Say no to free work.
Doing free work is the height of stupidity.
Have I have fallen prey to the smooth-talking new “friend” who offered to let me work for free in exchange for a portfolio piece?
I’ve got enough natural enthusiasm and sunshine in my personality that I seem to attract people who wanted to siphon off talent without offering renumeration.
They wanted free work, and depending on how good they were at selling me on the upside, I fell for the silver-tongued sales pitches.
One guy told me he would take me to China to see the factory where one of his clients was manufacturing an infomercial thingamabobber. I love to travel. I’ve never been to a single country in Asia. That sounded good to me. After I sent him some spec work, I never heard from him again.
Oh. He just wanted the copy, not the delightful company.
Another early client stroked my ego by telling me how clearly talented I was. He really admired my way with words. He wished that he could afford me. Would I be willing to work at a discount if he gave me first right of refusal on new projects — and referred me business?
The discount he wanted turned out to be significant. And the amount of future work took the form of a goose egg.
With the special authority bestowed upon me by being stupid myself, I advise you to not do what you usually get paid to do, for free, for anyone, even if…
he or she extols your extraordinary talent…
or coos about your scintillating intellect…
or represents a good cause…
or is tight on money…
or is in startup mode…
or has a tight deadline…
or is in a bind…
or walked your blind, three-legged dog that one time in college.
Every yes to free work comes with an opportunity cost.
If I had caved every time someone asked for a favor or begged for a drop of my medicine, then I never would have had enough time leftover to find paying clients and finish their projects.
You cannot run your freelance business like a charity.
Even charities can’t operate without cashflow. Charities only work because they have donors. Donors give money without expecting new web content or a logo in return. Donations typically come with no strings attached.
People who ask for free work — that is, for a handout — are asking you to donate to their cause. But you’re not a true donor because that request for free work always has strings attached.
You won’t get to follow your creative fancy and chase butterflies through a field of sunflowers. You’ll still have to answer to a pro bono client the same way you do a paying client.
That’s why free work is so awkward.
You get bossed around by someone who isn’t your boss.
You owe this person nothing, yet because you let him or her reel you in one bad pickup line at a time, somehow you’re now beholden to this person.
Agreeing to do free work is an emotional decision. The underlying logic doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
For example, your friend, who is the President of a fledgling nonprofit, assures you that he will be easy to work with, that you can design whatever logo you think looks best (as long as it’s green), and that he will work on your timeline. He just needs something, anything, to put on his website and letterhead, and he’d love for you to get a portfolio piece out of the arrangement.
(By the way, offering a portfolio piece is a classic business pickup line.)
Have you ever had a client or a opinionated-human-disguised-as-beggar who had no preferences whatsoever? Zilch. Nada.
“I trust you” or “Do whatever you think is best” is a cozy way of saying, “I won’t have a clear idea of what I want until you send me something you like and I realize I had invisible preferences all along.”
Every mockup and first draft is a sacrificial dummy that people kick around as they discover and articulate their preferences.
Getting paid a fair price for your work fortifies you. You have a strong stomach while you watch a client pummel the child of your creativity.
A freeloader offers you no such comfort. “Maybe we should put it inside of a circle?” he says. “I like logos with simple shapes.”
Or, “I guess when I told you that I like green, I wasn’t thinking of a lime green but more of a sage green like (insert most drab and boring hue imaginable).”
What are you supposed to say?
“Sorry. You told me I get to do exactly what I want. So we’re sticking with all of my original design choices. Here are all the sizes and versions you will you need. Good-bye.”
No. You are a nice person, and part of you still clings to the hope that this person will become a paying client, or refer a paying client, or wake up and make sensible design decisions and actually give you the freedom to create a portfolio project, as promised.
So you take a deep breath, and through gritted teeth you say, “Okay. Let me work on this a little more.”
Every minute you dump into that pro bono project is a minute that you cannot bill and cannot spend courting a dream client or, shoot, putting your feet up and reading a Neal Stephenson novel.
The “portfolio piece” logic undergirding free work has more holes than a Swiss cheese factory. You are a creative. You can create a “portfolio piece” anytime you like by sitting down and creating something.
When you remove the faux client from the equation, you truly do have complete creative control.
You don’t need Businessy McSalesguy to nitpick the white paper he convinced you to write for free.
You can write a much better piece about the top 10 mistakes companies make with white papers, and use that thought leadership article as a lead magnet.
Yes, you could use your time and talent to get real clients.
By choosing and creating your own portfolio projects, you can showcase can play to your strengths, display your best stuff on a bed of blue velvet.
Time for the Ugly Truth
Okay. Now that I’ve got that rant out of my system, I’m going to share the ugly truth: Most of you will ignore this advice.
You’ll do free work after you hear the just-right pitch.
I get it. I break my own rules all the time. That’s part of being a dreaming, contradictory dustbag of a creature.
Your average African molerat doesn’t struggle with existential crises, with caffeine headaches, or with saying no to a charming, persuasive startup founder who really needs your help (and it has to be you).
So not if you do free work, when you do free work, because you’re gonna, keep three things in mind:
- Only do free work if you think the project is really cool. I mean, if the work is both free and boring, then please run, don’t walk, away. Otherwise, when this savant of a salesman invites you to eat asbestos-laced glass and join his cosplay cult (complete with its own spaceship), you’re going to say yes. He’s just that good.
- Only do free work with no strings attached because you can, in fact, help. Don’t listen to people who try to reassure you: “Thanks a ton. I’ll be sure to talk you and refer you a ton of business.” “If you can help me out this one time, then I’m sure we’ll have more opportunities to work together in the future.” Such claims are bogus. If you’re really as good as they say, they would refer you business and hire you themselves without making any promises to that effect.
- Only do free work if the project has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You should define the parameters: “I am willing to do X, by Y date. Then, I need to peace out. Those are the only conditions under which I can say yes.” For example, you might agree to put ten hours into a pro bono writing project. When you pass nine hours, you should message your friendly neighborhood freeloader, and say, “We’ve got less than one hour left before I’ve got to peace out. To whom should I hand off this project?” Or, if your self-imposed deadline is a week or two away, you send a message to that effect.
If you do free work, then you set the parameters and quotas. Once you reach them, you walk away.
Any other scenario puts great strain on relationships and seeds resentment.
That’s right: Saying yes to free work is a reliable way to damage your friendships. A friend explains how cuddly kittens will perish if you don’t write an appeal letter on behalf of the local animal shelter, and then she introduces you to the shelter’s director, and then she goes to Thailand, and then you’re left trying to appease the director who turns out to be a perfectionist and wannabe but delusional grammarian.
You create boundaries, and then you leave. Otherwise, you put your relationships at risk.
How do you say no to free work?
Here’s the language I use:
“Sorry. I budget for a certain amount of pro bono work each quarter, and I’ve already reached my max. With that said, here are my rates. If you can scrape together a budget, I’m happy to make your project a priority.”
My brilliant recap… um… Say no to free work.
You may need clients. You may have time on your hands. You may enjoy being the hero from time to time. Regardless, say no to free work.
Look past the regrettable situation, plaintive pleas, and reassuring promises, and cut straight to the logic: If they value your skills so much, they should pay for them.
No matter how they paint on the pathos, the fundamental premise of business holds true: Clients should pay you for your work.
Is the other person accustomed to working for free? No. And neither are you.
Your level of experience is immaterial.
Your apparent “need” for portfolio pieces is a red herring.
You are not running a charity. You expect to get paid, and they are welcome to return with a second helping of compliments when they have scrounged up the cash.
Worst of all, free work is false validation. People who don’t pay aren’t real clients, so whether you’re a freelancer or startup, these “users” don’t have any skin in the game. They haven’t paid for your product or service.
People vote with their dollars, and by not paying you, they gave other products and services their vote.
Free work may resemble growth—as in, “my portfolio is bigger now”—but the opportunity costs and false validation are, in reality, atrophy.
So don’t do free work. And if you must, be cranky and establish unusually strong boundaries.
Pro bono can be a win-win if honor and deep respect occupy the seat that money usually takes.
Do you want to be one of the first to know about my Freelancing Fundamentals course?
I’m finalizing the details with my team, and we plan to launch a beta version of the course with 100 freelancers.
If you’re wanting to level up your freelance business, then this course is for you. Click on this link to share your name and email address, and I’ll be sure you get first right of refusal.
Some thoughts from my friend Dick Harrison were too good to not share:
“Your parameters for doing free work are…misguided (edited from a somewhat stronger word used earlier). You should do free work to help charities whose mission you support (after checking with Charity Tracker to make sure they are devoting at least 85% of their resources to the cause they espouse). THAT’S IT. NEVER for for-profit businesses. If you don’t respect yourself enough to demand compensation for your work, why should anyone else? How would your paying clients feel if they find out you give away work that they pay for? The referrals the freeloaders promise never materialize. And if they did, the prospects they’ve referred would probably be other freeloaders. Portfolio pieces? Really? How did the freeloaders know about your work if you didn’t already have a good portfolio? “We’re a little short right now, but we’ll send projects your way later.” Right. Now that you’ve established your price as “FREE,” we’ll call you whenever we need your work. It is always a bad business decision to discount or give away your work except to a bona fide charity. And that charity work should be limited to a level that doesn’t interfere with your paid work, and done with the understanding that you maintain complete control of the work. In my half-century-plus selling writing, the only free work I did for for-profit businesses were the assignments I handled when my son took on more freelance than he could handle. And even that work was paid, although I wasn’t the recipient of the checks.”