When Working for Free Helps Your Business Grow

Photo by LoveTheWind/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by LoveTheWind/iStock / Getty Images

The conundrum is always the same.

You can’t get find work without experience and you can’t get experience without work. What the heck is a freelancer to do?

Whether you’re just starting out as a freelancer or trying to break into a new field, it can be remarkably hard to find those first few gigs. In this article, I’ll discuss the judicious use of working for free.


Woah, woah, woah!! Wait a minute! Work for free??

I know, among freelancers this can seem like blasphemy. But I would never suggest you work for free at your own expense. There are times and places where working for free can get you exactly what you need to achieve your long-term goals.


So how do you go about deciding if you should work for free?

First and foremost, consider the work in terms of your long-term goals and ask yourself these questions. (You do have long-term goals, right?? No? Goal-setting post coming soon!)


·      Is there a gap in your portfolio that this work would help fill?

·      Would the people you’d be working with provide valuable network contacts?

·      Would this work provide valuable experience working in a field in which you have little or     

       no experience?


Zippo. Nada. Zilch.

When I was starting out as a freelance scientific illustrator and animator, I had no experience. My drawing skills were excellent and I had a very strong background in science, but I didn’t have training in illustration or animation. Through my science contacts, I got hooked up with a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who needed an illustrator to work on botanical illustrations for an upcoming scientific paper. This project was a joy to work on and from it, I gained


·      Valuable experience working with a client

·      Some lovely botanical pen and inks for my portfolio

·      An important professional contact who has since referred other clients to me

·      A stipend to attend a conference at which I talked about creating reconstructions of fossil

       plants. This  was a delightful and totally unexpected outcome!


Can you see how this free work fit nicely into my long-term goal of becoming a scientific illustrator?  


When to say ‘No!’

It’s also important to know when to say ‘No!’ to free work. If the work doesn’t fit your long-term goals, don’t even consider it. I also highly recommend setting a limit to how much free work you’re willing to do for each client because, seriously, if this is going to be your income in the future, you don’t want people thinking that you’re always going to work for free.

If you’re working for free, at some point, you will begin to see diminishing returns. When I’ve work for free or cheap, I start to get this gut feeling that it’s time to move on. I may even start to feel resentment toward the client that isn’t paying me. That is a sure indication that the relationship I have with this client would be better served if I stop working for free.


Setting limits

·      Determine the length of time you will work for free

·      Determine the number of projects or illustrations you will do for free

·      Stop when you feel you are getting diminishing returns from the project


P.S. I will work for free on a long-term basis if the work is for an organization that I would regularly be donating money to anyway. I see this as another type of donation to support that organization. For instance, I adore elephants and support many organizations that work in elephant conservation. I would happily donate artwork to support these organizations.