The hidden cost of free

Way, way back when I first began working as a freelance photographer, I was sometimes tempted (and asked) to work for free to gain experience, or because the client pitched their event as a “great chance to market yourself.”  I sometimes accepted, reluctantly, and almost always found myself regretting the decision.

The experience gained was usually not as it was presented by the client, and invariably, the “great marketing opportunity” translated into more offers to work for free from the client’s guest list, if any at all.

The concept of how you can give stuff away and still make money was written up in a book by Chris Anderson called “Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing“, (notably not for free on Amazon), which commented on and helped fuel the whole Freemium model startups love, in which a basic service is given away for free (like Google does with Gmail) and then a small percentage of users are charged for the more advanced features of a premium account, usually on a monthly subscription. 

As much as I’d like the idea of selling subscriptions to my services as a photographer (a day in the life, once a month for a year anyone?), on the few occasions where I did actually work for nothing, the results never paid off.

It shouldn’t really seem all that surprising. People who expect something for nothing aren’t usually the kind of people who turn into great clients. And as amplifiers and marketers on your behalf, the only message that usually gets communicated is that you work for free.

In creative fields like photography, writing, videography, graphic design, etc. where a large number of freelancers are competing for contracts, there is still pressure to “sell” your services for free in the hopes of winning a paying contract down the line.

When it’s a bad idea to work for free

Here’s why it doesn’t work for service providers the same way it might work out for a startup whose only cost is server space.

  1. You want to develop a customer relationship: Alas, customer loyalty just ain’t what it used to be. Because of the pernicious effect of freebies spawned by internet startups and the mass disintermediation the internet has enabled (allowing rich market businesses to buy services from poorer market labourers), loyalty is an increasingly rare resource. As a freelancer, odds are, your clients won’t come around as often as you’d like them to. Even with a regular working relationship, you may only get two or three contracts a year. For most freelancers, that’s not sufficient revenue to survive, let alone thrive.
  2. Free is expensive: If your free client does ever come back to you, you’ve set the bar very low for when you do eventually need to charge them real money to cover your operating costs and keep putting things into your body like food. At that point you’ll realize that negotiating for a fee compared to free. vs. a lower fee compared to a higher fee leaves you with less green in your jeans.
  3. Free gets ignored: People don’t respect what they don’t pay for. It’s as simple as that. Even if you charge a very low cost that just barely covers your operating costs, you are sending the message that you respect yourself and are confident in your ability. Any client not willing to pay even a low fee is not ever going to turn into a client that values you for what you can provide and you are better off putting that time and effort into finding clients who will.

When it’s okay to work for free

There are some times, however, when it’s okay to give your services away. (In fact, I was recently sent a bunch of free custom usb drives from someone I didn’t know, and unusually, I accepted the offer. I don’t know if I’ll buy more, but I liked the way I was approached by the company and the fact that they were willing to offer me something of value just because. I also like the way the drives looked -ego stroke!):

  1. It’s for a cause you care about: If you are drawn to a particular charity, or cause, and want to help them with their fundraising efforts, then you could consider offering your services to the organizers as a gift-in-kind donation. I do this for charitable causes related to children’s health, girls education and cancer research because I care about these issues and like the feeling I get lending my talent towards a worthy cause. It feels good to give, and we should all do more of it, but it should be clear both to you and the recipient that it is a deliberate choice that you are making because you care. It is completely justifiable and fair to ask for a charitable receipt for the fair market value of your services, in this scenario.
  2. You need content for your portfolio: when you are just starting out as a creative professional, your most important asset is your work, your book, your portfolio. It’s the first thing prospective clients want to see once you’ve established contact and if yours is too lean or weak to impress them you’ll never break into the field you’re trying to get into. If this is your case, then it’s okay to do free work, but be very careful about how you do it and it is still worth putting a contract in place that specifies that you own the work, and get to promote it and include it in your portfolio.
  3. You want to learn: in photography and many other creative fields, you start out knowing enough to get going but you are far from expert at anything. It is an art form that takes years to get really good at. And that’s great because one of the things that inspires lifelong passion is the chance to always be learning something new. If you are looking to master a technique, or just gain exposure to a line of work you are researching, then again, offering your services for free can be worthwhile. It isn’t really free because you are getting educated and making contacts in your industry. If you choose this path, research the person you want to work alongside and always keep the focus on your learning while trying to offer something of value to the person or organization you’ve joined up with so that when the time comes for you to strike out on your own for real, you’ll have someone who will feel comfortable referring work to you and or maybe even hire you first.

Working at something you love is a reward in itself and it pays dividends throughout your life in terms of happiness, self-actualization, self-confidence and just being free to live and work on your own terms. Autonomy and independence are enormously empowering emotions and should factor into anyone’s decision to go it alone and become an entrepreneur, whether as a freelancer or business owner. But giving yourself away for free for too long ultimately slows down your growth and potentially undermines it completely.