What Free Work Can Buy a Freelancer

  • By James Bennett II
  • November 25, 2020

A few weeks ago, we explored ways for freelancers to brace for those inevitable cold periods. When financial winter strikes, you might find yourself itching to keep busy, reaching out to any and every potential client. And then one day you get a call, and are offered a gig! But when you start to discuss pay, your future client drops the bomb— you’re being paid in a thing called “exposure.” You break into a cold sweat— you’ve heard of this “exposure” before. It’s that thing that ruined your “Oregon Trail” hopes and offed pretty much every explorer who was bored and/or crazy enough to go searching for the Northwest Passage.
But hey, can you stop thinking about money for one second. Exposure can get you all sorts of cool things, like, uh…

Ramen for a Week

Pictured above: not the ramen free work will net you.
What, you thought you were going to grub out on a wonderfully spicy, creamy tonkotsu broth? No, friend, it’s instant ramen time. Taking on your client’s requests for free, especially in a down period, is a sure way to get your mind’s creative connections firing on all cylinders. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice a few weekends or happy hours for the duration of your free period, it’s time to start thinking about how to hack even the simplest of meals. Maybe your client won’t be giving you any money, but they will be indirectly giving you some of the most creative PB&Js and instant ramen bowls you have ever had.

A Freelance Portfolio Boost and Canceled Netflix Subscription

Sometimes you’ll really want to work on a freelance project, but your pitches keep falling flat. Yeah, you could post it on your own website, but how much better would it be if you present your vision as a project for a cool client? They’re offering to give you exposure, which is more than what you can give yourself anyway, right? So you perform some “freelance for free” mental acrobatics and accept the offer. But just as with the cheap eats situation, you’re going to need to make some additional sacrifices. Why not cancel one of your streaming video subscriptions? Face it, you need to save as much cash as you can. And at the end of the day, Netflix is calling you to bed, like some kind of irresistible adonis/siren pressuring you to forgo any of your responsibilities.
So when your truest desire is to knock this assignment out of the park, especially when you’re doing it for free, why not cut our every procrastinator’s champion enabler? But then again, if you’re that convinced this could be your best freelance work to date, maybe you could keep shopping it around. Your call, though.

“A Foot in the (Freelance) Door…”

In all seriousness, this just might be the most compelling case for taking on a project free of charge. And by “most compelling,” I mean “as long as the right criteria are met.” To find the perfect “free work” match, ask the following three questions:

  1. Is this a client/company that I really want to work for?

    If you’ve somehow grabbed the interest of a leader in your chosen field— a notable critic, a career journalist, your favorite artist— then in some ways you’re well ahead of the game. Same goes for a well-respected publication, in which a byline would be huge for your future. If you’re sure it could make your career, it wouldn’t hurt to consider the assignment.

  2. Is there an expectation that everything you do for them will be free?

    Be responsible, though. Is there anything at all that would make the client assume everything you would do for them is free? Or is this like a “test run”, and if the first freelance assignment works out well, you might be able to come on for something more regular… and more paid?

  3. How much effort is involved, relative to the importance of the client?

    This is a bit tricky and really depends on how badly you want it. In the instance that what’s being asked of you doesn’t require an insane amount of effort or could be completed in a matter of hours, no one would fault you for going for it. But if you’re being asked to commit to something in the long term, well, that’s an answer only you can provide. It comes down to how badly you want it. If you’re only getting this one shot, make like Eminem and don’t blow it (or share mom’s spaghetti during in-person meetings). But you can honestly say there are other fish in the sea, look elsewhere but keep try to keep that line of communication open.

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