Freelancing—or Working for Free?










Is it just me? Yes, both words feature the word “free.” But to many potential un-payers, they mean the same thing: free, as in do-the-work-but-I-ain’t- payin’-you.

I ask: Would you ask Sears to shoot by to fix your dryer gratis? Would you roll up to the McD window to collect your artery-blocking death-in-a-bag lunch and roll away without paying? Does Boomingdales let you saunter out the front door with Big Brown Bags filled with fab fashion at no cost? What about your attorney, doctor, trainer, gardener, car repair person or hairdresser?

Let’s Get Real About Free

Nobody is giving it away and free is never free. It always costs someone, and in this case it is you. Seasoned freelancers generally work like dogs, so why do people who pay everyone else feel it’s cool to call us and other small businesses and plead poverty? People, your cash crunch is not our problem. Actually, you probably don’t even have a cash crunch. Perhaps you’re just trolling for freebies?

When I owned my 40-person ad agency (pre-Partnersh*t), we had things like price lists, retainer contracts, fee structures and oh, I don’t know, billable hours??? We negotiated pricing and terms of service that made both sides feel valued and appreciated. I’m still that same person sans the overhead. Like so many millions who have changed the way we work to accommodate this new entrepreneurial economy, I still do all those things and still deserve to feel valued and appreciated. Asking us for freebies invalidates everything we have spent our lives studying, training and apprenticing for. And it makes you look like a schnook. You must not value yourself or your project.

I also won’t let my clients work for free. Case in point: One used to give away his seriously amazing photography by testing every damn model in the business. When he finally got it through his bean that free = poor, invalidated, not valued, not taken seriously, not respected, unprofessional and so on, he stopped. Sure he was afraid, because our bad habits feel safer than the unknown. Within no time, his revenues climbed four-fold and he is now shooting for Elle, Avon and more. Respected? He’s at the top of his game and in wild demand.

Stamp Out Freebies

Freebies are the scourge of freelance workers everywhere. Beginners notwithstanding (yes, we all pay our dues) many are tempted to work for free because they believe it will lead to paying work. News flash: it won’t. It leads exactly nowhere. When the un-payer decides to ante up, they hire someone else because they want to work with professionals who value themselves. Clearly you don’t if you were willing to give it away for nothing.

It’s time freelancers stand up and say, once and for all, “No payee, no workie.” To that end, here are some Freelancer Anti-Freebie Tips.

1. No. Say it. Again. And again. Click your heels three times like Dorothy and say,”I don’t work for free. I don’t work for free. I don’t work for free.” Say it without anger, frustration or any other negative emotion. “No” is your birthright and yours to express with confidence, love and authority. There’s nowhere but up after you say “No.” And don’t be afraid to say “No” to paying jobs that are not right for you. Not everything will be. A bad job is like a bad lover. It does not get better and it’s hard to get rid of.

2. Know the code. All of these statements mean they want you to work for nothing.

  • This will give you great exposure.
  • I just want something to show the boss so he’ll hire you. 
  • Help us now and we’ll pay you when we get rolling.
  • My job is on the line. Can you help? 
  • Let’s trade.
  • You can get in on the ground floor of this exciting new business.
  • I’ll pay you with shares in the company. (Ok, if it’s Apple or Samsung, say yes.)
  • We just want to see what you can do.
  • We just need a mock-up.
  • How about I make you my partner? 
  • Do the work now and I’ll pay you at the end. 
  • Can I run by and pick your brain?
  • Let’s just jump on a call with the team and toss some ideas around.
  • We’ll build this cost into the next project we hire you for.
  • My personal favorite: “This piece will be great for your portfolio.”  Um, thanks. I guess you would know better than me what works for my portfolio.

3. Know your triggers. Know who you are, be accountable, stand fast and learn to say no to yourself. Keep your emotions out of it. Do not freak out; don’t get offended; don’t yell or scream; don’t dig your heels in; don’t quit. Instead, be calm and responsible. Own it. That’s where your power lies. Triggers include:

  • I’m scared I’ll never work again if I don’t do this.
  • I won’t have enough work if I don’t do this.
  • I don’t want to make him/her angry.
  • They’ll think I’m mean if I say no. 
  • She is so nice! How can I say no?
  • His cousin asked me to do him this favor.
  • They promised if I do this they’ll hire me for that really big job.
  • I’ll do this for free because I don’t want another person to get it.
  • I’m an artiste and money is evil.  
  • If I say no it’s bad karma. 

The answer to all of these is what? No.

4. Be professional. Be the best in your field. Be confident. Be disciplined. Be organized. Believe in yourself. Be firm.

5. Stop spitting. I advise all my clients to send a client intake form to vet every potential customer. It’s the first thing I do, way before we discuss price. I mean, how can you spit out a price before you know everything about the project? Yet freelancers panic and do this all the time. Stop. You have to know who they are, what they need and if you are the right person for their project. My intake form is intense, well-thought out and strategically created to inform clients from the get-go that they are dealing with a professional who knows her stuff and must know about theirs before she can make an informed decision. If they don’t want to fill it out, I don’t want to work with them, because projects that work require clear communication.

6. Create solid processes.  Successful businesses have a plan. Don’t reinvent yourself every time a call comes in. Be prepared. Roadmaps serve a purpose, and process creates that roadmap. If you stay on the freeway and don’t veer off into the ditch, you’ll be fine. Processes include:

  • Self-discipline
  • Partnership
  • Services
  • Branding
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Management
  • Culture
  • Vendors
  • Clients
  • Financial
  • Legal

And yes, even a one-person business needs to develop processes for all of the above.

7. Create power estimates. Estimating will make or break a project, so be sure to understand what they are asking for and what you are selling. If a job comes in that is beyond the scope of your usual estimating policies, do an evaluation estimate, which you can often charge for. In an evaluation estimate, you are researching the opportunity and reporting back your recommendations on how best to approach the project. It’s a strategic document that identifies a.) the business issue; b). what’s involved in solving it and c.) your role as the strategic, thorough expert in your field. It creates clarity for both sides. Most clients aren’t clear about what they need; they only know what they think they need. They’ll say, “I need a website.” Ok, what kind of website? For what purpose? The variables are endless.

8. Be very careful with the “discount” word. Working on the cheap is just as bad—no, it’s worse—than working for free. Now you’re really not respected. You just became the flea market of freelancers. Sure, people like to negotiate, so build that into your estimate.

9. ProBono is not free. ProBono is a mindset. You are not charging the nonprofit, but what you gain in satisfaction, self-pride, being in contribution and in service is worth far more than any dollar fee. Be sure to investigate the nonprofit before you take it on. is a good place to start. You’ll want to know about their reputation, longevity, work ethic and if it’s a cause you care about. Some are opportunists looking for that freebie. So be careful. Also, be sure to balance your pro bono hours with your billable hours or you might end up pro bono-ing yourself in the hole and you will become a nonprofit.

10. Practice what you preach. Don’t ask anyone else to work for free.




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2 responses to “Freelancing—or Working for Free?”

  1. Thank you from this freelancer! I have said no a fair amount in my 10+ years as a freelance photo stylist and producer, that is after saying yes entirely too many times without compensation. Live and learn. I wish I had seen this all those years ago.

  2. pattysoffer says:

    Good for you for saying no! That will get you way more respect than a free yes. This is really about recognizing and enforcing your value. People need to understand that freelancers are a huge part of the economy. We don’t need an organization behind us to determine what we are worth.