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Should You Ever Work for Free?

By Linda Haynes

If you’re an entrepreneur, a freelancer, or a start-up, you’ll know how important it is to win new business and make lasting working relationships. Networking is now as important as advertising in terms of generating ongoing success for any venture. We’ve all had certain jobs or contracts that we feel we’ve not been paid well enough for. Whether that’s a bit of graphic design you felt had a high enough ROI to warrant a higher fee, or simply a contract you feel you could’ve pitched a little higher. But have you ever been asked to work for free? Lots of new businesses and freelancers are now being faced with this very situation. They’re told they’re working to gain experience, that the result will net them future work, that it’ll bolster their portfolios. But are these just excuses for free labor, and should you be more concerned with topping up your company finances?

The question you need to ask when deciding whether to work for free is: ‘what’s in it for me?’. There are exceptions: if it’s for a charitable cause, then by all means do as much work as necessary free of charge. But if it’s for other businesses, you need to ask yourself why you’d want to do it. This will usually boil down to how much experience you have. If it’s literally day one for you, you might want to swallow your pride, knuckle down, and work for the experience. It may well pay off when pitching for future business. On the other hand, if you’ve been working for years, there aren’t many situations where you should work for free (barring charity work, of course). Never take their word for it, always ask yourself whether the work is worth it. Generally speaking, that little voice inside will guide you down the right path.

Linda Haynes is a professional writer and researcher.

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