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Working for free as a freelancer

August 15, 2020

For every freelancer it is just a matter of time, until you’re asked to work for free, meaning without payment in the form of money. While there are both arguments for and against accepting such an offer, things depend ultimately on the specific case and your situation. In this article we want to take a closer look at the pros and cons of free work in different situations.

Let’s first discuss why you might want to work for free.

Reasons speaking for free work

Your client will give you a multitude of reasons why you should work for free. Often they won’t call it free, instead the situation will be presented as a trade. In exchange for your work you will receive different kinds of opportunities.

In those cases it is on you to decide, whether for you the promised benefits positively outweigh the effort you will have to put into the project. While not receiving money directly might be justified, you need to make sure that you are aware of what you get out of the job and how you will get it. A useful strategy is to write a contract that requires the client to agree to make referrals, be reachable as a reference for future clients and to participate in a case study or provide you with any other concrete non-monetary benefits if you perform the task. Add a clause that explicitly states how much the client has to pay for the project, if he doesn’t meet those requirements.

So what are some cases where you might want to work for free?

When you’re new and want to try it out

Maybe you are still working a full-time job in a different industry while considering to turn one of your passions into a freelance business. If you are unsure if you will like this kind of work, it might be a good idea to try it out first by doing a small project.

If you are really learning something of value by doing it

Is the job something you always wanted to try out? Maybe the technologies used are interesting to you and learning them seems beneficial or the niche the client operates in appears promising to you and you want to learn more about it. In such cases it might make sense to work for the experience itself.

However, ask yourself: “Is what I am learning actually beneficial to my future career and my plans?”. Are you going to need those tools and techniques in the future? Is the client’s niche really the niche you want to get into? If not, the learning experience will turn out to be worthless for you.

If the work is tiny

There are some cases in which the hassle of managing payments might not be worth it and the unpaid favor could be of greater value. Let’s say the job only takes 5 to 10 minutes to do. Would it make sense to bill the client for those few bucks? In reality it might turn out that a small favor will leave a large and lasting positive impression. Not only is such a client very likely to hire you in the future, but will also be more than happy to go out of her way to reffer you to repay you for your kindness.

Non-Profits that genuinely are not able to pay you

While there are many non-profits with huge budgets should be able to pay you for your services just fine, there are cases where you really care about a specific small non-profit. Those might in some cases really not be able to pay you for your services, but your work would greatly benefit a cause you are interested in. In such cases it is justifiable to do free work.

When unpaid work is standard for your industry

  • Only do it free if client wont directly benefit from work
  • Ask FB Groups/reddit/whatever if it’s standard
  • How long will it take? okay if not more than a few hours
  • What’s the likelihood of this leading to ongoing paid work?

However, there are many arguments against working for free.

Reasons against it

It is free for the client, but isn’t for you

Free work is often presented as something where nobody loses, which is simply not the case. While the job is free for the client receiving the work, it certainly isn’t for you.

  1. You wont get the time back that you spent on the project and your time is not free. Every hour spent working without payment is an hour lost that could have generated income.
  2. Your business costs are not covered. Even if you don’t have an office or very specific equipment. What about the software licenses you are paying for? What about the hardware (your notebook) you are using? What about electricity? You are spending money on all of those things and while you work on a project for free, the wear and usage of those items is paid for by you!

People don’t value free stuff

Although it might seem irrational, if something is free, we do not value it as much. Just imagine somebody on the street handing you a free ice cream (let’s ignore the weirdness of this) and a minute later you drop it by accident. Somewhere in your mind you will immediately think to yourself “Oh well, it was free anyways, nothing really lost”. The situation is certainly different if you bought the ice cream with your own money.

If your work is free, clients will view and treat it as something of lower value. Even worse, if you are working for free, what will they think of you? Will you seem like a professional to them?

Even if there are paid projects in the future, clients wont be willing to pay you as much, as they would if you hadn’t worked for free. Somebody who was willing to spend their time without anything in exchange will certainly be willing to lower their rates when asked.

Instead you should teach people how to value you, your time and ultimately your work.

Considerations

Exposure

Clients will often present exposure as their form of payment to you. Whether or not this is worth your time is hard to define, because in practice exposure is very hard to measure. In general you want to look out if the client has a big enough audience (visitors to their site and contacts) and if the client’s audience is your target audience.

Alternatives

There are typically more efficient ways to achieve the benefits of free work. Instead of doing a free project, you could create educational resources. Whether those are blog posts, video tutorials, courses or seminars. Teaching the skills you want to sell will both be a learning experience for you and will position you as an expert.


A blog by Manue Kruisz a Freelance Software Developer based in Vienna

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