The Freelance Clinic: Should you work for free to build your portfolio?
This week’s problem is one that’s particularly pertinent for new-born freelancers, just starting out in the wonderful world of self-employment. That is, the challenge of establishing a portfolio of work and a healthy crop of fantastic testimonials. This, like a lot of start-up teething problems, is a real chicken-and-egg one: you need something to present to potential clients to show them why they should hire you… but you need commissions to build up that evidence in the first place. It’s the kind of thing that really makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall, screaming about the illogical injustices of life.
There’s no question that you need to gain experience in your field before you can really start seeing a healthy return – it would be the ultimate act of naivety to expect to stroll into a job on nothing but a winning smile and your word that you do know something about HTML, and charge through the nose for it to boot. The dilemma arises when you’re asked to do work for free, or for a rate so negligible it won’t pay for the electricity you use to send the acceptance email.
You’ll get a lot of conflicting advice about doing freelance work for free – some will say never ever ever offer something for nothing, because it makes you seem unprofessional and it could mean you’re expected to work for free in the future. That’s not totally unfounded – if you think about it, offered a choice between a photographer who’ll do the work for nothing, and one expecting £20 an hour, which one are you going to presume is the more experienced? It’s a weird thing that seems sort of counter-intuitive when you’re trying to sell something – surely the cheaper the product or service, the more appealing, right? But actually most consumers view a higher price as an indication of better quality. You probably know about the selling principle of offering three options: when faced with three identical products with three different price tags, most people go for the middle price, on the basis that it’s likely to be better than the really cheap one, but not overpriced like the most expensive. That’s a bit of a sidebar, but it follows that charging a middle-of-the-road rate for your freelance services is the best way to secure work when starting out.
The Experience Paradox
On the other hand, price is not the only thing clients take into consideration when choosing who to commission for a job. In the world of freelancing, proof of past experience (and, crucially, successes) is vital, and glowing testimonials and references are also a big help. Realistically, are clients going to hire someone at the going rate if they have nothing to show for their ability to do the job? So now we get back to the original dilemma, i.e. you can’t work for free, but you can’t charge without experience, but you can’t get experience without working, which you can’t do for free… etc. etc. until you get dizzy with it and just sit down forever.
Value is relative… but not that relative
The solution here is actually fairly simple, if not super inspiring. Basically, a good rule to work by is that you should not be doing free work for anyone who can afford to pay you, no matter how good you think it’ll look on your CV. If Vogue are ringing you up, trying to get you to shoot an editorial for them for nothing, that’s rotten. Condé Nast can shell out for a photographer’s fee, I’m pretty sure. But that’s fairly unlikely. What’s more likely is you get a friend of a friend telling you that their company has a fantastic opportunity for you with exposure that’s going to launch you into the stratosphere, but they can’t offer you any payment. Now, if you really thought that was true, I suppose you could take the job. No one necessarily needs to know that you did it for free, and if it leads to bigger things then that’s great. But how often does a job like that come along, one that’s big enough to make your name but can’t afford to pay you for your time? Almost never, I would bet. More likely is this company wants something for nothing, for a job that will get a small amount of attention and nothing will ever come of. And there’s no sense in selling yourself short for people like that.
Instead, it’s a much better idea to approach charities, or small not-for-profit groups who’ll be really grateful for your efforts and let you get that vitally important experience, and a rave review, and build up your portfolio that way. A good crop of personal projects also won’t go amiss. A few of these under your belt will make you a much better candidate for paid work, without earning you a reputation as the cheap option.
Personally, I’m inclined not to offer one-size-fits-all advice like “never work for free” because every situation is unique and requires a unique response. The vital thing is not to allow yourself to be taken advantage of, and to weigh the benefits against the effort and expense before jumping into a year-long full-time project that won’t give you anything in return.
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