Why Freelancers Can't Work For Free

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It's an uncomfortable position: a well-meaning individual gets in touch. They might be after work that involves an exciting trip out of the country; maybe they're a brand wanting to collaborate for "exposure"; perhaps it's an email asking for you to give advice.

You're a naturally helpful person; you hate the idea of saying no and you wonder if there's an opportunity here. You feel torn. Do you say yes and let yourself down, or do you say no and fear the repercussions?

I've been freelancing as a copywriter and photographer full-time since 2016. In that time I've had plenty of emails like drop into my inbox, and every time I've felt some level of guilt for both saying yes, and for saying no.

It's tough. People I like and brands I admire are hard for me to say no to. I've been taught all my life that I should be accommodating and help those who ask for it, so the first time I said no to protect myself it felt totally alien. I've also internalised the belief that qualities like my youth and gender lower my status. I'm a young woman working for herself. How can I ask for payment that reflects my value?


First, let's unpack this.

There are three main things I've heard again and again, phrased in various ways

  1. "We're a small business, with a limited budget." 
  2. "We love your work and think this would great for your profile."
  3. "Do you mind me picking your brains, just to help me out?"

Each may sound harmless, even understandable. But I'd like to show you how each of them offers a real challenge to freelancers receiving these requests.

"We're a small business, with a limited budget."

I started my own small business; I know how tight finances are, particularly in the early stages. We've all had to find ways of doing our work without the luxury of a huge budget to make the process feel easier. I appreciate the struggles this causes.
However, in phrasing this argument, it suggests the asker is the only one who needs to make ends meet. This, of course, is not the case: all businesses, especially those on the smaller end of the scale, have to cover their costs and needs. Blunt though it may sound, this query effectively means is that you are being asked to take the financial hit, and not those enquiring.
Remember, you work freelance: you're a small business too.

"We love your work and think this would be great for your profile."

It's that tricky, sticky little word: "exposure". On a surface level, it may sound great: being seen by more people should mean being seen by more prospective clients. Win win, surely? 
Having done things for exposure in the past, I can honestly tell you this has never been the case for me. Being seen by the wrong people, rather than people specifically interested in hiring me, has never translated into sales. There's the saying "exposure doesn't pay bills" for good reason.

"Do you mind me picking your brains, just to help me out?"

This one might be easiest to see as an innocent request. I've received a few emails like this; after the opener, the asker then lists a few questions they'd like me to answer, or invites me out for coffee or lunch, in exchange for my advice. You might be asking what I could possibly object to.
I have a simple answer: my advice has worth.

I've created and run web-shops for four years. I've researched intensely to improve sites' SEO throughout that time. I've written and managed a blog since 2013. I've made videos, written newsletters, paid for educational courses, shot branding & e-commerce photos and run clients' social media channels since my business began. I charge for e-commerce and social media consultations because I understand that my time is worth something, and the skills I've gained are too.

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Image by Siobhan of Bless The Weather
 

The reality is, we do have value.

An hour responding to an email asking for advice is, ultimately, time away from running our businesses. Free photography in exchange for exposure won't put money in our bank accounts. The physical exertion given to an unpaid project means we have less energy to give to our paying clients.

I believe fellow freelancers should feel no guilt about charging a price that covers our rent, our business expenses, our monthly bills, our time off, our sick leave, our equipment.

Our rates reflect our capabilities; the investments we've made to improve our skills; our administrative time spent meeting clients' needs and so, so much more.

Add to this the benefits of hiring a freelancer affords a company: they won't have to pay for our pensions; they won't have to give the stability and safety that a regular employee receives; they can ask for more, with less responsibility than hiring a full-time member of staff.  We save them money on a short-term and long-term basis.

 

All of this means we should be paid the rates we ask for.

Those asking you to work for nothing see your value, your time and your worth as nothing too.

Working for free doesn't truly benefit anyone. Those receiving the free services will have to accept they cannot compete as a priority over those clients who pay their way. It's then unfair to shortchange the loyal clients who do pay us our rate properly. It undervalues the value of our industry, as clients expect more work to be done for free. Finally, it leaves freelancers out of pocket for their hard work and talents.

 

I've shared my views, but I would love to hear from you; what is your stance on working for free? Come to the comments and share your thoughts...