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Should You Ever Work For Free?


Key Takeaways

  • Only do work for free when it can be done at scale.
  • Teach others everything you know — this is a great way to showcase your expertise.
  • Create evergreen content. (For an example, see my free email course on raising your rates.)
  • Use public teardowns to get yourself in front of companies you’d like to work with.
  • If it makes sense and you’re up for it, it’s OK to work for free with non-profits and other organizations… but with the right conditions in place.

“This will be huge for your portfolio.”

“If this works out, it’ll lead to a lot of paid work from us.”

We’ve all been approached by people who want free work. Sometimes it’s your mom (which means you should probably do some pro bono work for her — she’s done substantially more for you!), but more than often it’s a company.

What I’m going to focus on today is why some companies try to get us to do free work for them. But I also want to talk about why sometimes it makes a ton of sense to give stuff away for free — but with a twist.

Why some people want you to work for free, and why you should say no (even if you’re a newbie)

I have a folder full of ebooks, whitepapers, reports, and more sitting on my hard drive. I’ve peeked at a few of them, but for the most part, they’re doing the digital equivalent of rotting away.

I’ll probably never look at them. And the reason I won’t look at them has little to do with their merit.

I downloaded all of them for free.

People generally don’t value free stuff. This article is free, and the amount of people who will take action on it is substantially fewer than if I were to package this into a paid course of mine.

This is just how it works. We’re wired to value and respect things we pay for.

When applied to freelance consulting, the same is usually true. But are the companies that want you to do some free work for them legitimately in a pinch? Are they seeking out free work because they need to? Maybe, but not usually.

Over the years, I’ve been approached by plenty of companies and organizations who want a freebie. And as I dug into why they were expecting me to exhaust non-renewable hours to work on their project for free, it became clear that — for the most part — they were more than happy to pay.

…They were just worried. Maybe they thought I’d flake out like the last freelancer they worked with. So they wanted to test the waters; they wanted to see how capable I was at delivering what they need before they had to pull in their lawyer and engage in a contract with me.

I like to think that every client assigns us a score.

This score is composed of a number of different factors (how experienced is she? what’s her portfolio like? does she have any brand-name clients? does she have any references? is she convincing me that she’ll actually be able to help me get more sales / generate more leads / whatever? does she really know what I truly need?), and these factors place us somewhere between super risky and a solid choice. The riskier we are, the less likely they are to hire us or pay us what we want to get paid.

And if they can get us to do something for free and we do a good job, our score will go up — which is a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s time we won’t get back, and it decreases our worth. If we’ll do a few days of free work, then we’ll probably be willing to negotiate our rates. And if we don’t really care what we’re getting paid, maybe we won’t care that much about getting paid on time. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.

So despite their best intentions and their sincerity in really wanting to give you work in the future, more than often these arrangements backfire on us. Our work doesn’t end up getting used by the client, or because it’s free (which means, not very valuable), it’s liable to be ripped apart and mangled. And good luck on being regarded as a professional should they decide to come back for all that promised paid work in the future.

Occasionally, you come across people who end up working on massive projects with huge budgets after a stint of doing some pro bono work. But for everyone who’s had that level of success, there are plenty of others who have wasted their time on dud clients and projects that went nowhere.

But I wouldn’t write off free work entirely. It can work to your advantage — but only when the work you do is both evergreen and delivered at scale. Let’s look at I mean by this.

When it makes sense to give stuff away for free

If you agree to do a free, small project for someone or do a video teardown of a company’s website in the hope of winning their business, three issues come to mind:

  1. You’re never going to get back the time you spend doing this. Ever.
  2. The work you end up doing is between you and the recipient, and probably no one else.
  3. The work you do won’t continue to build your brand and help sell you over time. It’s not evergreen.

And while doing these freebie projects will probably improve your risk score, it’s a dubious time-sink. However, there are ways to achieve that same end (increasing your credibility). Here are a few examples:

1. Teaching others about your “secret sauce”

I’m a huge fan of marketing through education. Not only is a great way to get new people to learn about you and what you do, but it can do a lot of the convincing that usually accompanies early sales calls with prospective clients. Remember: clients score you based on how capable, trustworthy, and amiable you are. You can prove those qualities by teaching people about the kind of work you do, and ideally how this work intersects with them and their business.

Seminar

In order to pull in the six-figures a month of project work I needed to keep my agency in business we hosted a number of business seminars where we taught people the ins-and-outs of what we did. Not everyone who attended was qualified to be a client of ours, but we didn’t care. We knew that we were able to prove our value to 30+ people at once. Instead of 30 hours of one-on-one sales meetings, where the underlying intent is to prove that you’re legit, you can instead talk for one hour and influence 30 people at once.

And you know what? I’ve closed $100k+ deals in 15 minutes because the persuasive part of sales had already been accomplished through seminars and the like. All I had to do was iron out the details of the engagement!

2. Create content that sells you while you sleep

Seminars are highly effective because they’re live, interactive, and have low bounce rates (it’s much easier to click the back button on a website than it is to get up from your chair and walk out on a live event). But you’re still required to show up. Evergreen content can achieve the same ends, and often at a scale that live seminars and webinars can’t achieve.

A lot of freelancers I talk to know that content marketing can work (even if it takes awhile to see any sort of direct payoff), but many of us have websites that haven’t been updated in months, or even years, and don’t do that great of a job showcasing how they solve problems and what they know. Often, the struggle is figuring out what to write or produce content on.

Here’s an action item that I’d recommend if you can’t figure out what to blog about…

We’re always either selling ourselves to future clients or working on projects for current clients. And in doing this, we’re learning and teaching a lot — albeit individually. We’re helping our clients understand the value of, say, test-driven development. Or why it’s best to start a piece of copy off with a compelling story. Or how design and copy relate to each other.

These discussions are also private between you and your clients but make for perfect blog fodder. The mental exercise of translating these conversions as new content allows you to become better acquainted with your own thought processes and opinions, and they’re also able to then live on your website and work continuously on your behalf. When I blog, almost everything I write about comes directly from experiences and discussions I’ve had with readers and clients. If you’re a freelancer and you have clients, you have everything you need to create.

3. Public teardowns of companies you’d like to work with

I know some freelancers who find businesses with crappy websites or poorly built applications, and who take the time to either write up a report or produce a video teardown that details exactly what they would do differently (and include that, yes, they’re available for hire to make these changes).

Unfortunately, these discussions happen over private email exchanges or Skype calls. If the client doesn’t bite, the effort spent producing these reports and videos is in vain. With my startup, Planscope, I’ve been on the receiving end of these sort of propositions. And while the intent is great and I really respect those who have taken the time to give me advice, the amount of time invested rarely matches the payoff.

User Onboard

One approach that I really like is to do public teardowns or public writeups, ideally of companies you’d like to work with. Nick Hance, who runs the Startup Teardown website, reviewed Planscope a year or so ago — but unlike the others who have done the same, he made it public. And others, like Samuel Hulick and Nathan Barry, have done it too.

While it’s unlikely that every website, application, sales letter, or whatever you review will end up getting the target company to hire you, it’s a fantastic way to build up a following of people who care about the kind of stuff you publicly teardown. (I also know that the gentlemen I listed above have won contracts because they’ve publicly demonstrated their capacity and thought process).

4. Small non-profits that legitimately can’t afford you

Let me preface this section by saying that I don’t lump new venture startups into this category. I don’t think you should ever work for equity.

Many non-profits have plenty of money and can easily budget for somebody like you, but small non-profits and mom and pop businesses sometimes legitimately can’t afford you.

I’m not a huge fan of doing any form of free work, as you can gauge from this article’s introduction, but if you do end up doing free work, make sure it’s for organizations that really can’t afford you. And instead of letting them be the boss, take the upper hand. Tell them that you’ll conditionally do a little free work for them, but make it clear that you have expectations about how your work will be used (e.g. it must be used, it can’t be shelved).

Additionally, require them to participate in a comprehensive case study at the end of your engagement. You want the work you did for them to be public knowledge, and an example of how you’re able to take a problem and solve it. You’re going to want to capture the problem this business faced (hopefully, this is the problem that kept them from affording you in the first place), and write a detailed explanation of how you systematically dug into the business problems, figured out the solution that they needed, and went about implementing that solution. And once you have results, you’re going to want to showcase how your work affected their bottom lines — whether in hard numbers or percent differences. Don’t just settle for a “site designed by X” item in the footer.

Your time is limited. Once you use it, it’s gone. Be comfortable with saying no, and sticking to your guns. You’re a professional, you don’t deliver one-off value for free. However, think about ways that you can affect, influence, and condition people at scale, and try to make sure that the product of this work will sell on your behalf for years to come.

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