How to Do Freelance Work for Free — and Make More Money

May 6, 2017
Doing freelance work for free? NOOOOO!

Want to see someone spit fire out of every orifice? Tell them that doing freelance work for free isn’t always bad.
Image credit — Alejandro Alvarez via Unsplash

OK, first things first: 

Put away the pitchforks and torches. You’re making me nervous. 

99% of freelancers — or what seems like 99% — agree that you should never, ever work for free.

I don’t.

Today, I want to show you a way of doing “free” freelance work that will help you make more money in the long run, build stronger relationships with clients, and won’t make you feel like you’re busting your buns for nothing.

Whether you’re open to doing unpaid work under the right circumstances, or the very idea makes you want to shout, “YOU FOOL, I don’t even look at a freelance job for less than $500!” — I still hope you give this a read and get another perspective.

And if I fail to convince you, you’re welcome to disagree with me in the comments. We’ll make a picnic out of it.

So:

How about I start with all those times I’ve been fucked over by doing freelance work for free?

“All those times I’ve been fucked over by doing freelance work for free”

Admit it.

When you started reading this article, this thought probably crossed your mind…

“Oh, so you’re saying I should be ok with working for free? Easy for you to say, Oleg, you smug motherfucker! I bet when you did unpaid freelance work, it all worked out. Nobody took advantage of you, swindled you, or metaphorically shat on the fruits of your labor. Well, not everyone is so lucky!”

Maybe you used fewer expletives (or more, I don’t know), but the gist of it is: the only freelancers who are OK with working for free are the ones who haven’t learned the hard way — by being shamelessly duped.

Well, I have. More than a few times, actually. Let me count the ways:

– A potential client asked me to do a sample on spec. I did a really good first draft, which they loved. Then they just took my spec work and vanished, never to be heard from again. That happened at least twice, as far as I remember.

– I got a stern warning from Elance (now Upwork) for submitting work on spec. That was totally deserved since it went against their (well-intentioned) rules. That happened to me once.

– Finally, several times a potential client would be raring to hire me after looking at a little copy review I had whipped up for them. Then they would hear my quote — and do an exceedingly convincing impersonation of this little wabbit here:

Doing freelance work for free will attract low-quality clients -- that will bolt like this rabbit here when you mention money.

“What, you mean I CAN’T hire you for pennies after all this help you’ve given me? Bye!”

So, do I have first-hand experience of doing freelance work without asking for money, and then getting an iron-studded boot up the ass for my troubles? A-yup.

Do I still do it? Yes. And not just because I’m a painfully slow learner.

Why, then? Because doing unpaid freelance work doesn’t have to be terrible for you in every scenario. And I follow very specific rules to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes as before.

Here they are…

How to use unpaid freelance work to increase your income: 4 rules

Rule #1. Reject any freelance clients who want you to work for free

The naysayers got one thing right: if a potential client approaches you asking for a freebie, you should tell them no. Flat out. And don’t go for any of their silver-tongued bullshit!

Like this:

“Do this as a test, and we’ll give you plenty of paid freelance work!”

How about you pay me anyway, and if you don’t like it, I’ll give you a refund? No? Is this because your ass is dead broke, or because you never intended to pay me in the first place? Whatever the case, shoo, away with you!

“We have a huge audience, your work will get a lot of exposure!”

And if said exposure could pay my rent, fill my belly, or get me drunk, I would do it in a heartbeat. But something tells me my landlord won’t be impressed with the number of views, comments, or shares my work will get. Hard pass.

“This will look great on your portfolio”

Do you know what else will look great on my portfolio? A sample of paid freelance work I could be doing for someone else, instead of being your glorified intern. Hell, I could fill my portfolio in an afternoon if I needed to.

“We’ll pay you commission based on sales/performance”

Go. Away. Already.

The bottom line is: unpaid freelance work can’t be your client’s idea. It should be 100% your call. Stay away from people who want to start your relationship with a freebie. They should know better than to ask for something like that — and you should know better than to say yes.

Seriously, if you say yes to something like that, I will come to your house with a raging, bloodthirsty goose — who has diarrhea — and unleash it inside. You’ve been warned.

Rule #2. If it falls outside of these scenarios, don’t do it

Here’s a list of all the times doing unpaid freelance work is not just acceptable, but ultimately useful. If your situation doesn’t fit any of these, you should either: a) ask for money or b) move on to something else (i.e. not free).

1. You’re doing it for testimonials

If you’re a complete novice, with no portfolio and no credibility, helping someone in exchange for a testimonial or a case study is an excellent way to build expertise quickly. For example:

For my entire adult life, I’ve been a writer for hire. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone in that area. But until 2 years ago, I’ve never coached or consulted people about their copy. When I did it for free a bunch of times, I ended up with testimonials like this one:

I never actively asked for testimonials (a mistake on my part), but they still came in unsolicited — like Marie’s here.

And this one:

Unsolicited testimonial for literally 5 minutes of unpaid freelance work.

Helping Cindy took maybe 5 minutes of my time. She got a sale, and I got a great testimonial for my freelance work. Win-win. (click the image to enlarge, if you have trouble viewing it)

And this one:

Another example of how doing freelance work for free can pay off in a great testimonial

Ditto for Louise here (click the image to embiggen)

And more.

Once I had a few people who loved it and got specific results, I felt completely justified in charging $150/hr for this new service. Plus, now I have a metric shit ton of footage of me tearing apart other people’s copy. Not to mention quite a few testimonials I can point to when people ask me, “How do I know you don’t suck?”

2. You’re doing it to learn from someone 1,000 times better than you

As a freelancer, it will take you years to become exceptional at your craft. And the only shortcut (that I know of) is:

  1. Find someone who is at least 10 times better than you.
  2. Work with them as closely as you can. For free, if necessary.

I’ve written 1 million+ words of copy, so I’m just starting to get good at it. There are copywriters I would happily work with for free, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s probably the single most helpful thing you can do to increase your freelance rates in the long run. If your financial situation allows you to do so, of course.

Personally, I’ve done it twice — once for free, and another time for a substantially lower hourly rate. As a result, it took me from $30 to $150 per hour in less than a year.

3. You’re doing it for a company/person you’re dying to work with

Wouldn’t you love to work with an awesome brand you like? Or someone you look up to?

Of course you would. The problem is, so would literally everyone else. Businesses and people who are in the limelight get approached hundreds, if not thousands of times every day. So if you go down the beaten path and pitch them — even if your pitch is awesome — you will be treated just like everyone else (ignored).

But if you do a bit of work upfront — in the form of a custom sample, a mouth-watering sales pitch, or something else they would find valuable — there’s a much higher chance this brand/person will listen. And once you have their attention, you can go straight to the heart.

Note that I am not talking about busting your buns for months and getting nothing in return. All it takes is putting together a strategic gift for your potential dream client. Here are two great examples:

  1. This case study that shows how a random guy scored a business development gig with a company he loved — just by putting together a detailed presentation and following up like a pro.
  2. A terrific story about getting a monthly gig with HubSpot (one of the top marketing companies in the world), all thanks to sending a short and sweet cold email, accompanied with a short custom sample.

Disclaimer: In my personal experience, big-name clients can be more trouble than they’re worth. It’s harder to build a solid relationship when you’re just another freelancer out of hundreds (or thousands) they already work with. You will notice that these examples are about companies that are famous — but not “multi-billion hulking behemoth employing 10,000s of people” kind of famous. And that might be part of the reason they succeeded. Basically, take this one with a grain of salt.

4. You’re doing it as a test and will charge for it later

Do you know those food samples they give out in grocery stores? All those little slices of cheese, salami, olives, or whatever? Man, I used to love those when I was dead broke — one trip to the supermarket was basically a free meal.

Now, despite the existence of freeloading assholes like yours truly 8 years ago, grocery stores still do it. They know that the majority of people will take a little bit. And more than a few of them will buy more if they like the taste.

Doing free work in this scenario works kind of similarly.

Personally, I tend to do it:

  • With existing clients who trust me, because they are unlikely to turn me down.
  • For a new type of work I haven’t done before, to make it safe and low-stakes.
  • In a cheap, fast, and dirty way, so I can transition to paid work as fast as possible.

Here’s a very current example…

I’m studying up on SEO. SEO copywriting has always been the most neglected part of my skill set, and I want to get better at it, so I can charge higher rates later.

But I don’t want to become an “SEO guy”. I couldn’t possibly do it, because I don’t know enough. All I need is to know if this adds any value to my work. What would be a quick, easy way to test this?

Right now, I’m writing 2 blog posts a week for a client. And I noticed that they aren’t being optimized for search engines enough. So I’m working on a short pitch to my client that will help them improve their on-page SEO.

Do I know if what I’m suggesting will produce results? Of course not. For all I know, this will make zero difference.

But is it an easy playground for me to test my newfound expertise, and potentially design a valuable upsell I can offer to the client? Hell yeah!

That’s exactly what I’m aiming for. If I can add a tiny bit of value with this, it will lead to paying work later. I don’t mind investing a sliver of my time and energy to test it.

And if this test is successful, I will draw up a proposal to actually get paid for this kind of work.

Note: pitching new services is a great way to increase your freelance income by 2, 3 times or more without landing any new clients. If you want to learn more, I’ve made a free 7-day email course about it.

Rule #3. Before you do it, ask these 3 questions

Even if working for free is 100% your call…

And even if the situation fits one of those 4 scenarios we talked about…

…it still doesn’t mean you should rush in and do it. Remember: whatever time and energy you invest in this will be gone forever. You want to make it count. So ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “Will it lead to paid work down the line, if I play it right?”
  2. “Will it strengthen my relationship with a paying client?”
  3. “What can I do to maximize the odds of #1 and #2?”

Here’s a personal example — not 100% matching what I’ve told you so far, but it proves the point nicely.

A bit more than 2 years ago, an editor I knew asked me to write two guest posts for their blog, to support a product launch. Normally I’d be stoked to get published on a big blog, but at that time I would much prefer to take the money and forego the exposure.

I asked questions #1 and #3 to myself — and decided that, if I wanted to get paid for the work, I should just ask. So I sent this email:

Freelance work can go from free to paid very quickly. You just need to be willing to assert your position -- politely, but firmly.

To do this, I used one of the tactics from this post — can you guess which?

The result?

The company agreed to pay me $200 for both posts. Not much, but far more than I was used to back then.

(I later went on to work with them part-time for almost two years, so you could say this email made me $80,000+)

Come to think of it, this reminds me of something I forgot to mention in Rule #1. If a client approaches you asking for a freebie, you should turn them down… but not before you’ve asked to get paid. Politely, but firmly.

Rule #4. If possible, do it in public

Vlad the Poker approves of doing freelance work in public.

That didn’t come out right.

When you do paid freelance work, it’s just between you and the client — as it should be.

But if the work is unpaid, showing it off is the best thing you can do for your freelance business. So put it up where everybody can see it, not just your potential client. More people see your work = better odds of getting hired.

Don’t leave your freelance work to digitally rot away on some remote corner of your hard drive. Consider doing any of this:

  • If you have a public portfolio, publish it there.
  • If it’s an article, post it on your website, or on Medium.
  • If it’s a video, up on YouTube it goes!
  • If it’s a presentation, there’s always SlideShare.
  • Is it audio? Put it on Soundcloud.
  • Did you whip up a great design? You have Behance, Dribble, and other platforms.
  • If it’s code, you can always put it on Github.
  • If it’s a website you designed, you can deploy it on a special sub-domain on your site.

You get the idea. Ideally, people should see your work in action. Failing that, even putting it on display on a third-party platform is better than squirreling it away and never using it again.

Yes. Thank you, Dr. Jones

Note: needless to say, if you’re doing this for someone you’re already working with (see Rule #2, scenario #4), you will want to keep everything confidential. At the very least, you should ask for permission before you make the work publicly available anywhere.

Still feel like taking out those pitchforks and torches?

All that said, working for free is still the wrong move for 90% of freelancers. Even if you are a complete beginner. So don’t do it unless you’re financially comfortable, need some kickass real-world credentials, or want to work with a very specific client.

I want to hear from you. Have you ever had a positive experience with doing freelance work for free? How about a totally horrid, negative one — maybe much worse than the ones I’ve described? Let me know in the comments below.

4 Comments

  • Reply Nadine Mandjoli Yaya May 6, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Hi Oleg,

    Glad to know you are much better now. Sorry for the downtime!
    As usual, this blog post has given me more ideas on short term free, and strategically long-term paid work. Lol. The case studies are also spot on. I have had bad experiences working with solopreneurs who will be telling you, they are testing your work, just in the bid of picking your brain, to have it implemented on Fiverr, I guess, it was part of the learning curve, as before I realised it, I have already given them a strategy for the implementation, and in the thin air, they will disappear. Lol

    • Reply Oleg Starko May 8, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Hey Nadine,

      Thank you for the comment! 🙂 That’s exactly why rule #1 in the post was that free work can’t be your client’s idea. 🙂 That’s a dead giveaway it almost certainly won’t work out well for you.

  • Reply Marni May 7, 2017 at 5:25 pm

    Great, informative post with humour as always. I love your cat! Is he a Norwegian Forest?

    • Reply Oleg Starko May 8, 2017 at 8:17 am

      Hey Marni,

      Thanks! 🙂 To my knowledge, he is just a regular street cat. Technically, he’s my wife’s — she found him and brought him home 4 years before we knew each other. 🙂

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