As freelancers, should we ever work for free?

For most, if not all freelancers, the invitation to work for free will land on our desks, often early on in our freelance careers.

Many of us contemplate whether we should proceed with the occasional donation of our time and we go through a process of weighing up whether this exchange of our time in the short-term will pay off in the long term.

We are relatively unknown when starting out as freelancers, perhaps coming from the corporate world and adjusting to a new world of freelancing and so accepting some opportunities to work for free is justifiable in the beginning as it can open doors, build experience and confidence as well as building up a bank of positive reviews along the way. The cons are; we need to pay our bills, we are offering an exchange of our services, unpaid, when ordinarily this should command a level of nominal value.

It’s a conundrum in the beginning as we pick and choose opportunities without guarantees that these will open doors for us.

The grind in starting out as a freelancer is that we need to build trust and credibility through brand awareness and so by creating free content we demonstrate our value to prospective audiences and this is an important step in gaining your first client.

As we become more experienced freelancers, we begin to really understand our value and what we are prepared to do with our time.

The tipping point comes when you are starting to get yourself out there, starting to be contacted via word of mouth, your website or via social media and your business starts to grow.

I began to wonder if confidence has a part to play in when we start to say no to unpaid work and begin to command the true value of our expertise, certainly in the beginning, Imposter Syndrome has a part to play in holding us back. We perhaps procrastinate in when we start to command payment for the work we do for fear of repercussions or self-worthiness. These self-limiting beliefs come down to mindset and can be mastered.

To those of you starting out in the world of freelancing, here are some considerations regarding the invitation of unpaid work:

  1. The work aligns with your values and is something you feel passionately about, enough to provide a contribution of your time in exchange for helping others.
  2. The work is time-boxed and you have clear boundaries as to what you will deliver and by when e.g. 1 hour mentoring per month via Zoom, don’t over commit your time.
  3. Think about networking opportunities that come from free work, is the pay off in the long term greater than the short term? Will the network that you gain now be useful to you in the future?
  4. Testimonials - build up a bank of positive customer testimonials that will help you secure new clients
  5. Know when to say no. You have sought-after skills, knowledge and experience and so you have every right to respectfully say no however keep every door open, it would be futile to burn any bridges, who knows they could be a future client who is willing to pay your day rate.

As you start to build up experience and a portfolio of clients, there will be a time when you can start to command rates that reflect the level of expertise you bring to your new clients. It may feel terrifying but as with anything new we have to take a leap of faith.

Many people are considering freelancing as a new way of working as it provides greater flexibility and freedom over how, where and why we work.

Knowing your worth is part of the course of becoming a fully fledged freelancer and all the value you have to offer to your new clients - you’ve got this!