Should You Be Working for Free?

Nothing in life is free, they say, but I beg to differ. Every day around the Internet, savvy people barter goods and services or grab a valuable report that only costs an email address. Free alive and thriving. Business is booming, folks.

Free goods and services are great if you’re on the receiving end. Amass your treasures and collect a wealth of stuff – no charge!

What’s it like to be on the other side, though? Creating free downloads, reports, products and blog posts takes time and energy. Free doesn’t give you any money and it often takes time away from the money you could be making.

Some freelancers think free is stupid.

Why bother writing a free ebook when you can make it a selling item? Why donate your services or products when you can charge for them?

We’re a short-minded society with big-time focus on our wallets. Two of the most frequently heard questions these days are, “What will that cost me?” and “How much does it pay?”. And if the person isn’t asking those questions aloud, you can bet they’re still questions on his mind.

I’m often privy to expressions of shock punctuated by gaping mouths when I tell people that I write free blog posts (both for my own blog and for others), teach two online university courses to lawyers, mentor three people and offer business consulting to a handful of lucky ones.

After they close their mouths and recover from the shock, they always say the same: “You’re not being paid for that?”

Not financially, no. Several people receive the benefits of my effort, time and creativity completely free of charge. And I’m not being paid – and yet I am being paid back. There’s a huge difference.

When you give, you always receive. What you receive may not always be what you want, of course, and in that case, you should stop giving to that person or project and find something better to do.

In most cases, though, you receive a great deal from free labor:

You get to market your business and your services without paying for advertising
You earn credibility, notoriety and in many cases, a loyal, satisfied customer
You enjoy word-of-mouth recommendations as the people you work for tell others how great you are
You benefit from increased traffic or heightened interest as people come to see what you do
You receive personal fulfillment for having done something great for someone else
You get back, because most people like to return the favor of a good deed done
You can learn new skills and practice them without having a client bar of standards in your way

Have you ever donated your skills or services? Was it worth it? Can you think of other reasons you should give your work away free of charge? Can you think of times when you shouldn’t?

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Comments

  1. I agree to a point with you on this issue, you may not get money by working for free, but you do cultivate contacts and favors. Working for free may give you the leverage to catapult yourself into a paid position as well, since the one receiving the free labor will favor you over the many other applying.

    But it should be noted that you can only do this if you have a source of income to keep yourself fed, a roof over your house, and any thing else you may need. There are bills to pay, food to buy, and you’ll need the means to work for free whether it be a car or an internet connection. Working for free has its benefits for sure, but those without a job better find something, anything, to keep themselves from going bankrupt, especially in this economy. I think this is why many freelance writers look down on free positions, they need to make a living. Many companies have stopped hiring, which has driven more and more people to the freelance field. With that much more competition it may be a while before you see the fruits of your free labor.

    If you do have a job, I say go for it. Working for free in the freelance field won’t take too much time away from your paying job, plus it acts as an investment. However, if you don’t have a job make sure you get one to support yourself while working for free. Once the freelance career starts to take off you can leave this job to focus on paying freelance jobs.

  2. I would have to agree with Pat on this one. I think doing work or services for free can be a great opportunity and shouldn’t be immediately overlooked. I am about to graduate from college soon, so I am getting stuck in this free versus paid situations. Sure, it is nice and fulfilling to do work for free, but probably sooner than later I am going to need something to pay the bills.

    Overall I did enjoy what Chartrand said here. It is just tough when you wouldn’t want to do stuff for free to help your future, but the present is calling for some cash.

  3. Okay, I mean to say, “you would want to do stuff for free,” in that last sentence.

  4. Great comments everyone.

    One of the problems right now is that people *aren’t* able to pay the bills. Many freelancers are holding out for money, but they’re losing out, searching desperately, being rejected and coming up short each month. Many aren’t surviving, and many more are scared to death about the future.

    These people have an urgent need for cash, but they’re not finding it. Working free is one way to jump start that and give the income-earning potential a boost. Seriously.

    A barter exchange could get a website for copy. And thus, the writer can market to buyers more effectively to land jobs.

    A volunteer gig could end up with great results, and the writer gets hired for pay.

    Approaching a company with a “let me give it a shot for a week and you don’t pay me” can result in a full-time job.

    We cannot overlook the value of free work right now as a means to market to get paid gigs. It’s a tool just like any other – and it can have great results.

  5. Since I’ve incorporated ‘reviews’ of new & seasoned writers/authors/filmmakers and musicians ‘works’ on my blog at clara54, I’ve gotten tons of traffic, grateful emails and popular responses from the filmmakers/authors as a thank you for helping to get the word out about their works. Recently,I spoke by phone to a filmmaker from New York who thanked me for profiling her documentary on my blog & offered to send more of her works for review…

    I’m not being compensated with monetary gains at this point, but, as a freelance writer whose aim is to grow her business, it’s a step in the ‘write’ direction :).

  6. There is some value to writing for free, especially if it’s for promotion. That means it indirectly yields more cash for your business!

  7. Just ask yourself: Would my mechanic do this for free? Would my dentist? Some friendly advice (how to avoid costly repairs in the future, how to prevent cavities) is one thing. A free brake job or root canal (yes, you get to pay for pain!) is something else.

  8. @ Phil – Dentists donate their time and give young kids free care sometimes. Mechanics apprentice or help other kids in town fix up their old cars.

    So… Yeah, actually. If my mechanic or dentist gave away work for free, I’d think pretty kindly of them. And probably mention their name to other people.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I agree that working for free should not be overlooked. I currently write a column for a major regional newspaper each week and am not paid for it. However, I retain all rights to what I write and the content can be easily adapted for other publications. Plus, I personally think that the experience, exposure and addition to my resume is well worth the 2 hours a week that I spend on it. I am positive that in 10 years, I will consider the time spent on this gig to be a worthwhile investment in my career.

  10. I’d only consider working for FREE if I knew there was an 80 – 90% chance of getting a paid gig pretty soon afterwards. There are a lot of people out there who are constantly on the look out of a free meal ticket, and have absolutely no intention of paying for anything.

    Proceed with caution…

    Lance

  11. James,

    You know different dentists than I do. Our dentist (my age) retired four years ago. I can look at our dental bills for the 20 previous years to know how he was able to do that and I’m still slugging away.

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