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Ask A Freelancer: When Is Free Ok?

When I started my freelancing business I got a lot of requests from family and friends to do web design for free. I was torn.

I needed to build my portfolio, but I also wanted to work with people who valued my work.

I needed to pay the bills, but I also needed testimonials.

I wanted help other people, but I didn’t want to seem unprofessional.

Every single freelancer I’ve ever met has had to manoeuvre the FREE thing.



Since I am only one voice in a sea of many freelancers I asked the Freelance to Freedom Community “When is Free Okay?” Here’s what they said:

Maria GilI have a pro bono program, so I work for free very often, but I regard it as giving back, rather than just not getting paid. There are set rules about who it is for and why and what they get exactly, so I can always refer back to those if I ever doubt. This was inspired by matthew Manos’s work (he gives half of his work away for free!).

– Maria Gil Ulldemolins,

Laura McCullochI will never do work with a client for free (unless it’s charitable). Even in my first month in business I charged a premium for my services. Why? Because you teach people how to value you with your pricing.

– Lara McCullogh,

Sara GreybillThere are a couple of times I am willing to work for free.
1. If it is an organization or non-profit that I really am passionate about.
2. If they have a skill I am in need of and they are willing to trade.
3. If I’m slow and wanting to build my portfolio.

– Sara Graybill,

Beth BakkumI think it’s OK when you are first starting out or want to try something new to see if you like it. For example, I wanted to see if I liked copywriting (and if I was any good at it!) so I made a free offer to write a few About pages.

– Beth Bakkum,

Jackie JohnstoneFor me doing some work for free is great as long as it’s serving YOU. Whether that’s learning who you like to work with or how you can best provide value (especially when you are new to business) OR for market research / tuning into to what your audience really needs OR because you really really dig the cause and it makes you feel really good to help out.

– Jackie Johnson,

Temmy OlaGive ‘free’ when you’re still new in the game and building credibility, give ‘free’ to pave way for your ideal clients to trust you and eventually invest in your priced offerings. Give from a good heart, but don’t be a starving entrepreneur.

– Temmy Ola,

Nikole GippsI will do free if I can fix or answer something in about 5-10 minutes. Basically if it takes longer for me to explain than to fix, I’ll just fix it for you. But if I notice something bigger or your project needs more than that, I’ll let you know how much it’s going to be. I’ve often had small fixes turn into larger jobs because people are either happy and they want something down the road, or I go in there and notice something bad that needs to be addressed right away.

– Nikkole Gipps,

Erica LeeI think free is okay at the beginning of your business, if you don’t have anything to show prospective clients. If you’re more established, I think free should be saved for when you truly believe in the project/person and they simply don’t have budget or they’re a non-profit/other volunteer cause. Otherwise…charge. Even if it’s $5. Psychologically, people value things they pay for a LOT more than things they get for free.

– Erica Lee,

What about you? You’re a freelancer too! When do you think free is okay?


Leah Kalamakis Leah Kalamakis is the founder of The Freelance To Freedom Project and a web designer/developer for brilliant entrepreneurs. When she’s not hanging out in the FTF Community, you can find her people watching on the streets of NYC. Come say hi on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • I did free design for non-profits, but only when my schedule permits. So many people want the free thing by tomorrow because they have a deadline they haven’t thought of.

    I used to feel bad for saying no, but now I’m more comfortable because I’m aware I’m not the only person that can help them.

    I’d say it’s OK for absolute beginners to do things for free just to learn, but if you have the skills of a professional, be a professional and charge.
    Even my best friends pay me because they respect my work. If you spend 8+ hours on something, it’s not fair of your friends & family to expect to do it for free. They probably wouldn’t spend 8 hours painting your house for free, or give you 8 free massage sessions. (If they would, that’s a great opportunity to barter! But one lunch is not a fair payment for your effort.)

  • I’m glad you had such a good week, Leah! I never did the free thing, but I was fortunate my first and second clients insisted on paying what we agreed was a fair fee even then.

    Also, a friend who was a B-schooler encouraged me early on to design an intro package that would function as a paid trial period which still works really well. I can see where working for free might help some people starting out, but I never had a sense I needed to do it.

    I would definitely do some unpaid work for a person/cause/non-profit as a way to give back. Oh, and I have done some free work for my husband’s family, but having something to do while we visited for a whole week totally served me 😉

  • Oh, this is so hard sometimes! The biggest problem for me comes from the fact that I love designing things so much that I WOULD do it for free just to have the opportunity to work on it something fun. But then I realize I really need to make money from it if I want it to support me and my family some day (soon!). I have a hard time figuring out how to charge for this fun passion I have. Such a grey area. Can’t wait to see what you and Heather have been working on!

  • I don’t think it’s ok for people to assume you should work for free just because you are starting out in the freelance world. Take this scenario for instance, a guy has just graduated from college in law and has landed his first job, on the first day the boss says “we are not going to pay you for the first 3 months because you don’t have any experience on the job!” And they guys says “yeah no problem, I understand as I’m just starting out.” This would NEVER happen so why do we assume that because we ‘have nothing in our folios’ / ‘just starting out’ that we are somehow expected to work for free. A reduced rate yes which is the same in any industry, you start on a junior salary, but certainly not for free.

    I have also done several Not For Profit websites and they have all been paid for. Again a reduced rate as they are NFP but again not for free.

    Consider how you value yourself and how others will perceive you next time you want to do work for free. You might be surprised.

    • Rachel, I totally agree with everything you say, but I think we should make one important distinction.

      If you don’t have anything in your portfolio (literally, nothing), then you’re not a professional freelancer yet. You need to learn the skills on some projects, whether they’re your own personal projects, or something done for others for free. Your skills don’t exist in vacuum.

      You offered an example of a lawyer, I’ll offer a different one.
      People who go through coaching training, or psychotherapy schools, or basically any certification that I know of, need to do a certain amount of hours “under supervision” with clients, and there are usually not paid, because you’re still not a coach/therapist/whatever.
      At the end of certification they will be skilled enough to charge, and they will have shining testimonials to feature on their website.

      If you don’t have a portfolio, you create one by doing things in your free time for yourself.
      Otherwise, how did you manage to learn design without completing a single project that you can show to others? You didn’t. Any skill should come with something to show for it, not just “trust me, I’m a designer”.

      My first portfolio consisted exclusively from my own projects, and that was enough to land me paying gigs from the start.

  • I think there are (very few) times and places to consider a pro bono gig here and there, BUT a business exists to make money. If you’re not making money in exchange for your services, you don’t have a business, you have a hobby.

  • I rarely work for free, mainly because it creates a whole new set of issues in my world. When doing work for paying clients, their projects come first. They get the best parts of my brain. The fresh parts. The work that I do for free gets my tired brain. I hate putting subpar work out into the world, so I only commit to charity/non-profit free work when I feel that I can dedicate “good brain” time to the project.

  • One of the best tips I’ve heard about doing work for free is from Kathleen at Braid Creative – that you should let the person know the value of what they’ve received. If the work would normally have cost $1000, the invoice will say that – right along with the discount/gift/bonus credit for the -$1000.

    I think that taking on clients pro bono or donating time is a wonderful thing to do in business, and in life. I should do more of it!

  • Jay

    At the beginning of my freelance writing journey I worked for next to nothing to build up my portfolio. I charge for all services now, but a percentage of my time is dedicated to giving back – whether it’s writing an About page or providing input on book. I don’t think of those as working for free – but a way to build Karma points. Even if you’re freelance – I don’t think everything should have a price — you have to give as well as take.

  • In college all of my Freelance work was free, which I was okay with because some of it was for big NFL websites. (Back then, I rarely said no so long as I was knowledgable on the subject) I don’t regret taking these free jobs as they have added to my portfolio. Currently, I’m freelancing for a digital marketing company. Right now, specifically about local SEO, & they offered to pay me right off that bat, which is ideal yet confusing because I’m not sure how to gauge future situations in terms of how much I should charge/when I’ll work for free, but I think there will always be a time that I’m willing to help when I can.

  • Rebecca

    There’s no good case for working for free. It teaches people that your expertise is not worth anything.

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