EP. 001

Should freelancers ever work for free?

Especially when you’re getting started with freelancing, there are opportunities to work for free (or in exchange for “exposure”). Paul and Kaleigh discuss the question and share their own experiences/thoughts on the topic.

This podcast is sponsored by our friends at Freshbooks, they make accounting easy for freelancers.

FreshBooks is offering a 30 day, unrestricted free trial to our listeners. Sign up today and check out cloud-accounting software (for freelancers who aren’t accounting peeps).



Paul Jarvis: Hello there, beautiful listeners, I feel like I say that for other podcasts, I feel like I’m just going to bring that into this podcast as well. Today we are going to talk about a pretty easy topic, I think, which is working for … I’m just joking there. Should you work for free? Do you have some thoughts on this Kaleigh?

Kaleigh Moore: My first thought is no. It’s just a big no. Let’s just start there, okay?

Paul Jarvis: The end of the episode, thanks for listening.

Kaleigh Moore: That’s all, folks, you can go home now. No, I think that the answer is no, and I think, let me back up a little bit, I think that there are some cases where sometimes doing things for different reasons make sense, and sometimes that’s working for free, but I think that there has to be an end goal tied to it. It’s kind of a conditional no, I guess.

Paul Jarvis: Okay, have you ever worked for free, excluding any charity work, or like websites for your mom or your friends or something like that? Have you ever done work for free for a client?

Kaleigh Moore: I have, but it always started with an original project that I was being paid for. Usually it came as an add-on, if the client said something like “Hey, can you throw in an extra round of edits for free?” And if we’re both learning, and we’re both getting used to the writing process, then sometimes I do it. I’m a freelance writer, so, in that situation I might say something like, “Sure, I’ll do it this time, I’ll include it on the invoice as a zero, just zeroed out, but for the next time I’m going to have to charge X rate.” That’s kind of how it’s happened to me in the past.

Paul Jarvis: I want to kind of deconstruct that a little bit because I think the key thing that you said there, and I’ve done this exact same thing, is that you still invoice the client. Did you put what it would have cost otherwise and then like zeroed it out on the invoice? Because I think that’s really important.

Kaleigh Moore: I did, because I wanted them to see so they knew what to expect next time. That was my thinking behind it. I’ve never had a client pushback from that, and the next time they knew what to expect when that showed up on the invoice. In my experience it’s worked well, but I think that there are some situations where that could be pretty sticky.

Paul Jarvis: I think a lot of it is it … because I’ve done the same thing, and I’ve like … If it’s a project that’s going really well for every other reason, and the client it’s just like, “Hey, I just need this one little extra thing.” Then I’ll be like “Yeah, this would typically cost X, but let’s just get this done, I’ll just do it for free this time, and then we can kind of move forward with the project.” It’s still a line item on the invoice. Even when I do work for charities like web work kind of thing, I don’t invoice a charity if I’m like sitting at a booth somewhere, that would be silly. If I’m doing a website, one of my favorite charities is a Llama Sanctuary in Seabeck, Washington. I’ve done the website for many, many years, and still give them invoices every year for the work, then I just kind of zero it out. The amount that they pay is zero, but they know that “Okay, this website costs this amount of money, or these updates cost this amount of money, or this hosting cost this amount of money.”

Because then I think they see value. Because I don’t think that people value things if they get them for free.

Kaleigh Moore: I feel the same way. That makes me think of a question, then. Have you ever had a client then that came to you and wanted to kind of abuse that kindness? Where maybe you did it for free one time and so the next time they were like, “Hey, you did this for free last time, why won’t you do it again this time?”

Paul Jarvis: No. But I could definitely see how that could happen. But I think because I am pretty sticky and very clear with why I’m doing something, especially if it’s a little free thing, that it’s always like, “This time it’s free, and it should’ve cost this amount of money.” How about you?

Kaleigh Moore: I’ve had a couple projects where there was a little bit of pushback, that was early, when I started freelancing. And I found that those clients weren’t really valuing the work that I did anyways. They weren’t my ideal dream clients, they were kind of the people who were paying me to do something, and I was just another freelancer to them. They didn’t really see the value in what I was offering. I cut ties with those types of clients a long time ago, and I think that that made a big difference. Now I don’t run into that, but I had in the past, and it always just made me feel kind of taken advantage of, and it didn’t feel good, I felt like the work that I was doing just wasn’t worth what I was asking for, and that’s just a bad place to be with your business.

Paul Jarvis: Definitely. Has anybody ever asked you to work for free for the exposure?

Kaleigh Moore: Yes. That still happens. It always kind of surprises me when anybody ask for that, because it just seems like, “Don’t you think my time is valuable? Because it is.” But yeah, that still happens to me all the time. I almost always say no.

Paul Jarvis: That’s like my running joke on Twitter, is that if somebody ask you to work for free for the exposure, you can tell them that people die from exposure, especially in Canada, where I live, although it’s colder in the winter where you live than here.

Kaleigh Moore: Both are pretty cold.

Paul Jarvis: I think that this … I definitely know some freelancers who have worked for exposure and it just paid off. But I wish there was a scientific study or research study on the number of times when working for exposure actually paid off, because I don’t think it is very high.

Kaleigh Moore: I agree. The only time I do it now is if it’s, maybe, a past client that I worked with that I have an existing relationship with, and I know that there’s going to be some sort of mutual benefit for us. Or if it’s part of a bigger picture or a project that I’m working on down the road. But yeah, I would say 96% of the time, it’s a no.

Paul Jarvis: There you go, math.

Kaleigh Moore: Yes, 96% it’s a no, write that down, folks.

Paul Jarvis: I don’t know if this has happened to you, but I’ve had in the past, this happened I think in the first .com bubble, where clients, because I was doing basically creative director on a contract, I would go to a startup for a six month period, I would help them develop the brand identity, their website, their application stuff. A lot of them wanted to pay me in equity, like vesting, stock options, and stuff like that. At that time I was like, “This is going to be so good because if their stock doubles, or triples, then I’m going to make way more money than I’ve would have if I charged them real money for it.” Every single time the company either went under or went nowhere, or the vesting period was so ridiculously far in the future that I don’t even know … Well, I do know, all the companies don’t exist anymore.

I think that that’s the same, but I think that where I would definitely say that it might be worth it, is if somebody comes to you with a project that you have ownership in, or you could potentially have ownership in. Like if a developer comes to a designer and says, “Hey, I have this idea for a product,” and you fully agree with it, you think that is a great idea, you want to work on it, then obviously you’re going to work for free on it, because you’re a partner on the project. Which I think it’s different than a client coming to you and saying like, “Hey, I’ll give you 100 shares.” This is so made up in the ether like, “I’ll give you 100 shares or 1,000 shares.” I think that there’s definitely a big difference there.

Kaleigh Moore: I think so too. As a freelance writer, that happens a lot. Sites with big names, or fairly big names will come to writers and say, “Well, you can get byline here and this will be really good for your career, so just do it for free, okay?” And it’s just almost always not a good idea. There are some situations where maybe that’s part of your strategy for growing your authority or I don’t know, though, in my experience, those just never pan out the way you think they’re going to, and it’s always better to have somebody paying you. Even if it’s not a lot of money, having them make the investment in the work that you’re doing increases value for them. They see more value in the product that you deliver, and your services, and it just makes the relationship better on both sides of the equation.

Paul Jarvis: Exactly. I don’t think of all the bylines that I’ve got for the biggest business publications on the internet, it hasn’t ever amounted to anything in terms of like, I didn’t get a massive spike in traffic or a massive number of emails subscribers. The one thing that it did do is let me put their logo on my website to build authority.

For credibility, for a lot of those places, I’ll do like one article and that’s it. Just so like if I really want that logo on my website. I really wanted Fast Company on my website at the time, because I was doing a bunch of stuff that really related to their audience, so it was, “If I can get that credibility, then that makes a lot of sense.” When they asked for more articles, I was like, “This is going to cost you money now.” All of those things seem like they’re amazing, but they don’t really amount to much. Like if I write an article that goes well with my mailing list, that nets me far more awesome things than writing an article for a big business publication.

Kaleigh Moore: I feel the same way. That’s been exactly my experience too. It’s great for authority, but a lot of those big business publications want you to commit to a regular writing schedule, and that can become a very large commitment very very quickly. You have to really be careful. I think a lot of people think getting their name in those publications is going to just totally change their business, and they’re going to have “made it”, if they can get published there. It’s great for, like you said, having a logo on your website, but as far as new clients or projects, I don’t think that it’s an immediate conversion from point A to B. It doesn’t work that way.

Paul Jarvis: Every time I’ve got a byline in a major publication, nothing in my business changes the next day. I still wake up, I still have to clean the rat cage, nothing changes (rats are so hyper specific to my life) but I’m sure there’s applicable things for other people.

Let’s talk about now, the type of work that you, and it doesn’t necessarily even have to be client work, but they type of work past to doing authority building bylines, the type of work that you would do for free, or that you do do for free. That’s important to business in some way.

Kaleigh Moore: The things I do for free are kind of just related to teaching what I know. I write on my blog, I have my newsletter, those aren’t directly tied to income, I just do them because I like to help teach other people what I know, because I feel like there’s no real guidebook on freelancing a lot of the time. This is something you can’t learn in school and I want to do what I can to teach what I know to other people.

Paul Jarvis: I think that’s part of the reason why we teach Creative Class, right? Is because that’s the business of freelancing, that’s one of the main things that I’ve heard from people is that I don’t know why this isn’t taught at school. On one hand I’m like, “It really should be.” But on the other hand I’m like, “This really benefits having something like Creative Class that we can put out there into the world.”

I think for me, I definitely agree with you, the teaching others and reaching people through my website and my mailing list. My mailing list doesn’t specifically generate any income. It costs me, with the price of MailChimp, with the cost of my copy editors, it costs me thousands of thousands of dollars a year to do, but it gives that … I get to show up in the inbox of my audience every single week, and when I do have something to sell, then, they’re the ones who buy. My mailing list generates the bulk of my income right now.

Even when I was freelancer, it worked exactly the same way. I would send an email to everybody on my mailing list, it was mostly potential clients that I would like them know “Okay, these are the websites that I’ve just launched, this is what my time is like, I have time for two projects in a month and a half time and I only book projects when I’ve talked to you on the phone, when there’s a contract, and when there’s a down payment. If you want that time, let’s talk.” Every month, or every couple weeks, I was saying like, “Okay, this is my schedule, this is the scarcity.” Because I do literally only have this much work. Putting out something like a free mailing list makes a ton of sense.

Kaleigh Moore: It does.

Paul Jarvis: The final thing that I think I want to talk to you about is what about free work when you’re starting out? When you have no clients, when you’re just starting your freelance business, what do you think of that? What kind of things do you think could work for somebody who’s just beginning their freelance journey?

Kaleigh Moore: I think if you can work on things like blog posts, being a guest on different podcasts, just kind of getting your name out there, so people can come to know who you are and what you do. I think that those are smart things to do. I don’t think you have to do it on a massive scale, I don’t think you have to crank things out every single day, or be on X number of podcasts per week. But I think if that’s part of your strategy when you’re first getting started, that’s smart, because it’s a way for you to kind of build a relationship with different types of audiences. Because you can only tweet your own stuff, or share your own blog posts and the things that you’ve written and the things that you’ve recorded so many times. When you can let other people be that megaphone for you through other platforms and through guest opportunities, I think that that’s really smart.

Paul Jarvis: I completely agree with that. The thing that I would add to that, especially for people who are designers or developers, is that a really good way to build your portfolio, is to show the work that you’ve done for yourself. Things like public teardowns of websites, redesigning popular websites, get a ton of traction on Dribbble or Behance, or even side projects that you do. If you’re a designer or a developer, then if you designed a product of your own, or if you developed some software of your own, then that is 100% a great piece for your portfolio, and that can, if you’re looking to get clients in a specific industry, if you’ve made a product for that industry, then that builds 2X cred, I think.

Kaleigh Moore: I totally agree.

Paul Jarvis: I think that that’s a really good thing that you can do in terms of working for free that isn’t necessarily taking on a lot. I guess the final thing I would say is that if you care about a charity, then doing charitable work for free that uses your core skillset can be definitely a really good thing that can help.

Kaleigh Moore: I feel that way, too, especially if you don’t have the budget maybe to donate money, or you’re kind of strapped for time. Donating your skills is a great way to still support the causes that you care about.

Paul Jarvis: Totally. So, Kaleigh, I think we can end this episode here. I feel good about this.

Kaleigh Moore: I do too. That feels good. This is an important topic, this is something I think a lot of people struggle with, I’m glad that we discussed it.

Enjoy this podcast? Check out our course that teaches you the business of freelancing, the Creative Class.


Posted in Creative Class, the freelancer podcast   ·   See more articles


Want to know when new articles are published?