Should you ever work for free?

Should you ever work for free?

One of the most common questions I get from new business owners is whether or not they should work for free to build their portfolio, gain experience, and then start charging.

In most cases, my answer is NO! Never work for free — Except when it makes sense to do so.

That doesn’t help much, does it?

Well, I then go deeper to explain the situations where it would make sense. So, today I’m going to list all of these cases here.

1. THEY CAN BRING MUCH MORE WORK AND REVENUE.

For me this is one of the main reason, I’d work for free.

As a self-employed professional, I’m always looking for ways to earn more while doing less. It’s not that I’m lazy (maybe a little), but from a business perspective, it’s entirely logical. So, one of the things I spent a lot of time on when I started was finding clients.

A lot of effort can go into finding client when your pipeline is empty and often we don’t realise how much time we’re putting in it unless we consciously track our tasks.

When I do find a client with which there is the possibility of repeat work, I make an extra effort to win this client. In my very early days, I got the chance to work a guy who was connected to various agencies. What he would do is that he would take projects and then subcontract the work to his network. I wanted to be part of that network, so when he asked me how much for a project he had, I told him: “I would normally charge X for this type of project, but I really want to give this a try and I’m willing to do this first project for free. However next project would be at my regular rates.”

You see, I did not want to give him a reason not to give me the project because I know he had other people he could send it to. But more importantly, I did not give him a discount. If you’ve read my other articles, you’d probably see that I’m absolutely against discounting your rates. Giving a discount reduces the value, however, there is no value change associated with free.

What happened next is that I over delivered on the free project and got to do 16 more paid projects before we parted ways.

2. THEY GIVE YOU ACCESS TO YOUR IDEAL CLIENTS.

You know the type, popular guy, usually loud with a lot of people always around him? If you can provide your services to this kind of person, and you do an excellent job at it. You can be pretty sure that he will be talking about your services to other people. This is especially good if you can target someone who has direct access to your ideal prospect. For example, if you’re going after local jewellery shops. It would be great to have the president of the “Association of Jewellery Manufacturers” as a client.

Now, I’m not telling you to do that in every case. You need to do your own research. Also, you need to be sure that doing this free work will definitely lead to more paid work. Don’t be shy to mention this to the person for whom you’ll be doing free work.

Share your motivations early on, you’ll come off as honest and methodical. People respect these values.

Let me tell you about a situation where it would not have worked. Local private elementary schools also have an association, but after a couple hours of research we realised that most of the schools had modern websites, it would have been harder to get projects from these schools.

Do your research first and only then you can propose free work.

3. WHEN YOU’RE CERTAIN THAT YOU’LL EARN MORE *BECAUSE* OF THE FREE WORK THAT YOU HAVE DONE.

Sometimes you can do free work just to promote yourself. Writers do this all the time. They may write for free in big publications to get their name out there.

For others, it can be a little more complex. If you’re starting out or trying a new service you can find out about people what would need this new service, and do the work for them so that you can boast about your achievement publicly to others. But there needs to be a clear agreement between you and your client.

A concrete example would be if you make minor design tweaks to websites in order to increase conversion or engagement. You can find someone who needs this service and then you can propose doing it for free for his website, but you’ll publicly document the results, and he’ll have to provide you with the necessary metrics.

In that case, you would document the current state of the website using tools like Google Analytics, KISSmetrics, or HotJar. You’d screenshot the number of conversions per week, etc.. Then after doing your tweaks and improving the design and user experience you wait a couple weeks and measure the progress. Once you and your client are happy with the results, you screenshot the new conversion rates, and do a quick video about it, write an article, and a detailed case study.

I can already see the headline “How I increased John’s profit by 20% in three weeks!”, or “The simple hack I used to increase John’s profit by 20%”…

When your potential client sees the actual results of your work, they’d be begging to work with you!

Of course, only one would not have a big impact, you’d need at least three to really make this method work for you. Remember, it’s an investment, you’ll be expecting a return from it.

4. IT’S FOR A CAUSE THAT YOU TRULY BELIEVE IN

If you want to give back something to the community and get a case study and exposure at the same time, there is nothing better than helping a cause that you believe in.

Sometimes the pleasure and sense of achievement that comes with such projects greatly outweigh the monetary value. As with all the cases above, you need to make sure you set your boundaries.

A contract is absolutely required in all situations. Even if it’s for free, actually it’s even more important when it’s for free.

5. IT’S FOR YOUR MOM/DAD

Do I need to go over this one? I think it’s the only situation where you don’t need a contact.

Have you ever worked for free? How was the experience? And did it bring more revenue?

Let me know in the comments.

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Umar Bahadoor is a consultant at GWS Technologies LTD. His analytical skills allow him to get into any business, investigate their current processes and come up with innovative solutions to improve their workflow. He has worked with clients such as Secure Healthcare Solutions UK which has a gross annual revenue of 2M GBP, and UPilot which is currently valued at 6M USD. Umar has a Master’s degree in Software Engineering and a BSc in the same field. He has also contributed to publishing research papers during his time as a university research assistant. In addition to being a geek about technology, Umar is passionate about high performance in all fields. He regularly blogs about the business of web design and helps freelancers improve their business. When he is not working, he’s usually playing with his two-year old son or enjoying a movie with his wife.

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