freelancers and small business

Should freelancers and small business owners work for free?

Working for free could leave you counting change. Photograph: Beyond Fotomedia GmbH / Alamy

Now that we can all create our own websites, blog about our lives and share our photographs, the price for doing these things professionally has dramatically fallen. Not only that, but being asked to work for free is something most home business owners will have encountered, even those in a profession such as accountancy or the law.

It’s a difficult decision to make, bearing in mind you want to balance a good reputation with the possibility of being exploited.

Points to consider before deciding

• Take a good look at what you’re being asked to do and work out how much it’s going to cost you in terms of time, travel, accommodation, materials and so on. And don’t forget the opportunity cost – how you could use the time in other ways and what you could earn, in every sense, not just financially.

• Think about the other benefits involved. Maybe a chance to meet major players in your industry, mentions on social media or a link from a hilltop website that will help your ranking and could give you a traffic spike. Depending on the business you’re in and at what stage, all of these could be a big help in propelling you forward.

• If you do decide to go ahead and do some work for free, decide what your objective is and how to measure it. For example, you might count how many extra followers you gain or how many referrals result from it. You can then make a more informed decision next time.

Home business owners agree it makes a huge difference who’s asking them to work for free.

• If it’s a charity or good cause, you might be very happy to do your bit and help out. Be very clear at the beginning exactly how much time you can donate, and stick to it.

• Conference organisers might approach you to speak because it’s an opportunity to get exposure. It might be, but exposure is also something people die of! It doesn’t pay the bills.

• Friends and acquaintances asking “Can I just pick your brain?” – you don’t want to offend and risk the relationship, but you don’t want to be taken advantage of. Make it clear straightaway how much you can share without charging and when it has to become a business relationship.

• Other freelancers or home business owners – consider a skills swap so you’re both getting something from the deal. You can do it by a straight swap of time, or if one has much more earning power, agree a mutually equitable exchange.

Home working lawyer Candace Kendall, of Taylor Kendall, has been involved in several successful skill swaps. However she warns that on a couple of occasions she agreed to a skills swap in return for free advice, only for the reciprocal services to disappear once her side of the deal was completed.

While you might refuse to work for free, you might come to another deal that’s favourable to both parties. Accountant Rosie Slosek of One Man Band Accounting says that very occasionally she will offer a discount in order to get some feedback on a new product.

Large commercial organisations may tell you they have no budget for your services. This is the one that makes the self-employed see red. A household name that makes massive profits is asking me to work for free? Can I tell them I have no budget when their monthly bill rolls in? The plain-spoken screenwriter Harlan Ellison makes it hilariously clear what he thinks of a request to work for free in this short clip Pay the Writer.

It’s best to avoid an expletive-ridden knee-jerk response if you don’t want to ruin future chances, but equally don’t be under any delusion that fame and fortune will quickly follow. There could be circumstances when you accept – when you are just starting out, for example, and have factored in a period of time without payment.

Or perhaps they are dangling the carrot of paid work to follow. Nazz Ahammad of cloud computing specialists Nimbulus Consulting says: “There can be lots of consultancy to get through a quoting process so that is tricky. We now manage the process carefully to reduce the amount of time asked of us before we get a decision.”

The request to do something for free is so common now that it’s best to be prepared. Think about it now so you’re not caught unawares if the question ever arises. Make sure that working for free is indeed an opportunity to reach new customers and increase your visibility, and not just a way for someone else to save money at your expense.

Judy Heminsley is the founder of Work from Home Wisdom, a blog that provides advice and inspiration for home workers, and author of Work from Home (How To Books)

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