Freelancers: why working for free doesn’t help anyone at all

Some freelancers, specially designers, but others are guilty of this, too. They work for free on the understanding, that later on they “advance” to paid work and also get some referrals that lead to even more “awesome paid work.”

Except, this doesn’t work and here is why.

What is actually happening, when a freelancer, let’s just say a designer, does accomplish some work for free for a business (or other type of organisation)?

Before I go into that, let me say a thing about charity or charitable work. Now, if you want to make a contribution to a good cause in the form of free support, I’d say go ahead, but understand these two things about what you are doing:

  1. You are working in your spare time. This free work is not to be considered “building your business” because it ain’t.
  2. Maybe you are not really helping. Maybe the right advice, the project you are helping out needs, is to cough up a budget for the type of activity you are doing for them, instead of relying on volunteer work. Thi could be because of long-term strategical reasons. Think about that. Maybe you are causing more harm than good.

Having said that, sometimes helping out a round or two can just be the right thing you oughta do. Who knows? The stars know and you are one of them, right?

Now, doing work for free will not build your business and specially not, if you use this to evade the tasks that you actually should do to build your business. I am not going into this here, but in general terms: if you have a freelancing business – or any business at all, really – you need to build a customer base in an organised and methodical manner. This doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t happen by doing work for free at some place.

Oftentimes people get lured in to do some work for free, with the promise of referrals. This is always a lie, often times not meant in a malicious way, but a lie nonetheless.

Consider this, if said organisation would recommend you, what could they recommend?

Your business? But they didn’t do any business with you. All they can do is tell that you would work for free. So they either have to lie to someone in their network on your behalf (Probably not going to happen. Duh.) or they give you a referral for more work-for-free “opportunities”, which they also understand is not what was promised to you.

This is why seldom anything happens at all in regards to those promises.

Thirdly, think for a moment about this: any organisation, who should recommend you to someone has to have this general process installed in place somewhere. How would this happen? Will the boss talk to his fellas at the country-club about you? Will she talk about you at the next industry show she attends to further her own business?

I don’t know, but somewhere and somehow it has to happen and chances are that this is not penciled in anywhere. So why should this happen?

Which leads us to take a further look at the inside of the “client’s” organisation. If they want you to do some work for free, the following two things are true:

  1. They need the type of work that you offer.
  2. They don’t value it enough to make a budget for it.

What you are doing when you work for them for free is to support the notion, that the type of work you do is no to be valued financially at all. You see why this doesn’t lead to business? You are practically saying: “Never mind paying me. Don’t even think about it, I’ll do it fro free!”

Now, some people try to outright scam freelancers, but that is a completely other thing. I am not talking abou that here. You can protect yourself against such practices by usually having your clients pay a half or a third of the fee upfront. That is a common way to do it.

What also happens is, that by working for free you entrench the thought that people of your ilk, designers or whoever, usually do the work for free. So maybe you stopped working for them after one free project, because the referrals didn’t come or whatever it was, but all you did is making them hunt the next freebie, because it worked with you. That doesn’t help your industry at all.

Let me in conclude with one stern but hopeful word on gaining new business as a freelancer. If you think you need recommendations, than chances are you just have no idea how to regularly generate good business in the first place. Isn’t it so?

But the nice thing about it is, that it can be learned. And that is what you should do in your spare time, instead of busting your seat for nice but slightly confused people.