When some people hear the word “freelance,” all they process is “free.” Many clients are eager to accept unpaid work from freelancers, and as more people than ever choose freelance work over the traditional 9-5, this issue becomes increasingly relevant. As of 2016, over 55 million Americans, or about 35% of the workforce, were freelancing full-time or taking on freelance work as a side hustle. And that number is growing. Some are even predicting that over 50% of the workforce will be freelancers by 2027.
Many aspiring freelancers find that securing enough paid work to pay the bills can feel like a full-time job on its own. At the beginning of a freelance career, it can feel like any opportunity to be recognized for your skills, network, and get your name out there is worth it — even if your bank account disagrees. But working for free is a controversial topic among self-employed creative professionals; you don’t want to devalue your own labor, and at the same time you also need to gain some experience before clients with a bigger budget will hire you. And for many, it’s highly financially impractical or even impossible.
As a freelance writer, I spent months working without pay before I realized I could turn my passion into viable career path. Eventually, I began exclusively taking on paid assignments, and as I connected with other freelancers, I realized that many were vehemently against the idea of working for free at all. My personal opinion is more conflicted. Yes, there were definitely times when editors took advantage of my naivety — but on the other hand, I ended up with a solid portfolio of published writing samples that were necessary to land paying clients.
If you can afford it, is working for free ever a smart business decision? It depends on a few factors. Here are some questions you should ask yourself to determine whether an unpaid assignment could pay off in the long run.
1. How many samples do you have to show to prospective clients?
When you’re pitching to new, paying clients, they generally won’t hire blindly — they will want to see examples of your previous work before making a decision. If you’re just starting out in your career, you may not have samples to show them yet. Yes, you could start up your own blog or website, but clients will usually want to see that you can follow instructions and meet deadlines set by someone else.
If you still need to build up your portfolio with projects you would be confident showing off to future clients, volunteering to work for free can be a good idea. You could offer your services to family and friends or look for websites that accept submissions without requiring samples. When you reach out to new clients in the future, they’ll be able to see that you have samples which have been vetted in some way, whether that means approval from an editor or a testimonial from a happy customer.
2. Are you exploring a new niche where you have limited previous experience?
Is working for free ever necessary if you’ve already been freelancing for a few years? If you want to explore a new niche within your field, you might have to take on some unpaid work to demonstrate your skills in this area.
For example, if you’ve always written about pop culture and have a portfolio full of movie critiques and album reviews, but you really want to take things in a different direction and get into environmental journalism instead, you may have to step back to square one for a little while. This can be a humbling experience, but with your background knowledge of your industry and existing network of clients, it shouldn’t take long before you’re landing paid assignments in your new niche.
3. Have other freelancers leveraged unpaid assignments into paid projects with the client?
Be careful; there are many companies who will solicit free work with the promise that one day, it could turn into a paid opportunity. It sounds enticing — prove yourself with a short unpaid trial period, and then they’ll trust you with paid assignments. But how can you tell which companies are serious?
Seek out other freelancers who have worked with them and see if any have been hired for long-term contracts or even worked their way up to a staff position. You can work backwards — check out their current employees on LinkedIn and look at their history to see how they eventually landed a paid position. If you can’t seem to find any evidence that other freelancers have ever gotten a paycheck from this company, don’t provide your services for free.
In the end, only you can decide if unpaid assignments can eventually boost your business. With the right strategy, working for free could be the ticket to bigger paychecks and better clients in the future.
By Jane Harkness
Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her writing has been published on Thought Catalog, Student Universe, Pink Pangea, and more. You can check out more of her work at janeharknesswrites.com.