If you're going to work for free, be smart about it

Aug 8, 2017

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The very beginning of a freelancing career - we’ve all been there. It’s one of those moments that every single freelancer must go through and hopefully, enjoy it to the fullest.

I certainly did like the first weeks and months of freelancing. It was not until a year later, that I realized why I really could enjoy the early growth so much.

It was because I decided to work for free and be smart about it.

Working for free means focusing on the long-term

Before you say anything, let me reassure you that I didn’t only work for free. In my head, I was doing the complete opposite - I used free work as a tool that would later get me to bigger clients with bigger budgets. And now, I understand how important that is for beginning freelancers.

Firstly, you have to understand one thing. Working for free doesn’t mean you don’t make any money.

When you work for free, you collect the fruit in the form of:

  • Valuable experience
  • New projects in your portfolio
  • References
  • Recommendations
  • Business relationships
  • New contacts
  • A chance of signing a great (paid!) long-term deal

Let me give you an example of how to rationally work for free.

In the beginning of my freelance career, I usually got clients through business websites that connected companies with freelancers. I had extremely good experience, or was extremely lucky, with two local websites.

Usually, it happened that the business sent offers to several copywriters - that’s what I do for a living - and asked them to compete in a battle of words. It might seem that the one who was the better copywriter always won. But that’s not the case.

After a few clients, I understood how to get potential businesses on my side even before I wrote a word.

Whenever I received an email with a fair offer, I always replied that I would love to do the work for free and the business would only pay if they liked it.

And that’s when the magic happens. If it’s a fair deal and the owner of the business is a fair person, they will automatically see that you’re a true professional. Why?

Because you let your work speak for you. Some freelancers see free work as business owners taking advantage of the people who do the actual work. But for a business owner to hear such words from a beginning freelancer, that changed a lot. At least in my case.

It showed that I was confident about my work and was willing to ”put it out there for the the world to see”. Yes, I was risking. But on the other hand, I was gaining trust faster than any other copywriter that was working on the same deals.

Being pragmatic about working for free is okay

Although I’ve never done any math, I believe that I got at least 80% of the jobs that I approached this way. Out of that 80 %, at least 50% were long-term contracts. In other words, I worked a couple of hours for free in order to land a deal that brought me hundreds of euros - without any business skills or huge portfolio.

I still believe that I couldn’t compete with some of the copywriters that worked on the same offers. But I’m sure that it was my natural approach, my understanding of the level of my skills and courage to get an honest feedback on my work that helped me to land these deals.

I worked for free from time to time and I still could survive. Maybe that’s why I’m so confused when everyone says that freelancers shouldn't work for free, even in their beginnings. Well, I think they should. Once you understand that working for free is a great tool to get you money in long-term, it just changes your perspective.

Last but not least, this is definitely not an article for veteran copywriters. You already know this or already disagree with me.

This is for freelancers that just started their career. For freelancers like me, that have just recently celebrated their first professional year in freelance business.

For those people, I have a few last words.

Working for free is not a shame and definitely not something you shouldn’t do. Work for free if you think the offer is A) fair, B) can generate a lot of money over time.

I found my biggest clients this way and it’s not like they wanted to take advantage of my work. I was the one to offer the work for free.

That’s why I want to encourage you to work for free but use your business brains while you’re at it. Search for fair deals and fair people, be patient while you’re doing it and eventually, you will collect the results.

Maxim Dužek plays with words and social media for a living.