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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.

  • This is solid gold. Great artice. Your point about Public Teardowns is great. I’ve used them before (and am using them for a new project) to demonstrate interest and expertise.

    After all, what’s the difference between

    – A paid project that the client agreed you could share publicly
    – A public teardown you did to demonstrate expertise

    To a potential client? I say there’s no difference. And doing a few public teardowns is a great way to refine your Standard Operating Procedure for fulfillment.

    • Thanks Kai! And sorry about missing our call today, sick kid 🙁 I’ll email you re: rescheduling.

      That’s exactly it. There’s no difference – from the perspective of the prospective client – between the two. Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by “a few public teardowns is a great way to refine your SOP for fulfillment”? I think I know what you mean, but I think hearing your take here would be a great addition to the conversation.

      • > Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by “a few public teardowns is a great way to refine your SOP for fulfillment”? I think I know what you mean, but I think hearing your take here would be a great addition to the conversation.

        Absolutely! Always happy to share.

        A bit of backstory: I’m an Outreach and SEO consultant in Oregon. In 2014, I switched from hourly billing to a Productized Consulting model. With that switch, I defined a few standard packages that I offer to my clients at fixed rates (example: a fixed rate SEO Audit for eCommerce clients).

        Now, for each productized service that I offer, I have a Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”) that I follow for fulfillment. The SOP — just a big checklist in a Google Doc — is the procedure I follow when I’m working on a project.

        When it comes to launching a new productized offering, one of my first steps is to draft up a Standard Operating Procedure. If I haven’t ever fulfilled the project before, the SOP is my best guess on the steps I need to take to complete the project.

        By producing a public teardown / work sample using this SOP, I’m able to make sure that my understanding of the steps involved are sound. It’s an opportunity to iron out any bugs. And as an additional benefit, the public teardown lets me produce a work sample that I can share with my future clients.

        At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that the work sample was created as a side product of ‘testing’ my Standard Operating Procedure, the benefits are still the same: the client is able to see a sample of my work, I’m able to practice fulfilling the project, and my procedures get refined.

        Am I explaining all of that well?

  • Agreed! The only time doing free work makes sense is when it’s in a one-to-many situation, so it helps and gets in front of a lot of people.

  • Bill K.

    Brennan, Great article with some really good information. I learned not to do free projects long ago and it’s really helped me. I hate to turn people away, but you have to keep your lights on too. BTW – I really enjoyed your book “sell yourself online – the Blueprint” It was well laid out and I’ve been referring back to it over the past month or so. Thanks!

    • Fantastic Bill, wait ’til you see the new course!

  • Alex

    Thanks for the great article! Looking forward to your upcoming course 🙂

  • I totally agree with you and – beyond consulting that goes into the sales process – my advice is actually never to do free work for a client who you want to pay you. Here’s why.

    The psychology of doing business with someone is much different than free work. For one, paid work means there’s money involved and therefore a dollar value assigned to your work. Obvious, I know. But that’s a transactional relationship. If you suck, you get fired. Period. Everyone is totally clear about the relationship, how it works and what to do if something goes wrong.

    Free work is something friends do for each other. Yes, you need to be friendly and build rapport with clients, but it’s different. You’d go totally out of your way for a close friend and expect nothing in return. That’s a social relationship.

    Dan Ariely has written about this in Predictably Irrational. Social and transactional relationships are inherently different and have their own sets of norms. When you do free work, you’re moving away from transactional norms and into social norms. And more to the point…

    You have no proof that someone will ever pay you for your work when you give it away for free. That’s a huge problem because you’re in business to make money

    Rather than offering free work, 1) find a small starting place that allows your client to feel comfortable by reducing the size of the scope, and 2) gives you a big enough deliverable to demonstrate how awesome you are.

    As this was free, take it for what it’s worth 🙂

    • Yep, the difference between a user (lifetime value of $0) and a customer (ltv > $1) is *huge*. This is why a lot of marketers swear by “tripwires” – or low cost products that hook customers in, who they’re hoping will spend lots more in the future. Everything changes once someone becomes a customer.

      This is why I like selling Roadmapping sessions as a first step before attempting to sell an engagement. A low cost, low risk product that turns a lead into a client makes selling the full blown engagement *so* much easier (and likely to happen).

  • Juliette

    Thanks for this article. Makes me think of crowdsourcing websites for designers. People who participate in these simply lower the standards and respect for their profession. If you don’t value yourself, nobody else will.

    • Totally agree. I’m NOT a fan of “do some work for the slim chance that you’ll get hired” sites… not going to name any names 🙂

  • Michael N

    Great article Brennan. I think as a solopreneur it’s quite easy to shelf our value for a paycheck (or belief in a future paycheck), which ends up being a massive detriment to ourselves, business and our sanity. I’ve helped out a couple of small non-profits, but even some of those will have the money to pay you. What I’ve learnt is that the ones who want free work, or even bargain you down, are most often the same people that you will be chasing invoices for and undervaluing what you do.

    Income generation is such a tricky thing, especially when starting out, but persistence means you can get to the point where you finally tell people no, I won’t reduce my prices or do work for free and that’s a great feeling to finally appreciate and value your own worth.

    • That’s exactly right. To add insult to injury, cheap / freeloader clients can be total assholes – over demanding, unappreciative, etc. I don’t want to make a blanket statement and say that anyone who’s thrifty has those attributes, but there’s a… strong correlation 🙂

  • Dude, great article and quite timely for me. Thank you

    • Thanks for reading, RJ! Glad it was a timely read – best of luck in however you apply it!

  • Great article, Brennan. I definitely learned some lessons from it on how I could have done my free work in the past better. And while I don’t plan on ever doing free work again, it gave me some good ideas for improving my portfolio case studies in the future.

    I’ve considered putting videos either on my site or elsewhere. Public teardowns sound like a great idea to me initially. As a UX designer who also offers usability evaluations, it seems like an interesting way to demo to prospects what I am capable of doing and helping them fix.

    But can there be legal ramifications from a public teardown of a website? For example, I’ve heard others in the industry where I work ridicule the website of one well-liked company in our industry for being out of date. If I were to tear that website down in a video or an article, might that company decide to sue me for badmouthing them (and possibly put me out of business) instead of hiring me to change their site?

    I’m asking this as someone who is very familiar with think-aloud usability testing (having participated in, ordered, and moderated many of these studies over the years), but it would be nice to see some elaboration on good ways to handle this when the results are public.

    • So I’m not sure about the legal bits – I don’t know anyone who’s landed in hot water over it. Regardless, it’s important to be professional. I wouldn’t do a teardown where I rambled on about “OMG these idiotsssss”. Give concise, straight forward feedback. Offer suggestions based on your experience or that of your industry’s. I think “teardown” is a bit harsh, maybe “review” is a little more neutral?

  • Even if you know better than to do free work, this is a constant struggle, at least for me. Thanks!

  • Max Rouzier

    What if your public teardown is rather negative?

    I have an example of free work, where I helped the client-to-be by writing an ebook on copywriting instead of doing their copywriting. They had an aful team in place, and I proved my better value by showing the manager how to better manage the current team to write better.

    The ebook is now a tool I share with many clients.

    I’d like to do a more public teardown on my blog, and cite examples from the site. And how I would rewite it better. I basically would repurpose E-mails I sent back and forth to management.

    Is that professionally acceptable.

    As I type this, and think over what you wrote Brennan, I realize it isn’t rude. Howeever, I’ll still ask and see what responses I get.

    Thank you!

  • Sunil Williams

    You missed out community work.

    Being a highly paid professional is a privilege. There are communities out there that need our talent. This work can’t always be paid for but it’s very important.

    How about teaching our skills at schools that can’t afford our corporate rates? Or contributing to important and under-resourced communities?

    This stuff matters.

    • I agree it matters, it’s a charitable donation. Much like tithing at church or donating to groups that feed the poor matters. By all means, do it — and as much of it as you can!

      But the goal of this post is around the *business* of freelancing, and specifically ways that doing unbilled work can help acquire new (paying) clients.

      • Thanks for this article Brennan. Really helpful. Nevertheless, as a regular reader I feel like I need to contribute in the discussion especially because Sunil made a very important point.

        I think you have to remember that many freelancers go to freelancing not just for the money. If I want to get rich and do it faster I wont go freelance. I’ll look for a job. Many freelancers go to freelancing for the freedom and most importantly “meaning.”

        One of the reasons why I left traditional employment is the lack of meaning in the work that most corporate jobs offer and this unbridled attitude within most companies to make more and more money without thinking about the social implications of these. Today, we live in a world that is being destroyed economically, culturally, and environmentally because of over-consumerism. As consultants and business owners working in the field of commerce – the very source of all the world’s misfortunes – it would be futile to claim that our businesses should be separate from the solution. We have to be part of the solution. Always. We have to be more and more mindful with how we make a living because there’s a billion other people around the world who might be suffering from our desire to live on more money and more stuff.

        In my opinion, whether you are a business minded freelancer or not, you should be able to contribute something for the world esp. the needy using your craft for free. It doesn’t have to always be charity. You can easily incorporate socially relevant causes to your business and elevate these causes into priorities rather than just “side projects.”

        I think, doing or giving away free work is not so difficult to do in the online space. How big a loss is working for a cause for once if it makes a huge difference in the future? For example, how big a loss is giving some of our information products for free, providing services for free, and accepting one scholarship to our online courses for people from developing countries whose currencies are far more weaker thant the dollar? If I am not mistaken, Jonathan Mead and Gabrielle Bernstein do this in their programs. These are free work done within the context of a business and are “investments” in a deeper sense – not just charitable donations.

        Personally, I find the admonition to not do free work if it’s not profitable as if “work” is so thinly defined removes the meaning innately attached to my work as a freelancer. If we are in the “service” business and we claim that we really want to “help” others, shouldn’t we be ready to give that service away for free? By careful planning, we can do this without going broke.

        Poverty is real and people with money are the ones who have to be more aware of this reality and have to be actively engaged with it. If you are a big player in the online space earning more than enough and you don’t have a single social contribution, I think you really have to do a lot of soul searching.

        The problem with the world is that we separate money and business from life as if they are innately separate. This is the main reason why capitalism has grown awry. I love the book “The Last Safe Investment” because it has a holistic approach to money. Free work is still an investment whatever the context. If you did free work with the intention of having a payoff in the future or did it because it makes a difference in someone else’s life, why can’t it be part of your business model?

  • Wanderlust Marriage

    Great post as usual, Brennan! Keep up the great work…It’s certainly excellent food for thought about how people value things they pay for more than what they get for free. As a travel writer the question posed here is certainly one I’ve grappled with in the past and still occasionally do today.

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