contest” instead of paying for a logo.

This topic always gets my gears spinning, especially because…

1. I’ve done it and

2. I know/talk to/read about a lot of people who are debating or doing the same thing.

And in this economy, with everyone trying to conserve on budget and no shortage of competition, plenty of people are willing to go out on a limb and give their time away in hopes of getting the slightest toehold in a company.

I’ll clarify by saying that working for free is not the same as doing pro bono work. We do plenty of pro bono work at my company – for schools, charitable organizations and causes. But that’s selective and it’s something we specifically choose to donate our time to.

What I’m talking about here is working for free with some expectation of future return.

The expectation of future return isn’t what concerns me – it’s the “working for free” part.

Why might we work for free? Three common reasons come to mind.

1. To help build a portfolio, especially if you’re new to the job.

2. To “maybe” get a job down the line that will actually pay you money.

3. On spec – for example, designing a logo or writing a feature article and only getting paid for it if your client likes or uses it.

If the title of this post caught your attention and you’re hanging around waiting for an answer, I’ll save you the suspense: it’s no. You should not work for free.

If you want my reasoning, read on.

Working For Free Devalues Your Time

When you’re in a service business, your time is your product. And what you do have is in limited supply.

But giving away your time says, “I have plenty of it. Take some.”

Giving away your time says, “Whenever you need something, just ask. It’s only time.”

Giving away your time says, “I have nothing of any particular value that I could be doing right now so I may as well work for free and hope it pays off eventually.”

It sets you up not only for a self-perpetuating cycle of constantly undervaluing your time but sets the expectation with your clients that it’s ok if they do, too.

Often, working for free can make the transition to paid work harder and you may end up getting paid less than you’re worth when you do.

Try going from free to full price and let me know how that works out for you. Even the best of clients will negotiate your service fee. Now imagine negotiating with one who knows your lower boundary is “zero”.

Once you open the door to a relationship that isn’t built on value then you’re going to battle that for the rest of your time together. You’ve created a perception out of the gate that your time isn’t worth anything and it’s almost impossible to rein that back in.

I’ll add a disclaimer here, which is that even today we still work for free – but we choose the time and place and it’s not with any particular expectation. For example, we may work for a client and then waive the bill. Sometimes it’s a courtesy. Sometimes it’s because our client has been loyal to us for a long time. But that’s a whole lot different than putting yourself into indentured servitude on the off chance that someone will decide to throw a paycheck your way one day.

Working For Free Devalues Your Skills

There’s an argument to be made that if you don’t have any experience in your industry, you should work for free in order to build up your portfolio. Designers, photographers, writers… why would someone pay you to shoot their wedding or write their feature articles if you’re new to the game? They could hire someone with experience. With a great portfolio.

You have to get experience, and one way to do that is by offering your services for free in exchange for that experience.

But all that does is say, “I’m not very good at this so I’ll do it for free because it won’t be worth it if you have to pay for it.”

The truth is that you may not be as good as someone with experience yet. But working for free may not be the best way to get there. Instead of working for free, how about pricing your services at the value you know you can deliver? That’s probably going to be lower than a pro who’s been around for 20 years but that doesn’t mean your time is worthless by comparison.

Instead of working for free for someone else, how about building your portfolio by working for yourself?

Design your own logo and write your own articles. Do a photo shoot with your kids and your dog. “Work”, if you must, for your friends and family by donating your time to their weddings, blogs or other needs.

This way, you’ll be practicing, gaining experience and getting better. You won’t be making money, but you won’t be making money by giving your work away either. You’ll only be feeding into the mythology of “it’s only time”.

Working For Free Takes Time You Could Be Spending Working On Your Business

Every second you spend working for free is a second you’re losing to grow or improve your business.

It may sound tempting – someone offers you the possibility of landing some big project if you do this free job first. That big project is awesome and will pay off in spades.

But the big project is not the reality.

The free work is.

If there is a big, small or any project that you’re qualified to do then you will get that job on merit and not on your ability to run a charity.

And… wake up call here… chances are that the person dangling the big-project carrot is only doing so because he knows someone will bite. People who ask for free work show a lack of understanding or respect – or both – for your time and value. Anyone who starts a relationship that way isn’t likely to come through with the big project anyway.

So instead of marketing yourself and your business so that you can find someone who will value you, instead of working to land the actual big project based on merit and the relationships you don’t have time to build… you’re busy working for nothing.

Instead of investing in someone else’s business for free, you could be investing that time in your own, for a much greater return – whether that’s in marketing, networking or building your portfolio in other productive ways.

Working For Free Opens The Door To More Free Stuff

I mentioned earlier that transitioning from free to “pay me” is not a simple task. But that’s not even half your problem.

Your problem is that if you deliver on your promises, if your work is good and your freeloading client is happy – that freeloading client probably has a freeloading friend.

Maybe this sounds cynical, but I’ve been in business for fifteen years and dealt with a lot of people and I can count on exactly zero fingers the number of people who started off asking for free work and then turned into good, paying clients who gave good, paying referrals.

The last thing you want to do is build a reputation as a wonderful artist, writer, whatever… who works for free.

Remember, if you want to donate your time – to a friend, good cause or even to someone who literally cannot pay you – then do so if you choose. But choose it and do it without any expectation that you’ll get any return (at least not monetary) on that investment.

We all want a deal. I’d love to be able to tell the guy who comes to paint my house, “Listen. Just paint my bedroom and if I like it, I’ll pay you to paint the living room.”

Fortunately, that guy would look at me like I’ve lost a marble or two and move on.

Next time someone asks you to do something for free, you should do the same.

How do you feel about working for free? Have you done it, or are you doing it now? Has working for free worked out so well for you that you completely disagree with me? I’d love to know!

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • clarestweets says:

    Great points Carol! One of the best “pick up lines” in business is “do this, give us your product/time/service” and it will open up tons of business for you. Rarely if ever happens. It is one of those “lotto” lines. Yes, I could win the lotto but the odds are millions to 1 against. Now, I carefully choose one pro bono cause at a time and offer one 30 minute consultation to someone looking to work for me and then it is on the clock. One thing I have found works well is being very flexible on payment plans depending on the situation.

    • I totally agree – I can be flexible on payment options too, but the promise of business later for a hamburger today… that has never panned out, at least in my experience. Pro bono is different. That’s something you choose to donate so you can support a cause. That’s great, and it’s a far cry from giving your services away and hoping it pays off.

  • Linda says:

    I have had many similar experiences. I couldn’t agree with you more. At the end of the day we are all in business to earn money. If a prospective client doesn’t have any budget, or they do but don’t want to spend it on your services, then it is really a waste of time to try to cultivate a business relationship with them, because they are not your target customer. It’s better to find someone who needs help and is willing to pay for the help.

    • You’re absolutely right – if someone isn’t ready or willing to pay for your services then they’re not your target customers. I can’t think of anyone who targets “person who can’t/won’t pay”! Stick with people who recognize the value of what you do.

  • Jen Raiche says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. Starting out, it sure is tempting to offer work for free in the hopes that it will lead to more. In business, as in life, we should learn from those that have more experience.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • It’s tempting, Jen, and I think one way or another we all fall for it at one time or another. But live and learn! Once you make that mistake you realize it’s not worth making again.

  • Melanie Kissell says:

    Freebie Seekers of the world … please read this post … more than twice!!

    This is one of my biggest hot button topics, Carol Lynn, as well as a humongous pet peeve. Oh, and I’ll confess. I’ve been guilty of giving away WAY TOO MUCH of my time and talents (blood, sweat, and tears) at lower than bargain-basement pricing … free, that is. 🙁

    What’s that old adage again? Oh, yeah. “Live and learn.” (via The School of Hard Knocks in my case)

    I really started to wrap my heart and my brain around “Freebies be gone!” when I, luckily and thankfully, landed on Ameena Falchetto’s blog one fine day. If you haven’t yet connected with her in the blogosphere … please DO. In my opinion, Ameena is the quintessential wellspring of preachings on why you should not work for free. And that gal does not hold back!!

    I wonder if anyone has ever had the guts to ask an attorney to work for free. LOL!!

    • Yup, I know what you mean Melanie. Have done it too. We can’t help ourselves! Something sounds really tempting… there’s a “future opportunity” or some little perk… and we fall for it. ::::sigh::::

      I have not connected with Ameena but I will now, so thanks for the introduction!

      There are some people who we wouldn’t dream of asking to work for free. I’m pretty sure attorneys are one of them! But that goes to show that people value what an attorney does. They don’t always value what “we” do so it’s our job to show them, not feed into their misconceptions by giving it away!

  • Jessica says:

    preach, Carol Lynn! This is a very powerful and poignant post – and I cannot agree more. Valuing your work is the single most important thing one can do as a business owner. When people work for free, it doesn’t only devalue the worker, but it devalues our industry as a whole. I’m a relatively new business owner, who learned the hard way early on. Never again. We need more posts and discussions about this. Thank you for bringing light to this important issue.

    • Hi Jessica,

      I wish I could save someone from the inevitable mistake of trying out the whole “work for free” thing but mostly we just have to make our own mistakes. I’ve done it too, which is what makes me feel so much more strongly about it now. Plenty of people will think our services don’t have value. We should be the ones to instruct them otherwise!

  • Lisa says:

    Too true. Work is work and should be paid as such. I’ve been known to discount my rates for friends, family and other clients I have special relationships with. I always make sure that the full rate is listed so they know the value of what I’ve given them. It helps them understand the cost of my time and the reasons I sometimes refuse to do work for them.

    • Great idea, Lisa. It’s tough to work with friends and family sometimes because they look at you as their discount-train. But listing your full prices is a great way to show them “I could be making this if you were a paying client”. I don’t have a problem giving time to friends and family (if I have some available!!) but it’s just as important to show them that they’re getting something of value.

  • Toni Nelson says:

    I agree that giving work for free devalues you. I’ve know quite a few photographers who did work for free when they were building their portfolios and then had a very difficult time getting people to pay them. I read about this all the time in forums.

    • Yup, exactly the problem Toni. it’s tempting to think there’s a tradeoff (building a portfolio) but it takes a toll. And there are other opportunities to build a portfolio that don’t involve free work.

  • Work for free it is not bad!! When you don’t work anywhere you should join such type of companies or institute who provide free work. At-least you can learn or know something at that time.

    • You may be referring to something like an internship or training program, William. That’s different than working for free. If you’re being trained for a job or learning a new skill, you may have to devote some unpaid hours on your own time. But when it’s time to “work”, it must be for pay!