To Work For Free or Nah?

People begin the freelance journey from different points. Some start with a few side projects related to their field, and then others are completely self-taught.

We are an emerging demographic. Our legitimized educational and professional experiences are not necessarily directly tied to our freelancing careers. It does not mean that we are less qualified, we’ve just been on a different path.  

In this process of becoming a professional freelancer, you find yourself needing to build your clientele. One of the most common ways to do this is through freelancing for freeand/or whether you should do work for free. It is a matter of opinion, after all, you are the one living with the work. 

In the beginning, I have worked for free. I've helped friends with their sites, and I gained so much experience from it that I wouldn’t have gotten if I charged. BUT, It was miserable time for me professionally. It's exhausted and frustrating.

Your Friend is Now Your Client

If you’ve decided to do something for a friend, do all elements as you would for a customer – the same process, contracts, and client terms. Meet with your friend in a formal setting. You are not only getting experience in what you are doing, but you are also gaining experience in how you work with clients.

Full Artistic + Design Direction

I wish I implemented this when I did free work. I learned a lot from those projects, but those friends were a real challenge to work with, and some of the work I wasn’t able to show in my portfolio. They asked for design decisions that took away from the design. A couple months ago, I was listening to a podcast talk about free work, and one of the key points they brought up is design control. If the friend/customer is not paying you, they can at least sacrifice design control, aka you don’t have to make those ridiculous edits.

Obviously, some people might take advantage, and give their friend an awful design, but this advice is not for them. If you are doing really good work, and your clients website means as much to them as it does to you, then they should feel okay with this compromise.

Always Have a Contract

Just because the work is for free, does not mean you should have a contract. They are getting a project done for $0. It still should fall under similar terms and parameters. Contracts outline roles and responsibilities, and you do not want your friendship to get muddied up because things were not clear. Since you are also having a friend review your contract, you can ask them feedback on this stage of the process – how did you present it, things that were unclear, etc. 

Identify When You’ll Charge for Work from the Beginning

This point is just excellent customer service. In the beginning, I didn’t communicate this well. I didn’t foresee some of the issues that would arise in projects. Since I never communicated extra charges in those projects, my policy has been to do the updates for free, but on my time. Often these changes are subtle, and both the clients and I were pleased with this process. I have made a note to communicate extra charges to customers from the get-go since.

Don’t sneak up charges on people; it’s tacky and bad custom service. I had a friend receive free work from someone. She thought it was just a mutual meeting and collaborating. Then, when the person said that she was going to charge her, my friend declined the service for personal reasons. The person unfollowed her from everything. If people decided they can’t afford to pay you – it’s not personal. Determine how you can finish the project to ensure mutual respect from both parties, keep everything cordial.

Free Work Should Not Take Over Your Life

You need to make a living. If you are still working full-time, start small. Maybe one or two projects. Don’t overextend yourself, even more; you will already be over-extending yourself.

By doing free work in the community in which I wanted to establish myself in – design – I created myself as a credible and professional resource. I am getting to the point where I am having to be serious about charging when I felt comfortable and confident. These days, I don’t do any work for free. 

I definitely won’t do any work for free, and I definitely won’t swap services for anyone. My business is no longer just something starting out. If I need someone to do work for me, I pay them. Currency is definitely the best way to support another brand. 

What are your thoughts on freelancing for free? What issues have you faced?