When to Work for Free & When to Say No
As an entrepreneur at some point you’ve most likely been asked to work for free. Your initial thoughts might have been to say yes right away either because it was an opportunity you couldn’t pass up or maybe you were afraid to offend the person asking. Or on the flip side, maybe you were appalled and thought their request was hmmm…selfish?
Well I’ve been in that position too. A lot actually. So much that I feel like a 'bit of an expert' on the topic, and decided to share my thoughts on the matter.
Before I dive into this post, let me start by saying that collaboration is so important to the growth of a business and has numerous benefits! I love the word collaboration because it means the action of working with someone to produce or create something. Two minds are better than one, am I right?!
What rubs me the wrong way is that collaboration is now a term that also means “will you work for free?” I think collaborating for free in certain circumstances is a great thing to do, but there are times when it’s better to pass. Keep on reading to find out when you should say HELL YES or no thanks.
When to work for free
1. You get to meet and/or work with your ideal clients
Say yes to collaborating if it is with someone’s style you like, an event with tons of potential clients, or a sneezer (aka someone well connected in their community, read the book Purple Cow to understand more about how getting your biz in front sneezers is crucial)
The key is to give this crowd a taste of what it is like to work with you. Provide a great experience and this acquaintance could turn into a client next time they need your services.
A perfect example of this collaboration is sponsoring an event. I have done this personally and it resulted in a few paid projects, many new and wonderful relationships, increased brand awareness and a fun time at the event!
How to Maximize the Benefits
If it’s an opportunity where you get to interact with your ideal clients make sure to leave a wonderful impression. Get to know them personally, I think quality over quantity is better when trying to make relationships in this setting. You will be much more memorable when you have a meaningful conversation with a few people versus just introducing yourself to a ton of people.
Also if it was 2003 I’d say bring a stack of business cards. But guys let’s be real, how many times have you collected a stack of business cards from people you’ve met only to throw them out the next time you cleaned out your purse??
Instead ask EVERYONE what their Instagram handle is! Don’t ask them to follow you (that’s too forward) just follow them and leave a few comments on their profile. Most likely they will follow you back if they like your content and like YOU.
The benefit of this is you will stay in contact with them because you will pop up on their feed and vice versa. It takes an average buyer 7 INTERACTIONS before feeling comfortable to purchase. So you have to nurture these relationships when you meet and/or work with your ideal clients in order for the free work to turn into paid projects.
Also don’t just talk to someone/follow them/try to be their friend because you want them to hire you. People can sense it. Form these relationships because you genuinely want more friends or biz relationships! Plus people forget this point all the time: these people may not hire you personally, but they could refer you to their network. And that is PRICELESS.
2. You are doing an equal trade
I love doing trades for services that I would be purchasing anyways! I’ve done trades for graphic design work, hair cuts, and free products.
Do I need a years worth of hot sauce? Uhh most likely not.
But if it is something I was saving to spend my money on anyhow then of course I would trade my services!
I’ve literally heard of a photographer trading family photos in exchange for dental work. So anything goes!
I think a key thing to note here is that the value should be equal. Seems only fair right? Send a price list to the contact you will be working with and decide what each party will provide.
To be safe even write up a little contract or at least have the terms discussed over email to reference back to and you’re good to go!
How to Maximize the Benefits
When I’m trading services with another business owner, I first try to find people that could actually benefit from what I offer. Lots of businesses need photos and videos, but I have a specific style so if I don’t think my work would be a good fit I most likely wouldn’t reach out to them.
Also it’s very helpful to trade with businesses that are in parallel industries, meaning we have the same target audience but we offer different services, so we aren't necessarily competing (even though I don’t believe anyone is in “competition” with each other, but you get my point)
This way you also benefit from cross promotion! View it as teaming up with another business, you are helping each other out and growing one another’s business.
I’ve seen collabs go so wrong.. (literally today someone told me business 'A' didn’t want to tag business 'B' on social media because they didn’t want any traffic to go to them.. even though they were cross promoting!) that makes no sense to me.
Best practice is not to get caught up on who is growing more from a collab, just share, be in a giving mindset and nurture your relationship with your new business ally. The more you give, the more that comes back to you in the end <3
3. You need to gain experience
Anytime you are new to a certain field of work you need to gain experience before you can be employed or charge for your services.
Internships are an example of free work in exchange for experience. A lot of universities include this in the curriculum so students learn and practice their knowledge in a job setting. (I had to earn 400 internship hours as part of my graduation requirements, so yup I’ve been there!) Learning is important but having experience is just as valuable, if not more!
I’ve also seen newer photographers assist established photographers to observe how they work and refine their skills. You learn sooo much more this way than watching tutorials or reading from a textbook.
I’ve worked alongside other photographers and picked up tips here and there, but never assisted someone regularly. I totally would though! I should add this to my goals for 2018, I would really value learning from a mentor.
How to Maximize the benefits
If you are interning ask lots of questions, take on more work than asked of you, put in more hours than required, show up with a good attitude and meet people at the workplace!
Basically make a killer impression, especially if you want to be hired afterwards. Also try to learn and observe as much as possible.
In my opinion, how to best maximize interning/working for free when you need the experience is to find someone doing EXACTLY what you want to be doing. Write a concise and complimentary email that says something along the lines of how much you admire their work and your eagerness to help with anything they may need, for FREE.
If you make it about you and wanting to copy their business or mooch off them and their connections, you’re going to get turned down (obvi).
Why should you do this? Well would you rather pay $20,000 + for a degree in the field your interested in and leave with no connections and no experience, OR would you rather work for free and learn from the BEST in the industry at no cost to you?!
I think the answer is obvious. Or do both! Just don’t complain about working for free, instead pick the work you do very selectively and you hit the jackpot!!
4. When the exposure is great!
I know people say exposure doesn’t pay the bills (so true.. but let me continue!) but I do think exposure is great when you are introduced to a large audience of your target clients! It’s all about getting in front of your target clients people.
Work for free for someone with a large audience (aka an influencer) in exchange for them tagging you on social media or linking your website on theirs, etc. Exposure = advertising!!
If I know someone’s audience is full of people who would possibly want to hire me (ex. female business owners in creative fields) that is the perfect collab IMO.
BUT if you are working for free in exchange for exposure but their audience isn’t your target client (ex. In my case women interested in exercise tips, why would they want a brand video or photo shoot from me??) then this is not ideal.
Also please note (this is the most important part) you can’t be demanding about this type of collab. If you are collaborating with someone that has a large following understand that this influencer receives tons of these requests and they usually charge to advertise another company’s product or service.
If they decline your offer, they may not want or need your service and not like to feel obligated to share it with their audience. An influencers relationship and trust with their audience is most important and they would never want to recommend something they don’t 100% LOVE.
A tip to get anyone to say yes to collaborating with you, is to focus on GIVING, not what you’re GETTING. Explain in detail what you want to provide and make it sound so amazing they can’t pass it up!
How to Maximize the Benefits
I mentioned this earlier, but please write a super nice pitch email describing what you want to provide and how it can help them, not what you want out of it.
People have asked me how to pitch and what it pitching?? I think people assume I’m sending off lots of emails asking people to work with me and pay me etc. But it’s quite the opposite. I send off pitch emails introducing myself, asking to meet for coffee, seeing if we can collab or if I can help them in some way!
Think of it this way, pitching isn’t ASKING, it’s GIVING.
Don’t worry if you’ve gone in for the ask, I’ve done it too and it didn’t feel right with me. I had to learn from trial and error and this is what I’ve concluded that feels most authentic, genuine (and effective!) to me.
Okay back to tips to make this type of collab work best: I would set the bar for them, but then go above and beyond! For example estimate how long the project will take and let them know, but work hard to send it to them a few days early.
Send a thank you card or a small gift. Interact with them a lot on social media, give them a shout out on social media or your blog. Do allllll the things that make you feel good when people do them for you, because most likely it will make them feel good too.
If they had an amazing experience with you, one really great testimonial/review or shout out from a big influencer is all it takes to have inquiries flood your inbox.
Writing this is making me eager to take my own advice. I haven’t worked with a BIG influencer before, but I have a few dream influencers that I would love to approach one day soon ;)
5. When you need new work in your portfolio
If you need new content in your portfolio to keep it fresh and up to date you would be creating examples anyways (ex. If you’re a web designer why not design a real website for a client instead of a fake one you made up)
So instead of just using anyone or a “fake client” be intentional about who you could collaborate with. Why not reach out to people you would love to meet and work with someday!?
Do it for free for them as an excuse to build that relationship but to also add new work to your portfolio. You would be creating this portfolio piece anyways!
How to Maximize the Benefits
Make sure you work with someone whose style really inspires you. You are creating this portfolio piece because customers can only buy what they have seen from you.
Here’s an example how I’m approaching a few upcoming collabs: I’m branching out into offering elopement videos as a service, exciting right!? Even though I have experience with video I need examples of elopement videos in my portfolio so potential clients can see them and decide if I’m a good fit. They need to imagine themselves in the video! So a brand video wouldn’t have the same effect.
I’m organizing a few styled elopement photo shoots and I’m going to make sure the art direction is very in line with my style. I want to show bright, airy, feminine and floral so brides who also love that style see it and think, I GOTTA BOOK HER.
I probably could organize a shoot with a couple and not need other people to contribute, but I’d rather maximize the opportunity and find businesses with a similar style and target audience to mine to contribute. If they need more photos and videos to share then this collab will be beneficial for them too! And I can meet and network with other businesses in the process. It’s really a win-win situation!
A few examples when you are building your portfolio:
If you are a web designer, reach out to a photographer whose photos you love and use a few on one of your websites for your portfolio and credit them for the photos.
If you are a hairstylist offer to style a bloggers hair for a few of her photo shoots and ask to share the photos on your social media and website.
If you are a makeup artist offer to do the makeup for a model agency when the models get their headshots done and again ask to share the photos and use them in your portfolio.
There's many more ways to collaborate when building your portfolio but you get the jist!
6. Do free work for a charity or as a gift
A really kind gesture and way to give back is to donate to charities you care about by providing your services free of charge. Depending on your area of expertise you can design flyers or newsletters, photograph the event, supply baked goods, design the charity’s website etc!
It is a creative way to give back that also helps your community and introduces you to people who are also involved with the charity.
How to Maximize the Benefits
Most organizations will include your logo on print materials and their website and list you as a sponsor. Inquire if that’s the case because that helps with brand recognition (brand recognition = basically be everywhere so that people start to know your biz). If they can link back to your website, even better! Then website visitors can easily go to your site and check out your services. (also links to your website helps increase your SEO!)
Ask if the charity uses social media too, if they do go follow them on every platform you use and politely ask that they tag your biz in posts whenever possible.
I think the real benefit comes from if you attend an event hosted by the charity. This is your chance to mingle with attendees and use the tips I suggested in #1.
To quickly summarize, be social and make quality relationships. Subtly work into the conversation how you are connected to the charity and what your business is. You never know, they may need your services or ask for a business card. (yes still bring business cards to these types of functions, not every demographic is on social media yet!)
7. Run a giveaway so your service is a prize
Giveaways or contests are great to build your audience. People want free stuff and will go to great lengths to enter contests haha. I’ve seen entries that ask people to like this photo, tag 200 friends, follow these 2000 accounts, give your email, repost this photo and write an essay on why you should be chosen… lol I’m kidding, kind of ;)
Honestly I’ve entered contests like that because I was so pumped about the prize!
Back to the point, so your followers are interested in what you do, and most likely they would love a prize that gives them the chance to work with you in some way!
I mean people love cash, and fun gifts but by giving away your service as a prize you can see who is actually interested in your biz.
Also you don’t have to spend money on this giveaway, and it gives you leads on who may be interested in working with you in the future! Another win-win, sometimes there are so many benefits of doing free work!
How to Maximize the Benefits
So to not completely annoy people who want to enter try to keep it to three steps to enter.
I suggest having your followers tag friends in the caption and comment (maybe ask a question that they have to answer) This is good because you are forcing them to engage with your post (in a nice and fun way of course!) and that makes your posts more likely to appear on their feed in the future.
And you probably have friends that have similar interests to yours, so if your followers tag their friends maybe they will be interested in your biz as well!
Want to take it a step further? Partner up with other businesses and have one big giant prize! If a few of you all share the giveaway that means more contest entries and you’re reaching a new audience.
Okay, now time for the juicy part of this blog post: When to Say NO
I want this post to be informative and positive, so this section will be significantly shorter. Reference it if you are considering working for free, but something feels off. Because if a collaboration feels at all like a bad boyfriend (they are rude, controlling, or just using you) it's probably better to pass.
When to Say No
1. It’s not mutually beneficial
If the collaboration is not offering you anything beneficial then turn it down politely, or try to offer a suggestion of something that could make it better that would make you want to participate. Collaborations should always be mutually beneficial, and unfortunately not everyone is great at pitching (read #4 for how I compare pitching to 'giving' versus 'asking').
Story time: I had a BIG, well known website email me several times asking me to link to their website in one of my blog posts. (I would never "out" them but I want to use this as an example for people to learn from) They didn't offer to link to my website, shout me out on social media, feature an article I had written, NOTHING.
Okay I get people going for the "ask" but in my opinion they went about it all wrong. They weren't interested in us helping each other, they simply wanted my website traffic.
I explained to them how I like to keep my readers on my site for as long as possible by publishing inspiring & informational blog posts. I've worked HARD to build this little website and blog of mine, why would I send my readers away to a huge site with tons of traffic for nothing in return?
The whole experience rubbed me the wrong way, which is why I think anyone should turn down an opportunity if it's not going to help them in some small way. Otherwise people are just looking to take advantage of you.
2. It’s taking too much time away from paid work or other important things
As I listed above there are many reasons working for free is good to do for your biz, it's a great form of marketing and collabs are honestly a lot of fun! But free work shouldn’t trump client projects or anything very important to you such as time with family, going on vacation, self care etc.
Don't sacrifice the important things in your life because you feel guilty turning down a collab. Sometimes I wished I turned things down in the past because I was pulled too thin. That is a good enough reason to pass on the opportunity.
3. The project doesn’t interest you
If it’s your business or even just a hobby and you receive lots of requests, accept the projects that interest and excite you, pass on the ones that don’t. It doesn't get much simpler than that! Why would you work on an unpaid project that doesn't interest you at all??
4. Your collaborator is not respectful
Enjoying the collaboration is most important, so take on opportunities that are with people who respect your time and talent. If someone is controlling or exploiting you, walk away from that project, no one should be treated poorly EVER.
5. The free work has unrealistic expectations
Sometimes people expect quick turn around, lots of extra editing or design revisions, require lots of meetings, planning, time, money, energy, etc! If the unpaid project is starting to sound like a huge undertaking and is more than you can do at the time, you can either let them know what you CAN provide and what is extra that you would charge for, or politely decline the opportunity.
Collaborators may have unrealistic expectations because YOU didn't clearly state what you could provide up front. Just be honest and discuss it sooner rather than later.
6. The same collaborator wants you to keep working for free
Use free work as a way to meet new people and market your services. If the same person wants to keep working with you and to not pay its probably because they want more and more and will never be willing to pay you. Just beware of that.
What to do in these cases? Make it a one time offer and then send them your rates for ongoing work.
Don't be offended if they ask for more free work, it's human nature to want the best deal. Before the collaboration say something like "I'd love to offer you 'XXX service' as a gift because I would love to collaborate with you! I've attached a list of my packages and pricing if you or anyone you know anyone that is looking for a 'X' in the future! <--- SIMPLE right?!
On the other hand, maybe the collaboration skyrocketed your business, so in that case definitely work with them again! You really have to judge each opportunity individually.
Okay WHEW, I'm done. That's everything I could think of to write on this topic! I really hope this helps your business regardless of your industry and you feel way more equipped going into your next collaboration! ;)