Should the “Free” In Freelance Refer To the Price?

Will work for equity...“When is it okay to work for free…?”

I get asked this a lot. The simple answer is “never,” but there’s more to it than that.

See, there are some unscrupulous companies out there who like to take advantage of the newly self-employed — especially freelancers.

They offer you “a great opportunity to build your portfolio” in exchange for giving them your work for free.

When you hear this, I highly recommend you run away — as fast as you can. After doing this for so many years I can tell you that 9 times out of 10, they are going to be some of the worst clients you’ll ever have. They don’t see the value of what you offer, and that’s a bad sign.

But there are times when working for free is a good idea. You have to come up with your own rules. For me, I only work for free when it’s for karma, friendship, or a piece of the pie.


If you’re really looking to build a portfolio and get testimonials (without being a glorified intern) take a look at non-profit and charitable organizations.

There are many organizations that don’t have the resources to hire quality freelancers. If you’re looking to do some free work just to develop a track record, put your skills to work for someone who needs it, and where you’ll feel good about it.


Doing work for friends and family is often a given. I’ll sometimes do work for someone, just because they are a friend.

There also may be opportunities to barter with friends and acquaintances — trading design for programming, financial coaching for auto repair, writing for artwork, etc.

A Piece of the Pie

Usually if I’m working for free, it’s not really for free. It’s for the promise of a payoff later. Joint ventures, and working for a percentage of a project, can be a win-win for both parties. It also makes you really think about a project before taking it on.

Keep in mind that old-school traditional companies will look at you like you sprouted a second head if you bring this option up. But start-ups and other entrepreneurs are often looking for partnering opportunities, and your skills may be a good fit.

The Bitch Test

When it comes to working for free, it’s up to you to decide what’s in your best interest. One of the best ways to decide is the “Bitch Test.”

If you’re going to spend all the time working on a project complaining about the jerks that scammed you, and how you can’t believe you’re doing this, then walk away. If you feel like you’re going to get something out of it, either by feeling good about the project, or another payoff, then it might be worth pursuing.

Remember it’s up to you to determine your value. How you approach your work is going to set the standard for the work that you do.

So, what are your rules for working for free?


  1. What I do is ask myself:

    1st and foremost – Does it bring me closer to my goals?
    and is what I’m doing benefiting or infringing others?

    Working for the better of the planet is one thing, but doing it for “the man”. No way!!

  2. Another worthy post.

    Karma, friendship, and a piece of the pie are indeed three great reasons to freelance.

    I like your Studio Business approach you mentioned on the Creative Venture site. Connecting with business partners that understand your value, strive for passive income, and aviod turning you into a commodity is key. Once you find that ideal mixture of good people, ideas, and determination, success will likely follow, and the decision will be an easier one to make.

    I think it helps to have a few assignments under your belt to aid in determining projects potential value. When I worked in the web design/coding industry, I did several projects for co-workers that turned terribly bad, with promised payments withheld for over a year. I was green so I didn’t know any better. Another project I did was a project that had no earthly business succeeding, and it didn’t. I should have known better but my vision was clouded by all the money I thought I could make, and the guy I worked for turned out to be the unnoble jerk that my suspicions hinted him to be.

    That’s why the Internet is so cool. You, in essence, get to gain a hell of alot better insight into the true character of potential business partners – especially those who blog. After a certain amount of bloogers blogging, their true voice, and their true character, comes out for all to see. It’s a lot easier to gauge bloggers than it is to gauge some stranger at for example.

    I’m rambling. I shall stop now.

  3. Priscilla – Judging a project on whether it brings you close to your goals is an excellent approach. I think ultimately that’s the way we should do most things.

    Shane – That’s some great advice. It’s all about taking the long view, and seeing how it fits into your overall plans, values, and lifestyle.

  4. One more reason to work for free – for writers, anyway, is exposure and links back to your site. For some, this is a critical traffic building ploy. Writing for a well known site in your area of expertise can bring a rush of traffic to your site.

  5. I agree with this, especially if you’re a freelance writer who is just starting out. I still do freebies — isn’t that what my blog is all about? — but if I can write an article for my blog and get paid to have it published elsewhere, I’ll take the money. (If anyone is interested, I wrote about this in depth here:

  6. Tony – I think the best advice you gave is the last piece: the bitch test. If you don’t want to do it, AND you’re not making any money on it, then don’t do it.

    Closely followed by the friendship policy, in my opinion.

    I think the other thing that’s important to realize is that free work is only free for the person getting it if you don’t set some expectations up front. I had a speaking engagement last night that I waived my fee for. In exchange, I asked that they videotape it, share a brief survey with the audience, and ask if I can use their feedback in my marketing collateral. If someone were waiving their fee for me, I would offer a similar proposition to them. If I’m delighted with the work, I will share their greatness with the world, whether I invested money or just time with the other individual.

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