Should we work for free?

A topic that seems to come a lot at the moment is: Should we work for free?

I’m sure every small business, particularly in creative industries and professional services, has been asked at some point to work for free or been asked for a substantial discount. This ranges from some free advice to producing a large piece of work.

Most of us create free content which we are willing to share and many professionals are happy to offer an hour free to potential customers. What happens though when we are asked for something more substantial?

Why you shouldn’t work for free

  • It devalues what you do. A business relationship usually won’t be sustainable if someone doesn’t value what you do enough to pay for it.
  • It creates a precedent that it is okay to work for free and that is acceptable to ask.
  • Most of us have spent many years learning our trade, we’re experienced professionals with a lot to offer.
  • It is usually accompanied with lots of promises of referrals or big exposure that cannot be substantiated and rarely materialises.

“If you can possibly avoid it, don’t do it. Free work is not valued by the person who has commissioned it, they should be eternally grateful but never are. Money is a sign of value and respect, even if it is a small amount.” Tony Brook

Apple Music had a policy that meant artists wouldn’t be paid during trial periods offered to subscribers. Singer Taylor Swift wouldn’t let Apple stream her album for free and this led to Apple changing its policy.

When should you work for free?

Ask yourself “What do I get out of it?” Write a list of the genuine benefits and how you could reap the rewards. If you need exposure, experience or a portfolio, then the right piece of work could be worth doing for free.

And think about the person who is asking you? Is it someone whose relationship you value or admire? Have you always wanted to work with them? Do you think they are asking for the right reasons, is there genuinely no budget for the work they want doing?

“I think you have to stick to your instinct. If it’s for something commercial, then you should never work for free. But if it’s a nice project with someone you admire and it turns out well, chances are it will probably pay off somehow in the long run.” illustrator Oscar Bolton

It’s important in business to know your value but you also need to trust your instincts. If it’s a project that you would kick yourself for missing out on, then why say no.