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You never planned to work for free, but if you have to, here’s how you do it
While freelancing doesn’t mean “working for free,” coaches, creatives, and freelancers hear this a lot: “we can’t pay you, but you’ll get great exposure.“
Can you imagine paying a plumber with exposure? You’d be arrested for sure!
Working for free isn’t limited to freelancers. Research by the Trade Union Congress says UK workers put in £31bn worth of free overtime in 2017. And virtually every tech company relies on open-source software, built by programmers doing it for fun, challenge or a desire to contribute.
This pie chart is a snapshot of US employment in 2013:
Surprised? I was.
But even normal internet surfers, like you and me, contribute to the demand for free labour. When did any of us last pay to read a blog?
If we want to learn something and don’t mind scrabbling from blog to blog, someone, somewhere is writing about it.
We are spoilt. We only hire expertise when the free stuff takes too long to jigsaw together and not paying for tuition becomes the more expensive option.
All in all, working for free is normal across industries and often a spot of free work makes sense. We all need to stay late to meet a deadline or do something to help find our feet in the early days as a freelancer.
The problem starts when working for free becomes an expectation and all that unpaid work leaves you tired and frustrated about your future.
Terrible Reasons to Work for Free
- You’re hoping your talents will be recognized
- You’ve been promised a paying gig next time
- You’re pursuing unsubstantiated exposure
- It’s family and you don’t know how to ask for money
- You don’t want the job but don’t know how to refuse
These are terrible reasons because there’s no plan. You’ve unwittingly embarked on a pie-in-the-sky, submissive, and frazzled way to work.
When you’re self-employed, hustling for your daily bread means relying on your wits and talents – but not like a Dickens’ street-urchin.
- Don’t rely on other people’s goodwill and empty promises
- Develop an entrepreneurial mindset to power your lift-off
This applies even if you’re a green trembly soul, properly beaten black & blue by life, and in desperate need of a break. Stand tall and be the Emporer of your self-employed status where working for free is a deliberate chess move.
Oh, a word about working for family…
It’s safest to assume family will not pay you, so don’t expect payment.
Here’s what you do instead:
- Put a tight spec around the job and make your timelines clear.
- Use the voice you normally use when you want them to take you seriously.
- Use jargon and keep conversations factual to reduce over-familiarity and scope-creep.
- Give them lists. Lists convey order and professionalism which feeds into their view of you. They also reduce scope-creep.
- If you’re worried about arguments, rehearse situational responses and define boundaries.
Recommend your competition
You know other people in your field. They do what you do, some do it better and some do it worse. Keep their details handy and when you come across unpaid work that you don’t want, you can refer it on.
Yes, there’s a chance your competition might get paid – but that’s not your concern. You didn’t want the job anyway and you were only being offered it on a “work for free” basis.
Good Reasons for Working for Free
There are plenty of reasons to do some unpaid work:
- A voluntary donation of your time and services to a good cause
- To mitigate a long time gap between jobs
- To add a skill to your portfolio that will prove lucrative later
- To dip your toe and get practical experience quickly with no questions asked
- To build backlinks to your website through guest posting on quality sites
- A barter of services
- To help out friends and family because it’s a nice thing to do
As you go through this list, you’ll notice you’re in control. Working for free is a strategy with tangible results. Nobody’s taking advantage of you and you’re not going to feel bad afterwards.
How to be Strategic When You Work For Free
Let’s look at some strategies for working for free.
There’s an undercurrent of double-standards with the whole working for free thing.
- Working late without pay at the office is acceptable
- Work for free when you’re self-employed or a freelancer, then you must be no good otherwise people would hire you
These strategies aren’t in any order – they form an overall strategic mindset that helps in your journey.
1) Prepare a portfolio
Some people try and have you work for free by insisting on samples. Perhaps they’ve been bitten by freelancers before, or perhaps they’re not committed to their idea and want to test the water at your expense.
A portfolio with a range of samples and testimonials can pre-empt demands for unpaid work.
If you’re new or changing industries and haven’t built a portfolio yet, make portfolio-building a part of your chess game.
2) See the stigma and ignore it
Stigma forces bad choices, resentments aplenty, and missed opportunities.
Know that doing work for free is absolutely fine if there’s a strategy behind it. People do it at all points in their career, not just in the early days. During lockdown, I donated many hours of my time to help people reposition their business during these changing times.
You might say that my business background is rock solid, spanning more than 20 years, so perhaps it’s easier for me to brush off the stigma. Or you might say donating time is altruistic and not in the same league as a freelancer being forced to do unpaid work for experience.
You don’t need to worry about excuses and reasons. Everyone’s history and future ambitions are different. Don’t think about mine or anyone else’s – focus on yours and you’ll turn unpaid work from a dirty little secret to a doorway to your ambitions.
3) Know what you want
Money can be lost and re-earned. Time, once lost, has gone forever.
Time (and relationships) are things worth maximising. Make bonds with people because of who they are, not what they can do for you.
When you decide you want to work for free for someone else, get clear on the exact outcome you want to achieve. For example, you might pursue a testimonial, an app with your name in the credits, or a dofollow backlink to your website.
If you can’t identify a precise outcome with a guaranteed achievement, you’re not being strategic, you’re being hopeful.
4) Make assertiveness a habit
Assertiveness is learning to be confident even when you don’t feel it.
Assertiveness is not just about standing your ground and saying “no.” It’s about admitting you have the right to your own individuality and learning how to stick up for it in a clever, non-aggresive way.
Whether they’re written or spoken, your words paint a picture of you. They reveal how far you can be pushed, how desperate you are, how much focus and commitment you will bring to the job, and a lot more besides.
To be assertive, you might need to deal with some hang-ups first.
If this is something you want to explore further, ask me about solutions-orientated coaching. We don’t dwell on the past, we deal with it and make it strong enough to build a future on.
5) Identify the markers for retreat
Sometimes, even when you work for free, things just don’t work out.
Respect your time
When I donated my time during lockdown, a client dialled in two days late for an appointment… and no, she hadn’t got the date wrong. Another client never prepared for any of the meetings and spent the time talking about her day.
Work with people who understand your time is a precious commodity. Otherwise you’re just playing.
If that sounds like I’m laying the client’s problems at your door, it’s because it’s always beneficial to reframe an issue to put the ball of action in your court.
You’re assertive now, remember. If you’re playing, you can stop playing.
Working for free isn’t a favour. Working for free is a mutually beneficial arrangement and if you’re not getting the respect your time and knowledge deserve, you can discuss the issue with the client who’s enjoying all that unpaid work or, if appropriate, walk away and find someone new.
The good thing about offering unpaid work is that you’re never short on takers. Be choosy.
Do this before you start the work: Get clear on where your boundaries are and how you’re going to deal with the situation should it arise.
Onwards and Upwards
Unpaid work is something you do when when it suits your bigger purpose. Even though you’re working for free, you’re approaching it from a position of gainfulness.
You’ve learned that working for free is as normal for self-employed people and freelancers as it is for regularly-employed people working unpaid overtime to get a promotion.
You’ve learned that working for free is not an invitation for others to take advantage of you.
So the only questions left are:
- Who are you going to work for?
- What are you going to gain?
Let me know about your experiences of working for free.