Hop into any Facebook group, Twitter chat, or other space where entrepreneurs get together and mention working for free, and you are likely to start a riot of voices exclaiming that a business owner working for free is the cause of entire industries being devalued. They will stand up and exclaim things like, “Charge what you are worth!” and send you links on value-based pricing or project-based vs. hourly pricing. They will be your virtual cheerleaders every time you mention raising your prices, and talk you out of discounting your services when you hit a slump in getting clients.
Ask these same business owners if they have ever worked for free in the past, and you will get a different answer, though.
Yes, I truly believe that it is easier to devalue yourself and your skills then it is to confidently charge what you are worth. (We’ve all been there.) However, there are many valid reasons to work for free in your solo business. And when it’s done the right way, those opportunities will help you create the business you’ve always hoped for.
When it makes sense to work for free as a solo business owner (and how to make the most of it)
1. When you are just starting out
Just starting out, you are typically going to have to practice your craft by taking on work for family, friends, or friends-of-friends that you aren’t being paid for (or are paid very little for). How you handle these projects, though, can mean the difference between struggling greatly when taking on “real” clients, or making a smooth and confident transition from amateur to professional. The three steps that I wish I had learned to capitalize on my time spent working for free are:
- Establish clear goals and boundaries, and get them in writing. This is the important when you begin working with a client at any stage of your business. When you are both on the same page regarding goals, you know exactly what outcomes should result at the end of the project. Establish upfront what is included, and what isn’t. For example: As a VA, you might want to do admin work but not handle any graphic design work. For web designers, you might love creating websites but not sourcing photographs or writing copy. The more you establish your boundaries upfront, the better the process will go for both you and your client. No doormats here. Once you have those boundaries and goals set, put it in writing! Go to a simple online contract site like Docracy or HelloSign and create a document you both sign off on -- even if you are working for family. Get into the habit of doing this now, or you’ll find yourself in trouble later. Believe me, I know. #lessonslearnedthehardway
- Use this time to set up systems and processes for future work. In addition to getting valuable pieces for your portfolio, doing pro-bono work allows you the opportunity to set up for future success by creating systems and processes you can repeat with paying clients. Document each step of the process (even the smallest ones!) and at the end of the project, go through your notes and create a system for everything that might be repeatable on other projects, as well. Project management systems such as Asana, Trello, or Basecamp are ideal for this because you can create templates that can be reused for each client or task.
- Gather feedback, feedback, and more feedback! Feedback is not only essential when gathering testimonials at the end of a project, but it is equally essential during the process. Ask your new clients at the beginning what success looks like to them, and in the middle of the process, check in on whether or not the process is meeting their expectations. It is much easier to course correct while you are in the middle of a process than it is to complete the project and find out it is not what the client was hoping for. When working for free, sometimes feedback is the best form of “payment.”
2. When you are leveling up your business
Last year, an opportunity came up for me to take on a project working with a well-known developer on a project that she didn’t have the space to do herself. When I reached out about the project, she asked me why I was interested in taking on a free project when my portfolio was already quite filled out. My response? I had been wanting to learn how to do some of the aspects of the project that she had (i.e., e-commerce), and getting a chance to work and be mentored by someone who had already been through that process would be more than worth the time. I viewed it as investing in my business. The developer I was working with took my words to heart, and we have worked together on many more projects since; projects I never would have had the chance to take on, otherwise.
Opportunities like this are the perfect time to stretch your skills and gain experience, so you can feel more confident charging the prices those “next-level ladies” do. Taking your business to the next level requires pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, but it’s almost always worth it.
3. When beta testing a new product or service
Beta testing is a classic example of working for free, even as an established business. While your beta offering might not actually be free, typically you are not charging 100% of the eventual price. This gives you a chance to establish that there is a need for that offering, to make sure that it is worth your time and the time of your clients, and to build your experience and confidence up in a “safer” setting before taking the full leap. During a beta test, it is especially important to keep the three points above (setting clear boundaries, refining systems and processes, and getting lots of feedback at every stage of the project) in mind so you get the most out of the process.
4. When it comes to personal/passion projects
Sometimes working for free means something other than giving clients the benefit of your knowledge and experience without payment; sometimes it means setting aside time that you could be working on something for profit and using it for things like:
- Paying it forward. Find someone just starting out and show them the ropes. This can be both rewarding and educational. While you are sharing your experience, you might learn some new ways to accomplish your tasks, or gain a different perspective on something. Of course, even if these things don’t happen, paying it forward always leads to good business karma. (/woo)
- Taking guilt-free time to work on something solely for you (no client work zone). Do you have a passion project that you are dying to get off the ground, or do you need to set some time aside to rework your site, brand, or systems? Take the time to do it. Client work will always be there, but if you feel the pull to start something or change direction, take the time to listen to that pull and do it.
- Giving back. This can be pro-bono work at its best. Find a cause that means something to you, and donate your time to it. Remember to clearly establish goals and boundaries here because oftentimes clients like these are grateful for the help, but do not understand what goes into what you do. Establishing goals and boundaries will help you feel like you are making a difference without getting taken advantage of. Not sure where to start? Catchafire is great for finding skill-based donation opportunities.
Make the most of time spent working for free
Working for free doesn’t have to mean that the project didn’t come without reward. Sometimes working for free allows you to get paid in experience, confidence, and lessons learned instead of cold hard cash. When you set boundaries up correctly and are determined to milk every ounce of education you can out of the experience, working for free can become one of the most valuable experiences in your solo business.
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