Throughout your freelancing career, you might ask yourself an important philosophical question: should I ever work for free?
While I rarely advocate for it, I believe there are times when it’s acceptable to work for free. In fact, my first several freelance projects were free and I’ve done other free projects since then.
I didn’t get paid for the first marketing website I created in 2009, but I gained invaluable experience and my first portfolio piece. I remember being thrilled just to have a real client! I’ve also done a few projects along the way for exposure or equity.
In 2021, I designed and built a custom marketing website for a home renovation company to get a significant discount on my basement renovation project. As you read this article, it’s important to remember this concept:
Working for free is different than working for nothing. Money isn’t the only form of value.
That said, you should limit how often you work for free. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the trap of never getting paid. It will also prevent you from experiencing critical parts of the project lifecycle such as:
writing proposals and contracts
If you don’t gain experience in these areas, you’ll struggle to develop as a business-minded professional, which will make it difficult to succeed as a freelancer.
When you decide to work for free, it should be thoughtful and strategic — and you should still get something of value. It should NOT be because a client pressured you into working for free in exchange for “exposure”, “experience”, a “portfolio piece”, or “more paid work later on”.
Those things aren’t necessarily bad, but you have to want them, not reluctantly accept them.
Establish a Framework
When I decide to work for free, I still treat the engagement as a paid project. I still write a proposal and send an invoice. As usual, the proposal outlines the scope of work, timeline, and cost. The invoice always shows the total cost of the project, but I discount it 100%. That way there’s a record of what the project was worth.
This is the perfect way to communicate the value of a project to clients, friends, or family without an awkward conversation. It will also help you get more comfortable presenting your pricing without the risk of rejection.
Know what you want, then ask for it
I also make it clear what, if anything, I’m expecting in return. It’s imperative that you clearly communicate exactly what you want. Sometimes you might not want anything when working for friends or family. If that’s the case, make it clear.
Sometimes you might want referrals. Don’t be vague. Ask for 3 personal introductions on LinkedIn within 30 days of completing the work. Put it in writing.
Other times, you might be willing to do the work in exchange for a testimonial and promotion on social media. Be specific. Ask for a well-written testimonial that’s a minimum of 6 sentences, and 2 weeks or 10 social posts with links to your website.
In my case, I wanted a discount on my basement renovations in exchange for launching a new marketing website for the construction company I hired to do the work. I wrote a proposal and contract as I normally would, but rather than getting paid, the total cost was applied as a discount to the renovation project.
Remember, when you work for free, you have A LOT more leverage and negotiating power than when you get paid. It’s perfectly reasonable to make specific requests when you’re not getting paid, so take advantage of the opportunity!
When you work for free, you’re investing time and effort that you’ll never get back. You and your client should understand the value of that time and effort, even if you offer it for free. If you don’t get anything of value in return, it was just a favor.
So when is it ok to work for free?
When you need experience
I think it’s reasonable to do your first few freelance projects for the experience, to build your portfolio, or to get testimonials. These are all extremely valuable assets to any new business. If you’re starting from scratch, this can be a great strategy to establish a reputation and acquire social proof (testimonials) that you’re skilled at your craft.
No client wants to be the first to hire someone, so working for free can be enticing to the right client. Just make sure it’s done on your terms, if possible.
When you need exposure
There may be times in your freelancing career when you need exposure. As long the definition of “exposure” is clearly defined, you can use your best judgment to determine if it’s worth trading your time for. Remember, be specific! “Exposure” is only valuable if it results in more leads and more paid work in a tangible way.
When you work for family or friends
In some cases, it’s ok to do free work for family or friends. But you’re not obligated to do free work because they’re family and friends. The most important thing is that you’re doing it because you want to, not because they want you to.
It’s one thing to support the people you care about, but it’s another to let them take advantage of you. Use your judgment and develop discernment. A good litmus test is whether you’re happy to do the work free or not.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to work for free, own it. Be upfront and tell the client you’re not going to charge them because [insert reasons], but that you’ll work hard to deliver a great outcome for them in exchange for [define what you want]. This is a MUCH better strategy than hiding the reasons you might be working for free.
When should you avoid working for free?
Before you do free work, keep in mind that people rarely value what they don’t pay for. So this may not be the right mechanism to attract clients. In fact, my experience has been that the best clients are willing to pay extraordinary prices while the most difficult clients tend to request discounts or free work.
When you lack confidence
You should never work for free just because you aren’t confident enough to charge a fee. Many freelancers struggle with confidence and as a result, charge less than they’re worth or charge nothing at all.
Never work for free just because you’re afraid to charge a fee.
In fact, if you’re struggling with confidence, take a moment to set yourself free:
You’re allowed to charge for your first project
You’re allowed to charge your family and friends
You’re allowed to charge for something you’ve never done before
You should also never let a client, friend, or family member pressure or guilt you into working for free. This is a disaster waiting to happen. If you’re not comfortable working for free, don’t do it. Some clients who have far more business and sales experience than you are particularly good at this technique.
Pro Tip: Don’t work with people who start a professional relationship by disrespecting you, your time, and your value.
Instead, be creative and find flexibility in other areas. For example, lower your fees or offer a substantial discount. You can also offer a more flexible payment schedule. There are endless ways to be flexible in your negotiations, so be creative.
When you’re working for equity
It’s extremely common for startup companies to entice freelancers with the promise of equity. Equity is when you receive a percentage of ownership in the company in exchange for your work. Sometimes this will be mixed with payment, but usually not.
In other words, if you work for free, they’ll give you a small percentage of ownership in the company. Someday, if they experience a liquidity event (like an acquisition or IPO), you could be rich! Quick math proves that just 0.5% of $20M is still $100,000.
The problem is that you’ll never see that money unless another company buys them out or they take the company public, neither of which you have any control over.
Pro Tip: The more equity they’re willing to give you, the less likely it is they’ll be successful or that you’ll ever get paid.
They might also draw you in by telling you about:
How fast they’re growing
The big brands they partner with
How they recently raised millions of venture capital
How their founder previously worked at a popular company
What round of funding they’re in
How irresistible your specific role will be
How you can get in on the “ground floor” and shape the company
99% of the time, these offers are total garbage.
If they’re not doing well enough as a company to pay you, then they’re not stable enough to work with either. If you’re getting leads like this, politely inform them that you require cash payment.
There are extremely rare instances where working for partial equity might make sense, but proceed with caution.
Whenever you’re deciding to work for free or charge a fee, ask yourself if you’ll be happy doing this work in exchange for whatever you’re receiving. If not, it’s ok to decline the work. If so, make sure you’re getting something valuable out of it.
This will take practice and you’ll develop your instincts and discernment over time, but hopefully, this article helped shed some light on when and how to work for free without letting anyone take advantage of you.
Last updated on May 27th, 2022
About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teaches thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers — The Freelance Institute.