Working for Free: When It Makes Sense and How to Get the Best Results

Working for Free: When It Makes Sense and How to Get the Best Results

Want to fire up any creative entrepreneur? Ask them their opinion on working for free.

Many vehemently advocate against it, claiming that it undervalues our work and makes it more difficult for the rest of the entrepreneurial community to succeed. Tim Kreider’s viral NYT Op-Ed about writing for free is just one of the many articles campaigning for payment rather than “exposure.”

Before you write off working for free, though, consider how it could be worthwhile when you’re getting started. For example, software companies let users test out early versions of their programs for free because they get more value out of the beta tester than they would from charging for their product.

Here’s how to use the same value proposition as a creative entrepreneur.

Working for free: A case study

For the past year, I’ve been creating content as a subcontractor. When I decided to open my own online marketing workshop business, I had no portfolio or testimonials for my high-end services. I also suspected my workshop processes had a lot of holes. During my initial research period, I also had a huge blow to my confidence when numerous experts I queried about my business told me it would fail.

I went through my extensive workshop process with a few carefully selected people, my beta clients, with three goals in mind: build a portfolio of relationships, fine-tune my workshop process and build my confidence in my products.

What I learned from beta testing my business was more valuable than the money I could have charged. That’s the only time when working for free is worthwhile.

Find the right beta clients

Shenoa Lawrence, a website designer, told me about the pitfalls she’s encountered doing free portfolio work. “I found the ‘free, portfolio-building work’ I did for clients only undervalued my business in their eyes.” She found that clients didn’t understand the value of her service, and referrals from these non-paying clients went nowhere. Nearly everyone makes this same mistake: choosing the wrong clients for these pivotal business relationships.

Instead of hoping to build your portfolio, look at free work as a way to generate meaningful relationships with people who can become trusted business advisors — your “portfolio” of relationships.

[bctt tweet=”Look at free work as a way to generate meaningful relationships with people.”]

Finding the right beta clients requires lots of vetting to ensure you’re getting more than just clips out of the deal. I analyzed potential clients’ businesses to make sure my services would fill their needs — after all, if they didn’t have a problem, I couldn’t offer a solution. I also tried to find out if they had spent money on other services like mine by looking for any indicators on their websites or social media profiles.

I narrowed down my list to a few potential beta clients and asked them if they wanted to participate. Underlining the time commitment and feedback you’re seeking from a beta client and being upfront about the process helps you find the right beta clients. Be selective about your beta clients and look for those who are excited and proactive about the partnership.

Beta clients should be part of your target market, and ready and willing to help you perfect your business. My best beta clients were people who were business savvy and willing to provide advice on my business weaknesses.

One beta client helped me spot problems with my workshop and, more importantly, became a strong cheerleader and advisor for my business. A designer in my target niche, she has become someone I regularly turn to for advice and expertise.

Not having skin the game means that some beta clients, like my first one, are unresponsive and unprofessional, quickly negating any benefits you get out of doing free work. Combat this pitfall by looking for beta clients who would otherwise pay for your services. They must agree to engage in your beta process as payment in lieu of cash — and understand what that entails.

Create clear goals and a feedback system

Beta clients will help you refine the pivotal elements of your product. For example, I wanted to test my content marketing workshops to see what aspects were most helpful for clients, and which ones needed more work.

Successful beta testing requires detailed goals and feedback. Well-thought-out goals let you target the results you want from beta testing. Feedback helps you bring these goals to fruition by letting you know what you need to tweak.

The goals of your best testing are not your product or service’s goals. Although the goal of my workshop is to teach clients content marketing and SEO, the goals of beta testing were to ensure clients could understand the assignments, see the purpose behind them, and execute them to achieve the desired results. Overall, I wanted to make sure my product made sense to clients.

To get the most value from your beta clients, guide them through a feedback system. They aren’t likely to volunteer the most valuable information without being asked, because they don’t know exactly what you’re looking for!

Create a strong feedback and review system to get reliable, helpful feedback. I used a questionnaire that asked about every step of my workshop process to open up the conversation, and then followed up on specific comments by email.

Working with beta clients before my launch showed me what my business is good at doing and what needed more work. Some of my plans were great in theory but ineffective in execution, and it was better to find these failures in beta testing than later.

Develop confidence in your offering

Entrepreneurs often fear that our products won’t fill a need or won’t be good enough. I worried that no one would want my product, but beta testing helped me recognize that people did need it and understand how I could best support them.

While you shouldn’t do free work just to stroke your ego, knowing that an audience is interested in your products and services can be a good kick in the pants. Seth Godin suggests asking, “Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?”

Overall, the value I gained by giving away services outweighed the money I could have made. I launched my business with a strong sense of direction and great recommendations. By choosing beta clients well, I built a network of trusted cheerleaders for my business who can provide advice in the future as my business grows and changes.

What do you think about working for free? Has it helped or hurt your business?

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Kim Herrington says:

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my perspective on this really controversial issue!

  • Marcy McKay says:

    I happen to agree with you because back in the day, I did the same thing building up my writing portfolio as a freelance journalist. But I think you stated the two keys to success: 1) Have VERY clear goals for yourself, 2) Connect with the right people. If you get both of these right, I think the freebie venture can be worthwhile. Thanks.

    • Kim Herrington says:

      Thanks, Marcy, for your kind words! It really does matter so much to have those two things in place. Without either one, your freebie experience can go terribly very quickly. I’m glad that was clear in the post.

  • Charles Bane, Jr. says:

    I’m not closed off to this model–in this economy, every idea should be weighed– but I think it is more effective to offer services, particularly marketing, on a non- contractual basis as a credo from the beginning. I retired from Chase, where I was Dir. of Marketing for the Southeast US, to take up a long held dream of being a writer. I consult for extra income. By stating that my services are non-contractual, and unbinding, my prospects instantly relax. I know no competition will offer the same, particularly for small or medium sized businesses.

    • Kim Herrington says:

      Charles, thanks for your input! I’m going to disagree with you on this one. Having a contract not only protects you but also protects your clients.

      For one, without a clause stating you are an independent contractor, there’s always the possibility that you could challenge your clients to pay your employment taxes from your work with them if they start treating you like an employee. Clients deserve this kind of protection and the boundaries set out in a contract. As a marketer, I’m sure you can see an easy way sell a contract to a client.

      While I’ve lost leads because I had a contract that is four pages long, working without the protections is not worth it to me. This is especially true if you’re working with someone on beta testing a system in development. No contract means no protection for your process and any one of your clients could take that process and use it themselves to make money and become a competitor.

      Contracts don’t always need to be as long as mine but you should have something, at the very least, that serves to protect you from unpaid accounts and stipulates what happens to copyrights upon payment.

      In the end, I’ve always found that if someone really baulked at signing a contract, they were going to baulk at my price, want extra-special treatment that was well outside of the scope of the project, and ask me to jump through impossible hoops that were detrimental to my business.

  • Alicia Rades says:

    I think writing or working for free can have many benefits if done right. I think Marcy said it right:

    1) Have VERY clear goals for yourself, 2) Connect with the right people

    I know of many people who have made more money writing for free than writing for places that pay. Sounds odd, right? It’s all about your strategy and how you execute it.

  • Donna Freedman says:

    In this post I mentioned doing it for “the exposure,” and sometimes I do believe it’s a good thing.

    But remember: People DIE of exposure. Don’t sell yourself short too often.

    • Kim Herrington says:

      Thanks for your input, Donna!

      The goal here, as I tried to make as clear as possible, isn’t to gain exposure but to gain experience using a complex process and perfect the processes behind your products. If you’re simply writing posts and selling them, this model isn’t a good fit. Learning to write better is a lifelong pursuit, not a one-time thing.

      This model of “free” is that you improve your products and get more value through feedback than asking someone to pay would give you. It’s not really working for “free.” You’re still getting something well worth your time spent that allows you to make significantly more money in the future.

      I agree that writing for exposure when you should be getting paid is something generally to be avoided but that’s another topic for another post!

  • Brutus says:

    Thank you for the advice, I found this blog post through search engine so you answered all my questions.

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