Working for free as a newbie: Is it ever worth it?

Apr 09, 2018

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You’ve been designing/painting/consulting/writing code/underwater basket weaving for years. Maybe you’re self-taught or maybe you’ve taken some classes. Either way, you have skills. And, if you do say so yourself, you’ve gotten pretty damn good at what you’re doing. But, since you’ve never charged actual money, and you have no idea how to get clients for a new business, you’re feeling a little insecure.

You don’t have a portfolio, or case studies, or past clients to show for your skillset. And even though all of your friends keep telling you, like, every day, to go out on your own and start a business, none of them have any experience in how to get clients. And yeah, while you’re glad that they’re so supportive of you, you don’t actually know what to do now. #Pressure

Because, even though you’re really talented, you don’t know how to get clients for a new business when you’ve never had clients.

Chicken and the egg much?

The "exposure" myth

Then, like magic, someone approaches you and tells you they’d love to work with you. #FTW!

Pop the champagne! Drop your day job like it’s hot! But, there’s this one thing…

They can’t offer any payment “just yet”. Instead, they can offer you GREAT “exposure” and “experience”. Sound familiar? Even though you’re new at this, you know good and damn well that you can’t pay your bills with exposure and experience.

I, too, like my compensation to pay the bills. But here’s a little secret: we have all taken (or heavily considered taking) unpaid work at some point in our careers. Sometimes you just need a few projects to put in your portfolio or something to create a case study about to help you land the gig that pays.

Turn exploitation into opportunity

Even though the reality is that whomever is approaching you for free work is usually just trying to exploit your skills (let’s call it what it is), there are still a few ways that you can benefit from working for free while you’re “paying your dues.”

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re really struggling with how to get clients for a new business (your new business or even a friend’s new business), I want you to remember that you’re in a position of power.

You have the skill(s) that person needs and, since they aren’t paying you, they are at your mercy. You are in a position to make demands (just do it nicely). And there are things that you can gain from working with the (non-paying) client. Go into the gig with a clear list of things you’d like to get out of this project that would make the project actually worth doing.

Make your work worth it

Here are a few things you can try asking for:


If they can’t pay you in cash, they may be able to offer you something else. Maybe they can give you some of their products or services for free. Maybe they can call in a favor and get you access to a person they know or an event you’d like to attend. Think about how much it would cost them if they paid you for what you’re providing to them. Use that as a guide for how much you can ask for.


Ask for referrals to other potential clients that they have a relationship with. Granted, this might be tough because they don’t know how much to tell people you charge—since you didn’t charge them. Come up with a number you’d be comfortable with and tell them that this is your “starting” price (meaning you won’t be charging less than that number).

Ask to be CC’d on the email referral, or to be introduced in person, so that you can witness the interaction.


Good feedback can be time-consuming to write. However, I always say that if a person wants something business-related and doesn’t have the money, they better have the time. Feedback can be incredibly valuable if you know how to ask for it. Do not let this client out of your sight until they have given you very detailed feedback on what you’ve done well and anything you could have done better.

Trust me, you’re going to need plenty of feedback as you develop your business.


Have you ever looked at the bottom of a website and seen “Website designed by ______”? Wherever appropriate, see how you can get mentioned for the work you’re doing. Maybe it’s a thank-you page on their website. Maybe they post on social media about how much you helped them and how much they love it.

You figure out what’s best for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for your shine.

The Bottom Line

No one does anything for free. You shouldn’t either. If you’re not going to be paid in cash, you should really look at how you can benefit in other ways. If you’re just getting started and you’re not sure how to get clients for a new business, bartering, getting referrals, collecting feedback, and getting credited are a great start if you’re not finding any paid opportunities.

But, be warned, if people start spreading the word that you work for free, you might end up with a long-term problem. Keep it clear that you’re willing to work in exchange for something else this time, but that this is not your norm.

Naya the Creative is a Brand Therapist, international speaker, writer, and all around creative & digital architect. Naya has handled internationally acclaimed, household name brands, and niche brands alike, for about 10 years. Naya is also the founder of Side Hustle Business School and House of Brand Therapy. You can get your hustle in order with the free Side Hustle Cleanse or take a free test drive of Side Hustle Business School.