As a Freelancer, Should You Ever Work for Free?
By Erin Steiner
Last year, Amanda Palmer made huge waves by sending out a call asking local musicians to volunteer to accompany her and her band while they were on tour. It didn’t take long for the, uh, stuff to hit the fan as musicians – even in towns not on the tour – voiced their outrage at the very idea of someone asking them to perform for free.
Ultimately, Palmer decided to pay her local accompanists a modest sum and the critics moved on to something else outrageous a few days later, but the larger question remains: Is it ever, regardless of your industry, okay to work for free?
It’s something that, as a freelancer and work-from-home woman, you’re going to have to decide for yourself almost immediately. This is because as soon as you jump into the “work for yourself” pool, you are bombarded with advice from both sides.
On one side, you have the “Set your rates high from the beginning; never work for free, it sets a bad precedent” side.
On the other, you have the people who insist that the only way to truly build your freelance business is to start small – do some work for free and then for small sums and build your rates slowly, over time, as you build a portfolio to back up your ask.
Never Work for Free!
Working for free makes it harder for everyone to demand the rates they know they deserve to be paid. Think about it from the client’s perspective: Why would they hire someone who charges a fee when there is someone equally talented willing to do the work for free? Would you pay for something if you didn’t absolutely have to?
For yourself, once you start working for free it is incredibly difficult to justify a new fee (or, later, a bump in your prices) to existing clients. In fact, even if you go from working for free to working for a laughably low rate, that small bump is enough to alienate a portion of your client base. If you aren’t careful, you could wind up working for free or insultingly low rates for years and run the risk of bankrupting yourself before you ever truly get off the ground.
Work for Free! It’s Fine!
We all have to start somewhere. Sure, these days, it’s easy enough to build your own presences and showcase your abilities through a blog and social media before trying to get a client to pay you for what you offer. Still, most clients and buyers are hesitant to pay top dollar for a newbie. How are you supposed to build a professional portfolio and list of references if you can’t get anybody to buy your stuff? Doing work for free is a means to an end!
What about the projects you really want to be a part of that might not have the budget to pay your going rate? What’s wrong with donating your time, products, and effort to a project in which you strongly believe and want to see succeed?
So What Do You Do?
A good compromise that I’ve found is to donate my time only to non-profit or charity-based projects I really care about personally and then, if a traditional client balks at my prices, I offer to do a single “trial” piece at a discounted rate.
Just remember that, whatever you decide, there are always going to be clients and buyer who will try to haggle or bully you into lower rates. Don’t let them! Once you make a decision, stick with it. It’s difficult, but it is better to allow a client trying to bully you out of your rate to walk away. The last thing you want is to give in and set a precedence for “if I argue hard enough eventually she’ll cave”!
Still, ultimately, whether or not you ever work for free is entirely up to you. Unless you have a business partner, nobody else gets to tell you how to run your business. You need to decide which avenue feels right to you.