I have a small blurb that gets printed on the bottom of every invoice I send. It simply says, “I’d love to give my friends a discount … but my enemies don’t use my services.” That’s my philosophy, and I try to stick to it: my rates are extremely reasonable, so except in rare cases, I don’t give discounts and I don’t do free work.
But everywhere I look, I see freelancers practically (and in many cases, literally) giving work away. Especially with newbies, it can easily become a trap that sets the tone for your entire business. If you want your business to succeed, however, it’s a trap you should avoid at all costs.
Why on Earth Would I Do This for Free?
Why would a creative give away work? How about “It seemed like a good idea at the time”? As ludicrous as it sounds, there are circumstances where it might appear practical.
In the retail industry there is a tactic known as “loss-leading,” where a store will offer a popular product at a ridiculously low price in order to drive traffic. A grocer, for example, might offer a 12-pack of soda for two bucks. They know they’ll lose money on the purchase, but they also know that people coming into the store aren’t likely to leave with JUST soda: the “loss” usually “leads” to more sales overall.
Larger companies will often approach independent contractors with this same offer: “There’s no budget for this job, but it would get your foot in the door and set you up for more work down the road!” To a struggling freelancer, it can sound like a dream come true, but it’s more probably a nightmare. The job gets done, but nothing else materializes; instead, work is dangled in front of the next photographer in line, along with the same veiled promise of more.
Essentially, this leads to doing a buncha work and still going broke … and frankly, you can just as easily skip the work and go broke sitting at home and binge-watching Rick and Morty. My advice? Walk away from any job that only offers a theoretical future payoff.
“Let Me See What You Can Do”
Another scam that even big-time agencies fall prey to is the Myth of Spec Work. Basically, some potential client comes to you and says “Let me see what you would do IF I give you this job (or account).” Translated, that means they want to see a design (or several) and well-fleshed-out-if-not-finished creative ideas so they can decide whether to hire you … all on your dime.
This is a very common practice in the creative world, but it’s a game I won’t play. I get a lot of flak for it, too: “Surely you can’t expect us to pay for work sight-unseen?” Well, no, but that’s why I have a portfolio. Look at the work I’ve done for others and understand I can and will do the same quality of work for you … but don’t expect me to take time away from my other clients (who ARE paying me) to do freebies for you.
So what if you’re so new you don’t have a decent portfolio? Well, I’d argue you really aren’t ready to go into business for yourself. But even so, if you need portfolio pieces, why constrain yourself by the limitations of spec work? I once had a client approach me wanting some really boring product shots done on spec; I turned them down, then took the shots I thought they really needed (which were much more dynamic and engaging) on my own. Those pics are the ones that went in my portfolio.
“We’ll Pay Your Invoice … Oops! Just Kidding!”
The worst way to lose money on a job is probably when you lose it yourself because of something stupid or careless. Remember, just because you got paid doesn’t mean you’re off the hook: particularly if the client paid with a credit card or an online service like Paypal, it’s easy for them to revoke the payment (what’s called a chargeback) if they find mistakes or inaccuracies after the fact.
Having said that, some unscrupulous clients will play the chargeback card whether they have legitimate cause or not. The banks tend to protect their users by default, but if the chargeback is unwarranted, you have the option of disputing the charge.
The key thing to remember is, you’re not here just to do great work: you’re here to get PAID for doing great work. Keeping that as your focus is key to growing a successful freelance business.