Should you work for free?

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“We can’t offer you any money, but we can give you exposure on our platform.” — the most frustrating offer ever as a freelancer.

Have you ever been offered to work for exposure? Do you get messages with offers for free work? Are you confused about what to do? If so, keep on reading.

Should you work for free?

I want to address the whole idea of working for free (they call it exposure) so that you know when to work for free and when to absolutely not work for free. We’re even going to look at how you can turn free work into a paid gig so that you don’t remain a volunteer forever.

I’ve been freelancing for about 12 years now. I was lucky enough to start with a paid gig so you could imagine how confused I was to get an email 5 years into my writing career to work for free.

Over the years, it seems that more companies feel comfortable with offering freelancers free work opportunities. It feels almost impossible to find paid work since most offers are for exposure or experience.

The idea of working for exposure isn’t totally flawed though

The problem is that it’s difficult to get excited about a project when you don’t get paid for your time and effort.  You also don’t want to be the person who becomes known for working for free.

However, you do want to grow your freelancing career so you don’t want to miss out on unique work opportunities. You also want that experience in your field. It’s pretty confusing.

Let’s look at the concept of working for exposure, when to avoid free work, and how to get paid eventually.

Should you ever work for exposure?

Yes and no. You definitely need exposure as an aspiring freelancer and companies know this. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer because every industry is different. Let’s look at a few popular questions to help you navigate this topic.

What’s exposure in this case?

What does it even mean to work for exposure? What are you being exposed to?

The goal should be to get your work in front of a lot of eyeballs and potential future clients. This will also ideally give you an opportunity to become better at your work.

However, it’s extremely difficult to quantify exposure and if it’s even worth it since you’re not making any money.

Here’s what to look for when working for free:

  • Is this a popular website/platform?
  • Can I learn from this person?
  • Can I add this to my portfolio?
  • Will this experience look good on my resume? Will future clients be impressed by this?
  • Are prospective clients going to see me? Can I land some deals through this?

It’s important that you know what you’re getting into

Because you don’t want to be fed up when you find out that this exposure doesn’t lead to anything at all. You also don’t want to miss out on the chance to be seen by potential clients.

Here’s an example that I heard of last year: An aspiring freelancer who specializes in video work was given an opportunity to cover a large event for exposure.

He was promised that he would make connections at this event. It turns out that every connection there also wanted him to work for exposure except for one. He found a steady gig after many frustrating propositions of working for free.

When should you work for free/exposure?

  • You’re just starting out. You can’t expect to get paid with your first gig. You have to get some work under your belt so you’re going to have to take a few unpaid gigs to prove your worth.
  • You’re not that good yet. You may need some time to get better at what you do. As you hone your craft, it’s okay to accept the occasional offer to work for free to improve your skills and delivery so that you build your reputation in the industry.
  • You want the experience. You usually need the experience to get better at what you do. By offering to help out, you can give yourself some decent experience.
  • It’s a very unique experience. Is the situation unique? Is this something that will good on your resume/portfolio? I spoke at an event for free once because they covered all of the costs and I got a free trip out of it. I also received footage of the event that I could send to others so I had proof of my work.
  • You want to connect with this person. If there’s an entrepreneur that you look up to, you’re going to want to do whatever it takes to get in with them. The lessons that you learn will be more valuable than any money that they could pay you when you’e first starting out.

When should you absolutely not work for free?

There are strict scenarios where you really shouldn’t even consider the thought of working for free. Here they are:

  • The person doesn’t have a history of paying. If there’s no history of volunteers becoming paid staff, then you’re likely not going to be some special unicorn who gets hired on.
  • You’re already working in the field. If you’re working in a field, you don’t need experience or exposure. You need to be paid for your work.
  • It feels like a scam. If something feels like a scam, it likely is a scam. You can’t fight your gut instinct sometimes.
  • They approached you about working for free. Many companies will reach out to new freelancers to find free work. Watch out for these as they’re just looking for content that they don’t have to spend a penny on.
  • You don’t have the time. If you don’t have the time, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. The worst thing is when you do mediocre work for free because you don’t get the best experience.

There will be times where you want to work for exposure to gain valuable experience and so that you can catapult your new career. Then there will be times where you shouldn’t work for free.

How do you work for free?

This is where things get tricky. It’s easy to dismiss free work since you’re not getting paid and you don’t feel like taking it seriously. However, that kind of attitude won’t help you get far as an aspiring freelancer.

In other words, if your free work sucks, you won’t get hired on for a paid role. I know that it’s frustrating to hear that, but the good news is that your free work will be like an apprenticeship period.

I have a few rules when it comes to free work:

  1. Make it clear why you’re working for free. Let them know that you just want the experience as a new freelancer and that your long-term goal isn’t to be working for free.
  2. Set your schedule and expectations. Don’t let them think that you’re on call 24/7. Communicate what you plan on delivering so that they know what to expect and when to expect it. Setting expectations at the very beginning will avoid future problems.
  3. Take the project very seriously. Unpaid work will make up your portfolio. When you look for a new barber, painter, or personal trainer, you want to hear about their success stories. You want proof.
  4. Have a deadline. You don’t want two years to pass to find out that you’re still working for free. Set a clear deadline. You can usually build up a decent portfolio in 3 months.

The good news is that if you provide quality work and prove your worth, you’re going to have a portfolio to land new clients as a freelancer. You won’t have to work for free forever.

How do you go from free work to paid work?

Let’s say that you worked for free and now you’re ready to get paid. What steps should you take?

How do you turn FREE work into PAID work?

  1. Do an amazing job so that you have proof of your work. You want to have a portfolio that invites potential clients to hire you on the spot.
  2. Ensure that you get a reference and referral. You have to get a reference from this so that you have a connection and options. You need that referral so that you have a door open from this opportunity.
  3. Make your expectations clear that you want to be paid eventually. When you begin the project, you should always make it be known that you want to get paid. I had a freelance writer get hired on with me by offering free work. I enjoy their articles and eventually hired them on.
  4. Apply for paid work with your portfolio/references. When you have references and a portfolio, you can start looking for work. Your past work will make up your portfolio that you show others. You need proof of your work.

It’s important that you consistently provide proof of your work to the world. I know that it can be annoying, but you want it out there that you’re providing high-quality work on a consistent basis.

Most prospective clients usually have to see your work a few times before they hire you.

You also want to connect with other freelancers so that you know which direction to go in. There are many like-minded communities and Facebook groups that you can join to help you with this and so that you’re not stuck fumbling in the dark.

How to manage money while you work for free

Because you have to survive, working for free means you’re also doing other work to get paid while you build your exposure. It can be hard to manage your finances and work/life balance when you spend much of your time working for exposure. But it’s not impossible.

Creating a Time Budget Spreadsheet is a great place to start. Juggling your personal life, paid work, and unpaid work, is bound to get messy if you don’t keep yourself on track.

The reason you should budget your time is the same to budget your money: to ensure you’re spending where you want to.

At this point in you career, budgeting seems extra daunting. But you can do it!

Check out these 6 Ways to Budget On An Unpredictable Income and consider using a budgeting app like KOHO to keep you on track! You can read our KOHO review here.

Working for exposure can suck at times

Nobody will ever argue that. I just want to ensure that you can get paid by capitalizing on a few rare unpaid gigs.

What are your thoughts on working for free?

This is a guest post from Martin of Studenomics, where he tries to make personal finance fun since you have enough to stress about. You can click here to check out the wide range of content on everything from planning a date night to getting paid to drink coffee.

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