Should freelancers work for free?

When you run your own business, you’ll often come across customers asking for a discount. But it’s becoming increasingly common for freelancers and entrepreneurs to be asked to take on jobs for free.

Unpaid freelance work is a pretty divisive issue; while some entrepreneurs are happy to give out the occasional freebie under the right circumstances, others find it quite annoying (and possibly offensive) to be asked to do work that they won’t get paid for.

Freelancer counting money

There’s plenty of reasons freelancers choose to take on work for free: to gain experience, to forge relationships, to build a portfolio, or to get ‘exposure’. But there’s also just as many reasons why other freelancers won’t. So if you’re considering taking on unpaid freelance work, here’s some questions you can ask yourself to weigh up whether working for free is worth it.

Is unpaid freelance work good experience?

One of the main arguments for unpaid freelance work is that it can be a good learning experience. Agreeing to work for free could give you the chance to get some experience in a new area or hone specific skills. For example, if you’re a freelance makeup artist who gets asked to do work for free, this could be a good opportunity to test out new products or to practice a different technique (just make sure that your client fully understands what to expect).

Unpaid freelance work could also be a good opportunity for anyone that’s considering turning a hobby into a business venture: taking on a job for free can give you an idea of what it would be like to work for a client and help you identify any problems with your business plan.

But even if you’re not that experienced, at some point you should be compensated for your time, skills, and effort. If someone is asking you to do a job for them, its because they’ve seen – and are impressed by – your work. Don’t let prospective clients take advantage just because you’re new. Remember, we all have to start somewhere.

Can I get exposure by working for free?

Freelancers and entrepreneurs who get offered unpaid freelance work will often hear that they’ll be paid in ‘exposure’. But what does this actually mean?

When asking you to take on a job for free, clients might offer to share your work on social media or to promote your business through their website. In theory, this should work as a kind of marketing, helping you grow your business network, reach potential new clients, and therefore make money further down the line. But in practice, the value of ‘exposure’ is hard to measure.

Two small business owners shaking hands while looking at a business plan

Firstly, what can the client offer you that you can’t do yourself? If they have a lot of followers or particularly high website traffic, your work could be seen by a lot of people. If not, promotion through their website or social media channels is unlikely to have much of an impact.

Secondly, good exposure depends not just on the quantity of followers, but also on the quality. Define your target audience and compare this to your prospective client’s. Will their social media followers or website visitors become potential customers? Unless you both have similar audiences, ‘exposure’ probably won’t translate to sales – even if your client has a huge social media following or a significant amount of traffic.

Will unpaid freelance work lead to paid jobs in the future?

Many requests for unpaid work start off with the promise “we’ll pay you more next time”. But if a client is unwilling to pay the first time, will this change in the future? Think about whether working for free would set an unwanted precedent. Will your client expect you to work for them again for free? Will other potential customers hear about it and expect the same deal?

There’s also no guarantee that the client will need work again in the future. For example, if you’re a photographer who takes free wedding photos on the basis of paid work in the future, think about whether the client will actually need a wedding photographer any time soon...

Is ‘free’ work actually free?

Freelancers often feel obliged to do unpaid work for friends or to offer their time to clients who couldn’t afford it otherwise, but, ultimately, work that’s free for a client is never free for you.

All businesses incur costs, and the more work you take on, the higher these costs will be. It’s therefore essential that any unpaid work you accept doesn’t leave you out of pocket and that you can still cover your immediate expenses (rent, bills, materials, etc.).

A small business owner looking at invoices

Even if you don’t need any additional materials or supplies to get the job done, your time is still a valuable commodity. By doing work for free, are you selling yourself short or undervaluing your talents? Plus, any jobs you do for free will take up time that could be spent on freelance jobs that actually pay.

For customers who get work for free, the benefits are pretty obvious. But for freelancers, there’s no guarantee that unpaid jobs will pay off. Many freelancers and entrepreneurs start their business out of a love of their work, but, to stay running, a business needs to be financially feasible.

When deciding whether to take on unpaid freelance work, it’s therefore important that your decision is informed and guided by the impact on your business, rather than a feeling of obligation. Agree to the odd unpaid job if you think it adds genuine value to your business, but don't feel guilty for saying no!

Written by Kate Kate , 5 February 2019