Freelancers are no strangers to working for free. Writing on specs, creating mockup portfolio samples, doing mock tests to “audition” for jobs, not to mention when a job posting offers the opportunity for exposure and “lots of coffee!”.
At first glance, it sounds exploitative, but if you ask someone who’s been at this for a while, they’ll probably say they’ve done unpaid work at least once for some reason. So, when, and if so, should you say yes to unpaid work? When should you respectfully decline?
Even for seasoned professionals, it all depends on the context. But before I break down the questionable gray areas, let’s get the main no-nos out of the way.
When do you say ‘no’
Scenario 1: When the customer can clearly pay you, but just doesn’t want to.
In general, people want to keep their money. In the working world, that means companies are stingy even if they have the means to pay, a phenomenon that makes sense technically, but still isn’t appreciated when you have bills to pay.
Before partnering (and entering into an agreement), browse the company on sites like Glassdoor on Angel.co to get an idea of how they compensate for specific roles. Read their career and culture page to see what perks they boast (free beer on tap = they probably have cash), and if you’re really thorough, check out their financial reports and look into their funding round history. All that information can tell you if they’re just trying to take advantage of you.
Scenario #2: If they promise you the world… eventually.
All businesses have to start somewhere, but some will stall and burn harder than others. If a company says it can’t pay up front but will definitely be profitable in the future and will of course pay you all the money when that day comes, be alert. It’s one thing to join forces with a company or organization whose mission and product you believe in and help them because you genuinely care about their success. It’s another thing to be provoked by the prospect of extreme wealth when your gut tells you to run the other way because the founder’s plan isn’t right.
All of this ties in with the importance of having a contract in place before you start working with a new customer. Before investing your precious time in the project, draw clear lines in the sand in terms of payment amount, delivery method and window. This is one of the easiest and most overlooked ways for freelancers to protect themselves.
Scenario #3: When you can’t afford to work for free.
This one is pretty obvious, but if you need money right away, don’t work for free. Unfortunately, that can mean passing on opportunities that require you to forgo something on spec in favor of another gig or job that can guarantee at least some cash. Or it could mean working overtime so you can accomplish both.
Working for equity on an exciting new venture or taking on pro-bono projects are opportunities that freelancers can and should explore while completing their clientele with partners who motivate and inspire them. That said, being a freelancer means being the CEO and COO and CFO of your company, among other things. If you think of your career as a business, money in and out, it should be clear whether non-monetary opportunities can fit into your mix, or whether you need to focus on earnings to keep the lights on.
When should you consider working for free?
While money is the end goal for most of us, there are instances when working for free can be worth it. When vetting non-monetary opportunities, consider the value of the partnership beyond the bottom line. Are you gaining an interesting, perhaps portfolio-enhancing experience? Are you using a new network that can be fruitful for new business? Are you dedicating your time to a cause you care about? These are all factors to take into account.
Scenario 1: When you want to fill up your portfolio.
In creative areas, opportunity creates more opportunity, and getting that first gig can be tricky, especially if you don’t have previous work to showcase your skills. Telling someone you know how to do something isn’t as effective as showing them to be, so building your portfolio of innovative, high-quality work will eventually work to your advantage.
While you can create samples without an actual client – writing press releases for imaginary products, designing logos for non-existent companies, hosting a headshot photo shoot with friends and family – with past clients to vouch for you, hiring you is less of a hassle. gamble and build on your credibility. Our advice: Consider unpaid work if and only if you think it could bring you more work later on. In that case, the time investment yields a tangible return that you can justify. If it’s just work, pass it on and move on.
Scenario #2: If you are still learning.
If you are an amaetur or a total novice, you will need more practice before you can start charging customers in good faith. “I wrote for free for a while so I could learn how to write, interview and cite sources, and work with editors,” says writer Olga Mecking, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, New York Magazine, among other notable publications. “I’d rather be paid for my work, but I can tell you that my writing was in no way ready to be published for money at the time.”
The same goes for anything else that requires well-developed skills. Knowing a little how to code isn’t like breaking out a new app that’s glitch-free without reading pages of tutorials first and watching YouTube video after YouTube video. If you’re considering a career change and want to get your feet wet, our advice is to take on some smaller, more manageable projects so you can gain experience without sacrificing too much of your time.
Scenario #3: If it’s the only way to get in.
Again. ugh. But if a client doesn’t know you, sometimes they demand that you work on specs – AKA does some of the work first and then see if they’re tired of using it and paying you – before they give you an advance. While understandable, this practice certainly doesn’t work to the freelancer’s advantage.
If you find yourself in such a scenario, it is best to work with the hiring manager to come to a fair compromise. Explain to him or her that you understand their reluctance to hire people without a sample, but communicate clearly the importance of managing your initial time investment. Giving the hiring manager hard numbers on hours and effort can help them arrive at a more reasonable request. Rather than a full description, it may be a brief overview. Instead of an entire ad campaign, it might be a mood board and a single logo treatment.
If they don’t budge, as a last resort, consider whether the spec work could possibly be sold elsewhere if the deal doesn’t go through. This is especially true for freelance writers, who are often expected to produce a whole chunk of content before selling it to a publication. “I’d write on spec for a prestigious organization with the understanding that they might not buy it, but they might,” says author Shana Westlake. “My feeling is that any idea that” [they] could almost certainly be sold elsewhere.”
Scenario #4: If it’s for a good cause you believe in.
There are a number of companies and organizations that legitimately do not have the budget to pay someone who is not on their core team. This is the case with many non-profit organizations and indie companies. If you have the luxury of being able to donate your time and your talent to help a group of people (or a single person) and you believe in what they do, contribute anyway.
Volunteering with your talents is one of the greatest benefits of being an independent worker because it allows you to apply your skills to the goals you care about most. Be sure to carefully track how many hours you plan to “donate” and confirm that you can afford whatever you give.
These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course, and they may not fit your way of life. The most important thing is to know how much you are worth and then choose your projects with a smart business mindset. Never underestimate yourself, but if you think an unpaid opportunity could lead to something bigger and better, weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether or not to turn it down.