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Should you ever work for free?

By Alexandra Gavril - August 2, 2017

Starting your own small business or going freelance involves a lot of unglamorous beginnings: trying to build connections from scratch and doing work for free or for cheap in order to build your portfolio. And these are just a small part of the early journey.

But when, if ever, is it OK to work for free? There is no right answer. The truth is there are times when free makes sense, and times when it doesn’t.

So, when should you use free as a strategy to market your business and services? And how can you best leverage it to ensure you get the most out of it?

Using free to gain skills and experience

Gaining new skills or improving your current ones is critical for a small business owner. If you have the opportunity to gain experience by giving away services or products for free, you should consider doing it, especially if you’re just getting your business off the ground.

For example, if you are a speaker, you need to perfect your skills in front of an audience before you can get paid for it. If you’re a photographer, you may allow people to use some of your photographs for free to get your name out there and gain some exposure. (By releasing your images under a creative commons licence, you can attract attention and keep full control of your work.) If you’ve created an app, you may give free access to it in the beginning to get some valuable feedback and identify the issues that need to be fixed to make it even better so you can later charge for it.

These are situations when free makes sense as they allow you to gain expertise and, at the same time, to work out what needs to be improved. However, while free makes sense for a while, it shouldn’t take long until you start charging for your work. How many improvements and new features are you going to add to your app before you start to sell it? You need to think about a time frame ahead of time because free needs to be a temporary tactic, not a permanent one.

Gaining exposure


You need to determine if the exposure is worth the time and effort. If the company asking for a freebie is high profile, being associated with it could pay off in the future in the form of future business and credibility. In addition, having worked with a blue chip company can expose your brand and products or services to a large number of people.

If you use this strategy, make sure that it only accounts for a small portion of your time, and that you’re only doing it when you’re just starting out. You can also ask for something free in return. For example, you could ask the company to promote your products or services in their newsletter or on social media, or to run an ad on their website.

Teaching others about your “secret sauce”

I’m a huge fan of marketing through education. Not only is this a great way to get people to learn about your business and what you do, but it can also convince people to try your product with the hope that they’ll purchase it later on. Keep in mind that prospects score you based on how capable, trustworthy and amiable you are. You can easily prove these qualities by teaching people about the kind of work you do, and ideally how it can help them solve a problem or be better at what they do.

A good way to do this is through blogging. Check out our beginner’s guide to blogging for business. If you’re not a fan of writing or don’t feel confident to write, there are some great alternatives to blogging like podcasts, infographics, videos and more.

Another thing you can do is to offer a low-featured free version of your product. Technology and software companies often use this strategy because it’s effective at getting users to try a product and then entice them to upgrade to a paid version with additional features.

Using free for added value

A good situation where you can use free to stay ahead of your competition is to include something of value for free with a purchase. This can be more effective at closing the sale than cutting the price of your service or product in an attempt to increase the chances of your prospects choosing you over your competitors.

For example, if you’re a hairdresser you could offer a discount or a free manicure with a third haircut. If you offer Photoshop training courses, you can offer a free ebook to anyone who books a spot on your course or a discount for a future course or for a friend.

Charity work


There’s also another reason people work for free – because it benefits a cause they feel passionately about. Charity work can help you improve your skills and, in some cases, provide you with exposure. But most importantly, if you do decide to work for free for a charity, pick one that matches your personal and brand values. And don’t give away so much of your time that it has a negative impact on your business.

Wrapping up

If you’re just getting started and are considering giving away your time or services for free as a tactic to gain exposure and future business, remember that the goal is to ultimately get paid. Working for free over the long run isn’t a good strategy, unless it’s charity work. But even then you have to make sure your business comes first.