Should beginner freelancers work for free?

‘Should I work for free?’

It’s a question that plagues many beginner freelancers just starting out in their career. And it’s a good question. In a world that pushes the inexperienced towards internships and working for ‘exposure’, many new freelancers may feel pressured to offer unpaid services.

But should they?

It’s a loaded question and one that inspires fierce debate amongst freelancers of all experience levels. There are those who feel beginners should ‘pay their dues’, while many of the more experienced freelancers feel it cheapens their profession and encourages clients to undervalue the industry.

At the end of the day, it’s entirely up to you, and it really does depend on the type of person you are. This is your journey, and there really is no right or wrong answer here. There’s only what’s right for you. After all, isn’t autonomy a big part of why you decided to become a freelancer in the first place? Don’t let other people tell you how you should be pursuing your dreams.

Ask yourself: do you need to work for free?

Some people are confident from the day they start freelancing. They’re certain of their skills and they have no problem charging top dollar for their work straight away. Excellent! Congratulations on knowing your worth. Even an empty portfolio isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker if you have the confidence to back yourself.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so blessed when it comes to confidence. For some freelancers, the idea of reaching out to a potential client at all is terrifying; let alone asking them for payment. And it’s for these people that working for free may help. I should know because I was one of them. When I first started out as a freelance copywriter in Melbourne, Australia, I didn’t have a clue how to broach the topic of money with a client. I was a good writer, I knew that. But I was so new to the industry. So inexperienced. And I’d spent so many years writing for fun that I’d come to undervalue my work.

How could I possibly ask for money when I’d spent all those years writing for pleasure?

So I worked for free.

I took on two carefully selected clients, and that was all it took for me to realise the importance of copywriting for businesses. The most important lesson I learnt from working for free was the value of my own skills. I’d been writing for so long that I’d forgotten how difficult some people find it. People need good writers.

That was all it took for me to set off into the world of paid freelancing. I was able to confidently ask my next client for $650, and they said yes! But I never could have done it without those first two unpaid jobs boosting my confidence … and I got two excellent testimonials out of it too!

For me, working for free was an important part of my freelancing journey. Perhaps it will be a part of your journey too, and that’s okay! If working for free benefits you, then do it. But never feel obligated to work for free.

Whether you work for free or not is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. There are no right or wrong answers here. There are, however, a couple of tips I’d like to to share with you before you start.

Cartoon of a man holding a sign that reads 'will work for free'Know your worth

As a human being and as a freelancer, you are valuable. And even when you’re working for free, you should never lose sight of your worth. At this point in your career, you may not fully appreciate how much your skills can help other people. But never let yourself be taken for granted.

If you’ve offered to work for free for someone and they don’t seem to appreciate what you’re giving them. If they’re rude, presumptuous or generally unpleasant to work for; walk away. You’re under no obligation to stick around and there are plenty of other people who’ll appreciate your help. Trust me, you’ll have no trouble finding someone else.

Paid or not, your clients need to respect you. Which leads me to my second point.

Set boundaries

This is probably the most important aspect of working for free.

When offering unpaid work, it’s very easy for people to undervalue you. Which means you have to teach them that you’re worthy of respect.

How do you do this?

By setting boundaries from day one.

If you reach out to a client and they’re interested, this is the moment you make yourself absolutely clear. Tell them you won’t be working for free indefinitely. Say that you’re happy to do one, maybe two jobs, depending on what you’re offering. Everything after that will need to be paid.

By making your conditions clear right from the beginning, there’s no room for misunderstandings. Your client knows that your offer is limited and is more likely to value the work you do for them. This will also help you avoid awkward conversations with clients who think your offer was indefinite (it happens more often than you think). I’ve heard so many disaster stories of freelancers getting guilted and bullied into continuous unpaid work and it’s just not acceptable.

Freelancers usually work for multiple clients on a multitude of projects. So getting stuck in a rut and working for the same person on the same projects for months on end is hardly going to help you develop as a freelancer. You’re better off doing single jobs for several people than several jobs for a single person. By offering a ‘one-time deal’, you’re preventing yourself from getting too comfortable, and will instead be forced to keep seeking out new clients. This is a valuable skill that all freelancers need to master, so you may as well start now!

Besides, the more people you can impress now, the more people you can potentially turn into paying clients in the future. So it really is in your best interest to branch out.

By making the situation clear from the beginning, you’re telling your clients (and yourself) that you’re worth something and won’t be taken advantage of. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress in the future too!

Work for free …  If it benefits you

At the end of the day, the only reason you should be doing unpaid work as a freelancer is if you benefit from the arrangement. Sometimes real-world experience can teach you more than any course or book ever could. But it’s by no means a requirement.

Don’t feel compelled to work for free if you’ve already got the confidence to ask for payment.

But as long as you learn to set boundaries, you can look forward to a mutually beneficial (temporary) partnership with your free clients. Remember. What you’re offering is a gift. And it’s not something that should be taken for granted. So know your worth, and make sure others know it too.

It’s all about respect!


Continue Reading: Copywriters: should you be offering samples?

About the Author

Kirsty Ventura is a passionate writer and sculptor turned freelance copywriter. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her tiny chihuahua and far too many books. Kirsty spends her days copywriting for her clients (chihuahua in lap, of course) and her nights drawing, making sculptures out of wire, and watching David Attenborough documentaries. She adores her freelancing lifestyle. And yes … people do call her Ace Ventura.