To Free, or Not to Free

During a recent #solopr chat on Twitter, I made the following statement:

Remember: it's worse to work for free than to not work at all.

While many pros agreed with me, some had serious questions about this advice (below). But aside from new business opportunities (which are unpaid in virtually all cases), working for free can often be a dead-end road. Working “on spec” – which means you get paid only if the client deems you worthy – or with a client you know is probably not going to get around to paying you, diminishes your worth.

For all of us, every time we work for a client we are establishing our value. If you work for free, then the value of your time is $0.

You may think that working for free for someone will put you in their good graces, and you'll be the person they call first when they have a paid gig. In fact, it may be just the opposite. Similar to Groucho not wanting to be part of a club who would have him as a member, people like working with consultants who are in-demand. Working for zero smells like desperation — and isn't it human nature to avoid being associated with someone desperate?

The economy is tough – my clients have limited budgets and I want to show I'm flexible
I have fallen into this trap myself over the last year. Though not working for free, I put effort into trying to help one long-term client stretch every dollar (rob Peter to pay Paul, kind of thing). Guess what? Shortly thereafter they decided to spend $20,000 of their marketing budget on something quite silly (wish I could tell you what – you'd be shocked!).

What I learned: organizations can find the money to spend when they want to, so make sure you're on that list. And don't over-compromise — it's not worth it.

What if I want the experience and need items for my portfolio?
If you're interested in working for free with the aim of gaining additional experience and samples to show, why not work for your favorite non-profit pro bono? Some large charities have marketing committees made up of volunteers — in those cases, you can expand your network while you support a worthy cause.

What about working on new business proposals for an agency?
This can work out well sometimes, but be careful. First and foremost, the agency should have at least one person doing the same amount of work on the proposal as you. Why? Because that makes them have some “skin in the game.” An agency will be far more choosy about the new business opportunities they pursue if they have to expend some resources to get it. You don't want to be a dedicated worker bee on any and all long-shots that come along — there will be no incentive for them to pass up lost causes.

Also, unless you have it in writing that you'll get a guaranteed XX number of hours for as long as they have the contract, you can also get cut out of the deal – I've heard of this happening to many solos. And make sure you trust, respect and enjoy working with the team on the proposal, since those will be your collaborators long-term.

In a nutshell, I believe it's much better to spend a day in the park than toiling away on a project that helps your client's bottom line, but not your own. In this economy, clients will push on occasion, and it's our job to push back.

Do you agree? Are there any cases where you've worked for free and were glad you did? Any horror stories? Let us know in the comments!