Working for free: when and why you should do it

If you’re starting out in freelancing (or in anything really), you sometimes have to do some work at a heavily-discounted, sometimes free price. This is especially true if you’re not really established in the industry.

If you’re coming from an agency, you might have made a name for yourself and you might have some loyal clients that might decide to move right along with you. But let’s say you’re not.

Let’s say that you are just someone who’s pretty awesome at something and you want to monetize your awesome.

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Well, in the beginning, before you have a big portfolio or a large referral base, you might have to work for less than you want. Maybe even much less. So, here’s what you should put your name on and here’s what you shouldn’t.

Be weary of the project

If you’re a Stephen King fan, you’re probably familiar with The Mist. By all accounts it’s a pretty good book and a pretty mediocre (although somewhat revered) film.

And then came the Netflix TV show.

Everything Netflix makes is gold. Over and over again, from House of Cards to Stranger Things, they’ve shown that they are great at producing great work. And then came The Mist.

The Mist is a garbage fire of a television show. It’s problematic in its themes, plot and character development. It is fundamentally flawed in so many ways, so much so that it’s surprising that Netflix actually made it.

And it should seem that way. Because they didn’t.

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You see, Netflix has come up with a new game plan. Instead of making great content, buy pretty good content…or mediocre content, and put your name on it. And that’s how The Mist came about. Spike network made The Mist and then they sold it to Netflix.

There’s a lesson here. Don’t put your name on something that’s garbage.

Doing the right thing is always the right thing

I have, and will continue, to support people that are doing genuinely awesome things, even if they don’t have money.

I’ve built a number of sites for people for free or at a drastic reduction in cost because I believed in what they were doing and because they didn’t have the money to make it happen.

I love working with NFPs and with grass roots level small businesses. But I always ask one question before I get started on a “passion project”.

“Do you not have money, or do you not have a budget?”

You see, these are two very different things. I don’t work with the latter.

If you’re paying for this and paying for that and you’ve got a guy that does this and a girl that does that, you can afford me.

When I do reduced cost or pro bono work it is for people and organizations that don’t have money. There are a lot of NFPs paying people a lot of money for their vision and their direction. Those organizations have money, and they need to pay for stuff, whether or not they have “budget”.

There are organizations that are a selection of awesome people working on projects out of their own pocket, while they work “real jobs” who don’t pay a cent for vision and direction because they just make it happen. Those organizations don’t have money and you can’t just make money appear.

I firmly believe that there’s nothing wrong with doing discounted work for projects you believe in or for people you believe in. But I think it’s equally important to ensure that you’re not being taken advantage of.

Keep it confidential, but professional

One of the reasons that most freelancers and budding agencies do free work is so that they’ll gain exposure so that businesses will see their work and hire them to do work like that.

So when I’m working with a group or individual that I have deemed worthy of my work, free of charge or at a discounted rate, the first thing I do is ensure that they don’t tell everyone in town that I work for free.

The second part of this is to treat these projects just like you would any other project. Establish timelines. Establish clear goals and principles of work. Don’t half ass it. Just because they’re not paying doesn’t make them not a customer.

Or not…

There’s nothing that says you have to offer your work for free or at a discounted rate at any point in your career. Nothing. You’re not a jerk for not doing pro bono work and you’re not a saint because you do.

But if you do, the key things are this:

  • Even if it’s free, do good work.
  • Treat it like a real gig.
  • Choose projects that you believe in.

Now get to work.

What tips do you have to share about performing free work? Leave me a comment.

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About Mike Tanner

Mike Tanner is a stay-at-home father of two, creative agency founder at OneRedCat, and coach & consultant with Really Little Wins. He’s a regular contributor to Hustle & Grind, Yummy Mummy Club and CBC, is a board game enthusiast, and his first non-fiction book, Really Little Wins, will be available soon.

Also, make sure to check out Mike’s weekly podcast, Riding In Cars with Cats, where he talks all things entrepreneurship.


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