Never work for free?

I recently said on twitter that you should never work for free, but is that really true? Are there occasions when it is okay to do web work for no financial return?

Please note: This was a very hastily thrown together post in response to a twitter conversation. Sometimes 140 characters is not enough!

My Tweet: Gobsmacked at the number of people willing to do something for nothing. Stop it guys! Never work for free. EVER!

Unsurprisingly this strong statement got a reaction. Of course, there are occasions when you might choose to work for nothing, but not as many as you might think.

Let’s look at some of the reasons people give.

“It will be great publicity”

Will it? Will it really? People say that all the time but do not both to consider the statement in detail.

Take for example my case. The comment above was born out of a joke I made suggesting somebody might want to migrate the entire boagworld to WordPress for me because I was too lazy. People started to offer to do this for free because they thought it would be good publicity.

My Tweet: Anybody fancy migrating boagworld over to movable type for me? I cannot be bothered but want it to happen. Before you ask, no budget.

Think that through for just a second. I had agreed to no kind of publicity. However, lets imagine for a moment I had. What is the best publicity I could offer? A link on the site? A mention on the podcast? Would that for a minute make up for the hours/days of work that would have to go into that migration exercise. Of course not! The return on investment is just too low.

Before agreeing to do a project because it will be good publicity, ask yourself whether that time could be spent publicising yourself in other ways that are more effective.

“I work on a open source project”

In my opinion this is not working for free. This is investing in a product you use on a daily basis. You work on the project to enhance it so the end result is more valuable to you.

“It will be good for my portfolio”

Sure it might be, but as with publicity there are probably better ways to spend your time to improve your portfolio. What about developing your own site? What about building a web application?

There is a value in working with real clients. However, a client that does not pay is not a real client. The relationship is different because they are not paying for your services.

“I cannot charge friends and family”

Agreed. You cannot charge family. I myself am currently building a site for my dad and I wouldn’t consider charging him.
However, I feel a bit differently about friends. Why is it acceptable for your friends to ask you to build a website for free? If I had a friend who was an architect I wouldn’t ask him to design me a house for free! I certainly wouldn’t ask my friend who is a doctor to check me for prostate cancer!
My point is that we work in one of those professions where people feel they have the right to ask favours. I don’t think that is fair and I don’t believe we should allow friends to abuse our friendship.
Finally, I know that my close friends wouldn’t ask me to do a website for free. They have always offered to pay and admitted I rarely take it, but at least they offer.

“It’s for charity”

I am torn over this one. I have done charity work for free but I am coming to believe it is a mistake. Even a minimal charge helps to establish a better working relationship.

Charging has two benefits. First it gives you credibility and the client has to respect that you are a professional. Second, it gives the charity the right to comment on and participate in the build. Often if you do not charge they don’t feel they can say anything if they are unhappy.

One approach I have used in the past is to charge the client and then donate the money back to the charity at the end. That way you have the benefits of a paid relationship without the guilt :)

By taking this approach you are stressing that your skills are of value and should be chargeable. The donation is a separate decision which you can decide to make if you so wish.

Conclusions

If you follow me on twitter or listen to the podcast you will know I give away a lot of my time and money for free. I run a youth group, participate in a church and give away a substantial portion of my income.

However, I draw a distinction between my profession as a web designer and my personal life. I believe what we do is valuable and so should be a chargeable service.

Of course, I also recognise that this is an intensely personal area and everybody has to make their own decisions. I just hate to see people undervalue their skills. You are worth more than ‘free!’

  • http://www.kouya.net eddie

    I’m the director of a medium sized UK charity and I agree with everything you say. Working for nothing (and having people who are prepared to work for nothing) is very often a false economy. For the record, when we get good professional help for free, I prefer it if the person involved bills us and then returns what we pay them as a gift (even if no money changes hands). That way, everyone has an idea of the true value of what has been offered.
    This hasn’t stopped me signing up for the boagworld free consultancy thing though.

  • http://www.nomoreart.co.uk Marty Neill

    I did quite a bit of work for free in recent years for a charity that I was a founder and director of. I then resigned from the board and continued to work at way under cost for them. Ultimately the first time that I sent them a ‘proper’ bill, for hosting, they went elsewhere and ended up going with the cheapest option rather than the best. They need to learn to value what we do better and that starts with us.
    They spent money on luxuries such as flooring whilst not paying us also. Lesson learned and I won’t be doing that again.

  • http://www.107designs.com Mike

    Well put, Paul. I got my start trying to do stuff for free or cheap, and it never worked out very well. I’ve gotten farther by raising the bar (and my rates) and now I’m too busy, which is a good problem to have in our line of work. :)
    Great podcast, BTW. Long time listener, first time poster here.

  • Jayphen

    My response was “in certain situations, working for free is worth the exposure”.
    Boagworld is obviously a well-known website & podcast in the industry, and in this situation, I think it would indeed be worth the exposure for some designers. The opportunity to work on & include a relatively high-profile site such as this one in the portfolio may not crop up for some time for designers/developers who have only worked with small businesses, friends, family etc. A linkback or even the recognition on the podcast could be worth a lot to someone who hasn’t done anything especially notable in their design career, and may alone be enough to help bring in some paying clients.

  • http://www.nsdesign.co.uk Gary Ennis

    Paul,
    working for free has it’s place, and there are many reasons why it’s a good move…
    We actually ran a full day of “free work” and consultancy just before christmas, and got a massive volume of PR from it.. Should be featured in next month’s .net mag also unless Dan pulls it ;)
    Some more info on what we did, as well as a link to the DBA slamming it! at – http://www.nsdesign.co.uk/blog/2008/12/the-great-work-for-free-debate/
    Gary

  • http://www.royaldesign.com.au adam bennett

    Great post, working for free and devaluing the industry should be a punishable offense :P

  • http://www.thatcanadiangirl.co.uk Vero

    To add to the tricky moral decision; what about those who provide services where the deliverable is often intangible?
    As a social media and marketing consultant, people feel at ease asking for free advice. “I’ll buy you coffee and you tell me how my company should blog” (of course leading to a 3-hour discussion rather than a 15 minutes coffee break)
    Sometimes I do it, when it’s a good friend, or someone I can see has huge amount of potential as an excellent community manager who just needs a little boost or a bit of direction on where to find inspiration.
    What stumps me is when total strangers ask, with the expectation that I’ll always be able to spare the time. I’m all for growing your whuffie by giving to the community, and I still really struggle to say no* but our time is indeed valuable.
    Thanks for the post, Paul.
    [* This isn't an invitation to test me!! :) ]

  • http://www.monolinea.com kemie

    I was actually going to tweet you some sarcastic reply to your original “work offer” and then thought better about it. Glad to know it wasn’t serious.

  • http://www.afovea.com Afovea

    I really do agree with a lot of the points Paul has made here maybe with the exception to the charity, althought the donation angle is a good idea.
    My real point is to say that even if you do agree to work for free in any circumstance (ANY!) then always put an agreement in place. The reason i say this is because i’ve been burned recently (well myself and SimianE) by a charity whom we had agreed to carry out a large project for free of charge. Partly because we had love for what they did and partly because they would give us a great deal of exposure. Be that naive or not we embarked on the project and carried a fairly substantial amount of work…
    Due to the scope of the project the client became inpatient and a person within the charity decided to take it upon himself to source a website from elsewhere without consent from other parties within the charity and without our knowledge. This broke down all trust and relationship as we felt cheated and disgruntled. The project fell apart and the relationship was truely shattered (although in the process of being repaired).
    My point being is that if there was an agreement in place, then this would not have happened and our time would not have been wasted. Even if you put in a payment clause if the project does not complete this will at least protect you for the time you’ve spent.
    That is all…

  • http://www.safetygoat.co.uk kat neville

    Good post, and good rant!
    I’m surprised people offered in all seriousness, but at the same time, I can imagine a few people would like to somehow offer their thanks for your excellent podcast, your speeches and your contribution to the web design world. Maybe that’s what they were thinking: offering you gratitude for that weekyl dose of fun/advice. Nice to have fans :)
    The only other instance is less a cut-dry free case: you find out about a fun project and want to do it, because it’s, well, fun. Not that migrating your site to wordpress would be very fun to me but maybe it is someone else’s joy in life.

  • http://www.ianfleeton.com Ian

    Good points Paul. I’ve been tempted by the portfolio excuse but I now know that you don’t get to craft your thing working for a client, paid or not. I still might be tempted to work cheap to fill a certain hole in the CV (enterprise experience perhaps), but otherwise no.

  • http://www.arothman.com Drew

    I work for free on the http://www.cvlt.org website. I’ve been involved with that theatre since I was a child, and I originally volunteered to do a site for them back in 2002 because they had no web presence at all and I felt it was an important thing. I’ve continued to do the site (now on its third design) for free, but they have given me the occasional gift of recognition, which is nice.
    I do websites mostly for non-profits, artists, musicians and so forth. I feel that it’s better for someone to have a good site that I take a bit less money for than for them to have either a horrid site, or no site at all. It’s my way of supporting the arts.

  • http://boagworld.com Paul Boag

    @gary yes I saw you did that. However, I am still not convinced that it is worth it over the long term. We will see how much quality work it leads to.

  • http://minute44.com Dan

    I was one of the people who replied and inspired you to write this. My reply was that the people wanting to do the job for “free” would have almost certainly wanted a shout out on the podcast or on boagworld.com.
    Personally I wouldn’t have done it because, like you say the amount of work for the amount of return just isn’t good enough. I do however appreciate that some people would have taken the job under these circumstances. Times are tough and people may be willing to do a whole lot more to get that little bit of an extra push, publicity wise.
    The reason your tweet got such a knee-jerk reaction is purely because people see money as just one form of payment. Publicity, high-quality links and good karma are their own forms of currency in an industry where traffic equals cash.

  • http://meltdowntech.com Ben Everard

    Good post Paul, I had always thought doing a bit of free design / dev work to start my portfolio would be beneficial, but I have quickly gone off of the idea, mainly because I have an unnatural attachment to money :D.
    I also think if you do web work for free, the publicity you get might be, “man alive, Paul’s building websites for free”, and we don’t want that! Just my two cents.
    Have a good day
    Ben

  • http://www.thewatchmakerproject.com/ Matthew Pennell

    What happened to the idea of just doing nice things for other people, without the expectation of material reward? Never heard of the Good Samaritan, Paul..?

  • http://www.supereightstudio.com Matt Hamm

    I think the word “Free” is subjective. I don’t think anybody does anything for “Free”. For example, on an extreme level, if you give to charity you are rewarded with a good feeling.
    Money isn’t always the motivator to do work. It could be for publicity, to better your portfolio, a real world learning experience, to network or even just make friends.

  • http://www.maban.co.uk Anna Debenham

    I disagree to an extent. 2 years ago I redesigned my school site for free. This was my first real project and I was really excited at the opportunity to not only gain experience of building a large website, but also work with clients, give presentations to stakeholders and also have something substantial to put in my portfolio.
    I must have spent well over 100 hours on the project overall, which I did while I was studying full-time for my A-Levels and had a part-time job at the weekends. I treated it exactly like I would have done if it were a paying client.
    I could have asked for payment, but my school didn’t even have enough money to buy its own paper, let alone for a website.
    At the end of the project, I created a user manual for the CMS, and wrote a full accessibility report of the new site with recommendations against the (then unreleased) WCAG2 guidelines.
    So do I look back on this with regret? No. Not only did I learn tonnes from the project about the industry, but it gave me confidence with dealing with the client aspect. I can reuse and adapt all the documentation, and have the experience to work on other school sites. Over time, it has paid for itself in the work I’ve had leading from it.
    I can see why people say you should never do free work, and that it devalues the industry. But I see people starting out who don’t really know what they’re doing and charge a lot money for really sloppy work, and I reckon that’s more harmful. I think when you start out, as long as you don’t have a lot of bills to pay, gaining experience is more important than money. As long as you’re not taken advantage of.

  • http://www.codegent.com/ Mark McDermott

    Hi Paul,
    It’s an interesting topic and like you have just experienced it’s easy to dismiss off hand when there are really many factors to consider.
    We faced this quandary frequently when we were just starting out 5 years ago. The painful reality is that many people like to take advantage of you when you are at your most desperate/broke with the old portfolio building publicity line!
    Rant at the world over, onto my point. It may sound small fry but I decided on day 1 to re-build my Hockey club’s site for free. Firstly, because the old one was a monster and secondly there are over 500 very active members from a real mix of professional backgrounds but of a similar personality type. Namely they tend to be sociable, driven and team oriented as well as generally being successful in their jobs so have decision making influence. Oh, and they all live in London. If anyone was going to give us a break I figured these guys would/could.
    Many late nights ensued and my credit card maxed out but I must say it worked wonders and I can trace some of our biggest contracts and clients across a variety of sectors back to those early introductions, tip offs and massive favours.
    I should balance this and say that a couple of other freebies we did brought absolutely nothing to the party and working for family for free is tough if you have the numbers that Irish Catholic backgrounds muster!
    Oh dear, this is long. The other point I was going to make is that since we started we decided to take on a Pro-Bono charity project as an agency every year. The criteria are that they have a need that the web can help satisfy, they cannot afford to pay for the work (sorry CRUK) and that we are passionate about their cause.
    The reason for this was more a personal desire from David and I to do something that we thought was good rather than for marketing but the unexpected spin off is that it has been great for our staff morale. If we have multiple options we decide who to work with as an agency and absolutely everyone gets to pitch in ideas and influence the project (often adding extra hours from their own time because they believe in it). I guess working for the man can be a bit soul destroying and we all need some occasional relief.
    Some thoughts for you, sorry to ramble.
    take care,
    Mark @mr_mcd
    PS It’s a bit shonky now but still lives on! http://www.spencerclub.org/hockey/
    PPS I would rather work for free over working for a reduced rate, which always seems to bite back eventually. But have I been too flippant in making that remark?

  • Dylan Parry

    “I certainly would ask my friend who is a doctor to check me for prostate cancer!”
    Are you sure about this one? :)

  • Dylan Parry

    Bah. Ignore me. Seems that even though I hit “refresh” before making a comment, it still showed the original, uncorrected article.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonliebe Jason Liebe

    “Even a minimal charge helps to establish a better working relationship.”
    That’s true.
    I hate to say it, but I’ve never been so abused as when I’ve done work for a charity or non-profit groups.
    When you charge nothing, your time is valued at just that much. I never got more ASAP requests or even yelled at by anyone more than these clients.
    Also sorry to say that many of them tend to be miserably run. One project took board meeting upon board meeting to approve a single mockup. Then after it went to markup and integration, doh, we want to change the design. No apology, no respect for my time, etc. We did it anyway, but I won’t do it again.
    With a couple of these clients (we used to do them on a regular basis) I said we’ll have to go to some low hourly rate just to cover our cost, and boom, they dropped us in a sec.
    I guess I’m scorned!
    But I’m all about contributing to OS efforts. That’s entirely different imo.

  • http://www.nsdesign.co.uk Gary Ennis

    I am still not convinced that it is worth it over the long term.
    We will see how much quality work it leads to.
    As for work – it’s already led to a number of “paid for” jobs… and many more potentials in the pipeline…
    But for us, it was about way more than just using “free work” to generate income later on…
    We got great PR/exposure (helped by the DBA giving us a hard time!) – and still getting it as a result of this 1 initiative.
    We also got great feedback from clients (new and existing) about “what a great thing to do” etc etc… ie: the small businesses and organisations that were attracted to the offer really appreciated it..
    And we used the day as a bit of a team-building exercise… in as much as we do “commercial work” day in day out, and the opportunity for the team to relax, have a bit of fun before Christmas, and enjoy trying out new ideas under NO pressure (it was after all free!) for new clients was a great experience….
    Ultimately, in this job, most of us give away “free work” at some point – look at your blog/podcast Paul – It’s packed with “free” advice and consultancy that is effectively given away for free.. You guys spend hours putting this together, so how is this any different to a designed spending hours doing a freebie logo design, or an SEO consultant providing a basic seo report… It’s all about marketing your services, and making sure that potential customers know what you can do should they need you in the future…
    Plus – it actually feels nice to give something for nothing occassionally… ;)

  • http://greenflipflops.com Gabe

    I can’t work for free, it just causes problems. After I design, build, and program a site for free – then I’m expected to maintain it for free, too. Doubling my pain and prolonging it ad infinitum. I wish I had a friend in real estate or car sales, I could get hooked up for free all the time!
    On a similar note, I totally agree with bartering for services – I’ll gladly do a site for the next tattoo shop that give me ink in return.

  • Brian

    @Paul
    Kind of related to the post … Why do you want to move to WordPress?
    You asked recently on your podcast for content suggestions … I’d like to hear about your ideas on what Moveable Type would need to offer for you to stay with the platform? … I’m also interested in your recent experiences choosing an enterprise CMS for some of your projects … What is the tipping point in a project where you realize it needs to move to another solution?
    * I have no relationship with Sixapart or WordPress … just a curious developer ;)

  • http://www.tomuse.org Mat

    I’ve done work for a drug rehab center that was just getting started and had little money to budget for a site, as a means to spread my name, and also as a means to practice professionally I offered my services to him.
    I do not view it as a mistake, though I wouldn’t suggest doing a lot of projects for free by any means, I do think if you’re just getting your feet wet, doing work for a non-profit or charity for little to nothing can be a great way to gain some experience in dealing with people and working on a real project.
    What I did get from it: The peace knowing I helped a worthy cause and maybe increased they’re chances of exposure to those that need them, The gratitude of the charity I helped (great people), more confidence and learned experience.
    What I didn’t get: Exposure to more clients (though I moved shortly after I finished it and never pushed for more work in that area).
    Considering the pros vs. cons I don’t view it as time wasted, though I’d likely not do something like this again unless I really believed in the charity/non-profit.

  • Adam Coppard

    Yes, I work for free under certain conditions. I am interested in stage lighting and sound, and work for free whenever the opportunity presents itself, for friends, family, school, church and wherever else needs the help. This is just while I am in education, and will charge if I take this as a career path. As for web design, I will ask even Charities for a minimal donation, to cover the simple costs involved, which most will gladly pay (I’m talking domain, hosting etc.).

  • http://obeygiant.com weston deboer

    “If you are good at something, don’t do it for free” – The Joker

  • http://juicydevelopment.com Brent Anderson

    You overlooked one instance where working for free can be fantastic. As a High School/Jr. High student that wouldn’t get paid more than $7.50/hour for any work anywhere who’s trying to beef up portfolios and skillsets but can find places to volunteer time and energy. I suppose in exchange you get experience, networking, and a portfolio, but that comes by course when nobody is willing to pay you anyway.

  • http://www.tutorialwow.com/ Josh Drake

    Very true! However, I think there are some times when it’s ok to work for free. I’m not exactly sure what those are, but I think you have to look at the situation to be able to decide. I don’t think we can just say “don’t work for free” and that be the end of it. It’s a conditional thing.

  • http://www.aaronrussell.co.uk Aaron Russell

    I’ve only been self employed for around 8 months now but it never fails to amaze me the sheer volume of enquiries I get requesting free work. In fact I had someone call me last night offering me some ‘voluntary work’ and selling what a fantastic opportunity it would be for me. I normally respond to these types of enquiries by whacking 50% on top of my normal daily rate and scaring them off. I’ve no intention of ever working for anyone who expects me to do it for free.

  • http://www.silentgap.com Tim

    I’ve often wondered what benefits there would be in charging a fee for a charity, but then you’re quote below made a lot of sense.
    “Charging has two benefits. First it gives you credibility and the client has to respect that you are a professional. Second, it gives the charity the right to comment on and participate in the build. Often if you do not charge they don’t feel they can say anything if they are unhappy.”
    I’ve donated tons of work, but one thing in common among all of those clients is scope creep. But I’ve also worked for a lot more paying clients and scope creep was always easier to manage. Charging, even a small fee would be a great way to help guide the process – even if you end up giving it back in the end.
    Thanks for sharing Paul!

  • http://benmay.org Ben May

    After doing some free work getting established, we normally do things at a highly reduced rate.. which basically gels with what you were saying about charities.

  • http://www.yostivanich.com/ Justin Yost

    I totally agree.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonliebe Jason Liebe

    I just read a tweet by @mikeelliot, “The Best Things in Life Really ARE Free”, that made me think back to this post. If you’re feeling charitably you could build a web app in your spare time that can grow into a tool to help many people for years to come. I guess it’s the same principle as open source, but a different medium.
    This ties in nicely to what you wrote under “It will be good for my portfolio” Paul.

  • http://www.iliasjohri.be ilias

    I totally agree with you on this.
    Not only webdesign but design in general is undervalued by “friends”.
    People just don’t understand that it takes more than half a hour to design a logo.

  • http://blog.rainer.eschen.name rainwebs

    If your business is part of the Web you’ve to give something away for free if you wanna earn money.
    If you are an individual who wants to become successful this is also true. There are a lot of Open Source “leader” examples, meanwhile working for the big business with better salaries and higher reputation.
    If you’re in the “Web business” to give something for free is the standard now.

  • steve

    Thank you for providing a lesson to many even if there are some who refuse to hear. there is a difference between volunteering and working for a paying client. You should be paid fairly for any service that you are providing. There are sharks that will eat you alive if you do not charge and it cheapens your work. If someone can get your services for nothing you can be disrespected! They can actually see you as an amateurish and unprofessional and they will pay someone else three times the amount that seems professional for the work that you did for “free”. Seriously, do not diminish your value! the author is absolutely correct. if you want charge your client and throw in an image for free but don’t build a client website for free. NO ! NO! NO! NO ! NO!

  • http://www.gradualism.co.uk Emily Heath

    Good article, good comments. Nice to see this debate being had.
    I tend to do a job for what you might call ‘free’ about once a year, but it is either because I am learning a new skill, or, like this year, a barter.
    Learning a new CMS:
    I run a small web design partnership and we realised that we were not earning as much we really needed to because we were subcontracting all the CMS development to another agency. So last year I decided to learn how to set up ExpressionEngine as a CMS, and I needed to do this before I started selling the service, because without trying it, how could I know how long it would take and how much to charge?
    I knew that I couldn’t just sit down and teach myself how to do this on a ‘pretend’ website because I wouldn’t be motivated and I wouldn’t be able to think up the challenges that a real life situation brings. So I offered to develop the CMS for a friend’s drumming ensemble who desperately needed to update their website (which had been built in flash and the designer had gone awol). They paid for the license themselves, and expenses associated with our meetings, but the rest of the work I did was for free.
    This experience was invaluable. We haven’t had any paid work come from referrals from the group, but we have been able to put our CMS development skills into use on other jobs that have come our way since, which has significantly increased our turnover.
    Bartering:
    This year I am doing a website for a friend who runs courses which I want to attend. On these courses he teaches survival and awareness skills in the great outdoors (camping). He’s offered all (2!) of our staff a lifetime of course attendance for a website redesign and CMS. I find this especially valuable because I live in the city and I work full time at a desk/computer and I desperately need to get out to the countryside more. I think this exchange is not only fair, but it will also benefit the mental and physical health of our team, which is essential to the success of a service- and skills-based business.

  • eleventhattempt

    It would be good to work for free if the on the job training, association with the project, or opportunity to work with the people would be an investment of your time that could reap personal and professional rewards later.

  • http://twitter.com/olivia69xx olivia love Leigh

    I have a budget template website. Can anyone edit it for me in a PDF? I will pay you.

  • http://twitter.com/olivia69xx olivia love Leigh

    Can you edit my website? In a PDF? Olivia

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