The Four-Letter Word That Freelancers Truly Hate to Hear

It’s not what you think.

Admittedly, there are a lot of things that bother freelancers.

For example, most freelancers don’t like bad clients. Many don’t like criticism. And some don’t like unreasonable deadlines.

But the one thing that most freelancers agree upon is they don’t want to work for free. Yes, “free” is that four-letter word that freelancers hate.

In this post, I’ll discuss the problem of “clients” who ask you to work for free. I’ll also discuss whether you should ever agree to work for free. If you’ve ever been asked to work without pay, you’ll probably relate to this post.

A Growing Trend

Unfortunately, the trend of asking freelancers to work without pay seems to be on the upswing. Not only are the requests for free work coming more often, they tend to be more blatant about it.

The no-pay trend is fueled by the following factors:

  • A rise of extremely low-paying gig sites.
  • The continuing popularity of contests and spec work.
  • An increasing demand for content.
  • The fact that some freelancers do agree to work for free.
  • An increase in the number of startups.
  • The slow economic recovery.

In fact, the problem of being asked to work for free has gotten so bad for some professionals that they hesitate to use the word “freelance” to describe themselves. Susan Rich does an excellent job of explaining why she doesn’t like to use the word “freelance” in her post, Why calling yourself a freelance writer hurts your business, on her blog, RichWriting.

While I understand why some professionals prefer not to refer to themselves as freelancers, I don’t necessarily agree with changing your job title. I’m not convinced that calling yourself something else would keep people from asking for free work. Plus, legitimate clients do search online for freelancers, and dropping that title from your name could make it harder for them to find you.

It’s hard enough for many freelancers to find work, without the distraction of people who don’t want to pay. With that in mind, it’s certainly not hard to understand why “free” is a four-letter word for many freelancers.

Responding to a Request for Free Work

Have you ever had a so-called client ask you to work for free? Usually, they claim that they can’t afford to pay you, but that you’ll gain experience or exposure if you work for them. Some may even offer to pay you later when (or if) they can afford it.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. I’ve had similar “offers” and so have many other freelancers.

In fact, just yesterday one of my contacts offered to put me in touch with an editor she had recently worked with as a favor. I was unfamiliar with the publication, so I asked my contact whether she had been paid for her work. It turns out she was not paid and that she didn’t think the editor had any budget for freelance writers.

My response, of course, was that I can’t afford to take projects that don’t pay.

I used to dismiss requests for free work pretty abruptly, but recently I’ve actually had success converting several such requests into paying gigs. My new stance is to respond to such offers politely, but firmly, explaining my fees unapologetically.

Who knows? The potential client who doesn’t have a budget today may be able to afford to hire a freelancer tomorrow.

Should You Ever Work for Free?

My gut tells me “no,” but the truth is that there are some instances when working for free might make sense.

In fact, we discussed some instances where free might pay off on this blog in the post, Why Free Ultimately Pays Off.

Here’s a summary of freebies that many freelancers sometimes offer:

  • Blog posts
  • Special reports
  • Seminars
  • Podcasts/videos
  • Products
  • Links to resources
  • Advice

The bottom line is that when you offer something for free it should be on your terms and provide a direct and measurable benefit to your freelancing business. So, writing a free eBook as part of your marketing strategy and to establish your expertise is okay. But being asked to write a free eBook for someone else is not okay.

After all, free doesn’t pay the bills.

Your Turn

How do you respond when someone asks you to work for free? Are you polite, or do you ignore such requests?

Have you ever chosen to work for free? When and why?

Share your answers in the comments.