The Working For Free Myth

By October 12, 2012Editorial
working for freeWorking for free can often be seen as a good way to raise your profile and get some publicity, especially If you’re just starting out with a new venture.  Before you  jump and grab that ‘opportunity’ for exposure, here are a few things to consider.

Same old trap

There seems to be a belief that part of taking the first steps in working for yourself means that you’ll have to spend some time working for free in order to get your name about.  I too went through this phase and to an extent it had its benefits, but there comes a point where you need to be able to draw the line and say “that’s the last time that I’m working for free”.

Promises, promises

I have lost count of the number of times in the past when I’ve been asked to help someone out with a particular task in return for no money or any kind of payment whatsoever.  I’m not talking about favours we might do for family and friends, I’m talking about people in business, selling a service or product who say that they haven’t got any budget for the x, y  or z they want me to do.  What they can do though is give me a credit in their brochure or website and promise me that once things pick up, there will be some paid work in the offering.

Sadly, my experience has been that all which tends to materialise down the line is requests for more freebies.  Often, you can get asked to work for free if a client doesn’t understand the work involved in what you’re doing.  They can’t do the work themselves, so they have no comprehension of the time, effort or skill needed to get something done.  It’s not that they’re trying to insult you, they just don’t know the ins and outs of the matter.

It won’t be a great advert

When a client dangles the carrot of exposure in front of you in lieu of payment, they often hope that the prospect of having your work seen by people will be motivation enough for you to consider working for free.  Before you agree, ask yourself how many people will really see your work, or even know that you were responsible, and how many of them might want to employ you themselves anyway.  If you’ve been offered the chance to have your work seen by millions of people, it may well be worth it and a good deal, but more often than not, the fantastic ‘opportunity’ will not be this awesome.

Another reason that working for free can be detrimental is the respect element.  When you work for little or nothing, you send out the message that your work isn’t valuable.  If you don’t value your own time and effort and the results you produce, how do you expect anyone else to?  Chances are that if the paid work your client talks about does come along, it may go to someone else.  They might worry that if you were any good, you wouldn’t be working for free.

Ways to politely decline working for free

Many times, people won’t realise what you charge for your services.  They either assume that you’ll be too expensive and they can’t afford you, or they think that it can’t cost that much and therefore you won’t be losing a great deal.  I find that putting what they’ve just asked me into money can make them think a little deeper.  Something like “I usually charge £x for that sort of thing and you’re basically asking me to give you that money, which unfortunately is not something I’m able to do”

You can also try explaining all the work involved including all the research, rehearsal, brainstorming or whatever else you need to do to complete the project.  If it would cost you money in terms of materials or travel to complete the task, you can mention this too.  No doubt you will have to cut corners to get things done for free, which will ultimately lower the quality of your work and as such, both your reputations.

Above all, try to explain that somewhere along the line either quality, standards, speed or effort will be sacrificed by working for free and therefore the end result will likely be below the standard of service you’d wish to provide.

When it’s OK to offer a freebie

As mentioned earlier, if you’re offered a real opportunity to perform or have your work seen by large numbers of people, then you may feel that you’re making  an investment in your future.  Similarly, if you need experience in a certain field and your work really isn’t good enough to charge for, then that too is OK (provided the client knows that you’re using them as a guinea pig).

Of course there is the obvious exception of charity work as well.  Using your skills to help those less fortunate or to assist charities who don’t have the budget to spend can be a rewarding experience.  If you are going to be working for free, at least you can feel good about it too.