Should You Work for Free? No, and Here is Why

Should You Work for Free

Table of Contents

Doing work for free is one of those ways some designers are trying to get exposure and traction. Let’s face it. When you are just starting out, and have nothing to show, it is hard to find good paid jobs. Without a portfolio or at least a few examples of work, it is hard to convince people to trust and hire you. Then, no wonder a lot of designers are willing to work for free. However, this is often a big mistake. In this article, we will discuss some reasons why you should not work for free.

Low level of trust

Let’s start with one of the things we already touched in the first paragraph. In order to get work, you have to convince someone about your skills and abilities. That person must believe that you can get the job done. Otherwise, she would be wasting her time. It doesn’t matter if the work is paid or if you offer to work for free. Without having trust in your skills, she will not give you the job, even for free. Time may not be a constraint. However, she still needs the job to be done.

A somewhat unusual story

It would be a different story if you could find someone with a job that doesn’t need to be finished at all. Then, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Let’s imagine the worst scenario. Something happened and you were not able to deliver the results. It could be due to lacking some key skill or something else. At least, you gave it a try. Fortunately, she didn’t need the job anyway so she had nothing to lose by giving you a chance. Maybe you will have more luck, and training, the next time.

Stories like this one don’t happen so often. And, even they do, it doesn’t change anything. There is still little to know trust from the side of your client. I should mention that we are talking about usual, or average, scenarios. It can happen that you find someone with job that is nice-to-have, but not necessary, and this person might have more trust in you and your skills. This depends on the type of people you approach and ask for work.

Friends, family, “trust” and too good to be true stories

The problem is that those people are usually either your friends or members of your family. In that case, it is likely that their trust is not based on your skills, but on your relationship with them. So, in the terms of your professional development and career, their trust doesn’t make any difference. Also, we should not forget that even if you get on job, it is still all you have. After you finish it, you have to find someone else and get another one.

Will you again offer to work for free to one of your friends or family members? Sooner or later, you will have no more friends or family members you could ask. What will you do then? You can’t do this forever. You can’t “compete” with others by offering to work for free. This will only undermine the trust you evoke in people you ask for job. We all know at least one example of the “too good to be true” stories. Great designer who likes to work for free is one of them.

People do not believe in these stories, at least not those who are smart enough. So, if you approach them and try to pitch something similar, they will try to find where is the catch. Usually, they will assume that you are just not good enough. Otherwise, you would charge for your work and get paid for it. And, since everyone has to make at least some money to cover his expenses, story about a good Samaritan will not help you build trust either, not in the long term.

Value of your work

Another consequence of doing work for free is that people will value it less. The theory is following. People don’t value (and trust) things they got for free the same as those they had to pay for. And, the more we pay for something, the more we usually value it. If you don’t believe me, think about something you bought for incredibly low price. How much did you care about it? How strong attachment did you create to that thing?

Now, think about something that costs you a fortune and ask the same questions. Do you see any difference in your answers? Let’s say you bought a pen for a few cents and you lost it. Will you feel depressed because of it? Or, will you hate yourself for losing that pen? Probably not. You will simply replace it. On the other hand, imagine you bought some luxury pen for, say, $600 and you lost it. How will you feel in this situation? I would be really angry of myself for losing that pen.

The same is true about doing work for free. People will not value it in the same way as they would if they paid for it. Let me give you a more specific example of what I mean. Communication with your client, and providing you with feedback, will lag. Work will take longer than you think it will. There will always be another request from the client. Since your client doesn’t pay for your work and time, she has no reason to rush it. Finally, don’t expect the design to be in production soon.

The point I want to make is that people will not value your time as much when you work for free. They will be more likely to use as much of your time as they can since it is free. This would never happen if they would have to pay you. In that case, they would push the project forward and watch almost every hour you spend on the project. So, if you decide to work for free, take into account that this work will take more time than you might think it will.

Lower quality jobs

Another consequence of doing work for free is getting a lot of lower quality jobs. This is connected to the issue with trust. When you really need some job to be done, you are willing to pay for it. The price you pay increases the probability the job will be finished on time and that it will meet certain quality. From this point of view, work for free is like playing a lottery. You don’t know when or if you get the result. And, you don’t know how well will the work be done.

Let’s say you have some design project that is important for you. You need to have it finished before certain date. In addition, you want only high quality, nothing average because the future of your business depends on it. Would you entrust this project to someone offering you to do it for free? Would you play this lottery? Or, would you rather pay some amount of money just to make sure you get high quality result and also get it on time? I would rather pay than play the lottery.

Don’t get me wrong. You can find people with quite good projects willing to put their trust in you. It is just not that common. A lot of people will rather pay few hundred dollars to make sure they will get what they want. In this world, price often works like a warranty. When you buy something expensive you assume it will work well and for a long time. You don’t expect it will break after you try it for the first time. Can you say the same about things you get for free?

You may still have nothing to show

Let’s say you want to do some work for free to have something to show. This is an interesting theory. And, some people like to use as an argument for doing work for free. However, is doing free work the only way to have something to show? No, it is not. If you want to have something to show, you can get a couple of low-paying gigs on Freelancer. What if you don’t think those gigs will give you the material that is good enough to show? Do you think free work will make a difference?

If you think that doing free work will bring you better results than doing low-paying jobs, you should think again. We are talking about jobs that offer small monetary reward and jobs that don’t offer any monetary reward at all. Again, do you think that the second category will lead to better results than the first one? Chances are that both categories will suck. Well, I think that these chances are higher for the non-paying jobs.

Trust, value and adequate results

We are again talking about trust and value. The less money you pay the less value and trust you expect. This makes it possible that those free gigs you take will not lead to results will like to present on your portfolio. I am not saying that it is because you are a bad designer, or you lack necessary skills. When you work on someone else’s project it is this person who has the lead word. You are not the one who controls the outcome.

Sure, we can say this about jobs for clients in general. However, the more clients pay for your work the better outcome he also wants. So, it is more likely that the result will be also a good material for presentation on your portfolio. Have you ever seen a client willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for a poor web design? That doesn’t happen so often. Usually, the opposite is true. Client willing to pay a lot of money will not accept anything less than great work.

The right baits for the right fish

Have you ever tried fishing? If you want to catch specific fish, you have to use specific bait. The same is true about work you show and clients you get. Every piece of your work will attract specific client. If your work looks cheap, it will attract cheap clients and discourage those with high-paying projects. The same is true about the opposite. Show great work that looks expensive and the majority of cheap clients will not bother to contact you.

The problem with free, and also low-paying, jobs is that they look that way. This can be a problem if you want to attract client with interesting and well-paid project. Doing free work may not give you the material you need. You may still need to work on a side project on your own in your free time. In that case, working on your own project is very similar to doing free work for someone else. Will anyone see any difference? No, unless you say it.

Let’s say that you will say that this or that project is result of work you did on your own. So what? Should you feel bad because you were willing to create something good in your own time? Is having self initiative really so bad? No. It only shows that you are willing to take an action instead of waiting for something to happen. And, if it is the right bait to attract the right type of clients, so be it. Work on as many personal projects as you want. Just make sure to put out only the best stuff.

Doing work for free is not sustainable

This is the last reason why you should not work for free. It is not sustainable. You have to pay the bills and you need food to survive. From this point of you, and logically as well, doing work for free is not sustainable in the long term. Sooner or later, you have to find some way to start making money. And, I’m not talking about getting another side job. I mean making money directly from your design work, not supporting you by something else.

If you are serious about it, you will have to. Otherwise, it is just a hobby and you should look for another job. This is one of the differences between business and hobby. In case of the business, it making money is necessary. Money are the blood of your business. In case of hobby, money are just a nice-to-have. It is great your hobby earns you some cash, but it is not necessary. Your hobby is something you usually do because you like it.

Some people will argue that business doesn’t have to make money. Well, that’s BS. Try to keep your business running for a few years without any money or support (direct or in-direct) and then repeat it. Business that doesn’t make money is not a self-sustainable business. It is a hobby you can pursue while doing something that will make money. If your business is non-profit, it requires support (direct or in-direct). It is, therefore, not self-sustainable. And, working for free neither.

Closing thoughts on doing work for free and debunking the myths

Some people like to argue that doing work for free is good because it can help you gain real-life experience. Maybe, but I would rather gain experience and get paid for it, even if it was just a few dollars. Then, there is that argument about gaining an exposure by doing some work for free. My answer is the same. I would rather get exposure and get paid at the same time. Finally, what about having something for your portfolio? Do you want me to repeat my previous answer again?

Understand that you can get all these things while making some money. Sure, you may not earn a lot. However, any amount is better than zero. With access to the Internet, and websites such as Freelancer, 99designs and DesignCrowd, you can always find some project you can apply for. You don’t have to do any work for free. Well, unless you want to do it. Finally, you can also try to sell your design on sites like CreativeMarket or Envato Market.

But what if you sell only one piece of your design? Even then you will earn more money than you would be by doing free work. Even selling one design for one dollar will make you more money than doing it for free. Will this gain you some exposure? Maybe, maybe not. However, you will still have something you can present on your portfolio. So, let’s throw away all those cheap excuses about gaining experience and exposure and having something to show.

The truth is that there are many opportunities and projects you can take. You just have to be willing to search for them, ask and work hard to get them. I know this is true because this is how I started. I made a couple of themes and started selling them on CreativeMarket. Then, I did a lot of projects through Freelancer and DesignCrowd. Did it pay a lot? No. However, it helped me survive, pay the bills, gain experience and exposure and work on my skills.

Stop making excuses and start looking for solutions. Drop your ego. Be humble. Work less money if you have to. Remember that your first goal is to survive and find a solid ground. Then, you can focus on building yourself up. Let your dreams about high-paying projects fuel you with energy and enthusiasm while you work for a few dollars. This is only the beginning. Just be patient, work hard and keep moving forward.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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