I am often asked to work for free. It has many forms: “spec work”, free consultation, free public appearance or simply helping out a friend. There are many reasons for providing free services: self promotion, supporting a cause and returning a favour. There are, however, far more reasons to decline.

Working For Free Uses Valuable Resources

I do provide free services, and quite often: I act as a mentor in an academic entrepreneurship program; I give public talks and every once in a while I lend a hand for a cause. But more often than not, I decline offers of free work which will only do me harm.
Because nothing is really for free.
The most vulnerable, scarce and precious resource is your time. Any work, paid or otherwise, consumes time. So if it is something that you do in your spare time for an important someone, your work is a great gift.

 

Some work can cost you actual money, or cost other valuable resources. You may use paid tools and online services that you already subscribed to. You may need another person to provide a part of the work that you cannot.

 

And the third resource you use is your attention. Some people may believe in the idea of multitasking. Moving from one mini-task to another, hopping from one project to another and back again – that’s not multitasking. That is task-hopping. When I am working on a specific task, my attention is given fully to it. When too many tasks are requiring my attention, how can I give any one task my full attention at any given moment?

Selling Yourself Short

But the true cost of work-for-free is higher than that of merely the resources you use for that particular work. Even the sum of of all resources you put into the free-willing effort – time, money and attention – is only one part of the price you pay for your misplaced altruism.
When you provide your services for free, in the good hope to acquire new, lasting customers, you are very often selling yourself short. When giving a free advice, you are basically positioning yourself as someone who provides free advices. Many independent service providers believe that free work can serve as an introduction to their paid services. It can be so, but only if you “package” your free service properly. You need to inform your potential customer in advance these three things: that it is a sample work, what additional benefits your paid service will include and what return you expect from your investment. This return maybe as simple as subscription to your newsletter, adding a testimonial to your portfolio or recommending your paid service to their peers.

Someone Always Pays

Yes – everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch. But in simple economics, when the customer doesn’t pay, it is the restaurant owner who has to pay the bill. In the internet economy, you are encouraged to consume free services and pay with your privacy. Your digital identity is packaged and traded, weighed and measured, analyzed and reduced to marketable bits.

 

However, most of us are not Google or Facebook: we don’t barter our services for commodities. As creative service providers we are also very often providers of free services. But when it comes to work hours of a freelance professional or of a design studio, who is actually paying the price? In this domain, free lunch is almost always free for the customer. The metaphoric restaurant cannot withstand such freebies for a very long time.
There may be some benefit to the practice of providing your services for free for a short time. But for small businesses, the gain from this practice is highly limited. A creative studio cannot serve millions of users who willingly give away their personal details and trade these data. A creative studio has very few “premium features” to offer recurring customers and let’s face it: a lot of the times, the customers just need a one-off and you may see them again in a couple of years or more.
There is a difference between exploiting a free service and leeching on a service provider with a vague promise of future payment. There are all sorts of freebie seekers: there is the exploiter, the leech, the pauper and the blackmailer. call it “spec” work if you will, this video shows how this practice is not acceptable in any other occupation and begs the question of why should it be acceptable in design:

True, there is a common practice of requiring project candidates to do a spec for you, when you are a small studio owner and you need to make sure that your choice of animator is spot on. Having done spec work myself, I know how frustrating it is to do the work and eventually not get the job. This is, however, a part of the cost of doing business. It is a totally different thing to find your “spec” work used but not to get paid for it.
So what are the ramifications for providing your very own time and effort, your professional resources, for free?

 

The first thing to be reduced is your position: you are a spec provider, a creative amateur, someone who can be trusted to give a good pointer for future work, but not the one to win the big project.

 

This may very well carry on to the client’s colleagues and friends: as great as your work may be, you may find yourself being recommended to other non-paying clients. It is a vicious circle, which is hard to break.
Still confused wether or not to agree to provide free service? Try consulting this brilliant flowchart.

Posted by Samuel Miller

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