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At some point in every freelancer’s career, a client is going to request that you work for free (or cheap).
My answer is, in short – thanks, but no. Any client that remotely values your time and expertise isn’t going to ask you to work for free or for cheap.
Equally, any freelancer that values themselves is not going to work for free. There are a couple of very small exceptions though.
Here are the ways that you might see the subject of free or reduced rate work brought up…
Client: I’m asking everyone who applies for this project to complete a sample 1200 word article so we can judge your abilities.
Me: I would love to work with you, however I can’t work for free. It devalues my time and our relationship. I’d like to write an article for you, but it would be at my quoted rates of $45/hr. I understand that you want to make sure that your writer meets your needs – here’s a link to my portfolio and other testimonials. I hope they speak for themselves!
Image Credit (CC)
Client: As this is the first task, can we agree 50% of your usual rate (we have lots more work coming up).
Me: Thanks for reaching out to me! I’d love to work on your project. I’m really excited that you have future work coming up as I’m very keen to build a long term mutually beneficial relationship. I don’t think that working at a discount will get a long term relationship off to a great start. If you’re at all concerned about the quality of the work, can I send you a link to my portfolio and testimonials? Otherwise just give me a number to call you on and we can have a quick chat about how I can help. Thanks!
Client: The opportunity to work for us is so great for your portfolio that we aren’t offering any financial compensation, but you will get the exposure from having your work published on our site (and we may pay you someday too).
Thanks, but exposure won’t feed me or keep a roof over my head. Thanks for getting back to me. I’d love to write for your magazine, but at the moment I’m not looking for any more exposure. Is there an opportunity to for us to work at my hourly rates that we discussed on our last call? I’m more than happy to send over my portfolio and testimonials so you can see the kind of work I’ve done before and how it’s benefitted my clients.
- If the exposure is absolutely massive, valuable and worth way more to me than what I’d charge for the work, I’ll be hard pressed to turn it down.
- If you’ll learn significantly from the project and it’s worth it for you, consider it. Then it’s more of an “unpaid intern” type arrangement, where you’re benefitting through learning new skills, gaining experience and getting a great portfolio/resume entry.
We’ll All be Making Millions Soon (Unpaid for Now Though)
Client: We don’t have any money right now but we’re building a product that will address a billion dollar market. We’re building the next [Facebook/Twitter/Google/Youtube]. In 9 months time, we’ll be able to pay you $70,000 per year as our “Head of Marketing”
Me: Your project sounds really exciting and has great potential although at this point in my career, I am only looking for a paid position. Is an opportunity to work with you still available?
I will consider it, if the project really does sound like something special, the founders have a plausible route to market, the founders have significant time and/or effort committed to the project, multiple customers are signed up and are eagerly awaiting a product, and the founders have a great background with a history of success. If there are investors committed and ready once they’ve seen a first product draft, I’m even more interested.
Caveat #1: I would still push to work at a reduced rate until the product gets to market, with the balance owing once the client starts generating revenue.
Caveat #2: I’m not a bank or an investor. I’m not an expert in judging company/market fits or risk assessment. I don’t want to be the one financing the startup with my time and effort and then walking away with nothing unless I really think the risk of that happening vs my time investment as very favorable.
If the business is nothing more than a “genius idea” that the founder thought up in the shower, and now he’s looking for someone to share the vision and build his product for free, I’d steer well clear.
Dealing With the Fallout
If your potential client turns round and says no then great – you’ve had a lucky escape. Anyone who advertises for a requirement then drops you out of hand because you won’t work for free is not someone you want to work with, free or otherwise.
There’s two types of freelancer/client relationships. One, where the client sees you as an equal, a trusted consultant and a valued part of his network. The second, where you’re a worker – a hired hand. The aim of the relationship building exercise is to be working towards the former.
Working for free or for cheap (even if it’s very briefly) gets the relationship started in the wrong direction. It’s going to be 10x harder to get your client to value your work and you’ll also have a hard time ever increasing your rates in future. Far better than to let a client huff and puff and move on, then to take them on out of guilt or on a promise.