My old live/work warehouse in downtown san diego, ca

Freelancers: Work for free

The reward will be greater than you can imagine

Dann Petty
4 min readSep 16, 2013


I recently wrote a post about how to make your clients love you, which reminded me of the one key things that kick started my career and landed me the type of work I was looking for. It will for yours, as well. I am talking about working for free.

Before you laugh, slam the computer, and tweet that I’m the dumbest person in the world, let me tell you a few stories about how I got where I am today.

You see, sometimes in order to succeed as a freelancer, you’ve got to think like an agency. Agencies don’t only get work by their awesome portfolios. They do pitches and sometimes free or low priced work. They have to. Big work doesn’t just come out of the sky. What makes you think freelance is any different?

I’m not saying do unsolicited pitches, because that never works unless you absolutely nail it. Even so, 99% of the time you won’t. I’m saying if a client comes to you requesting work with small to zero budget, don’t let that run you off. Think about it like a pitch for future work. From my experience, the reward is way greater than the money. You might get referrals, additions to your portfolio, trade services, or free products. All of that works just as well for you as the payment would.

Here are a couple of stories that hopefully will inspire you to try this.

How working for free with Marshall Barkman, professional golfer, landed me National Geographic.

Early in my career, while still in college, I worked for free 99% of the time. I wasn’t doing anything huge. Mainly, I did local websites just to get my name in the door. I worked fast, plus had a full-time job at American Eagle Outfitters and not to mention, I was a full-time student. It didn’t keep me from following my passion and getting my name known. While my colleagues were out attempting to charge big bucks already, I was passing them by doing more work at a much lower cost but higher reward.

I landed a project for a professional golfer, Marshall Barkman. I designed the entire site and did tons of flash animations all for free. Now, a couple years later, I landed a huge three year deal with National Geographic building their marketing website, and some print materials for NatGeo Wild. How did I get that job? Marshall dated the Creative Director at National Geographic. Prior to that, she was at MTV. If I had not done that project for Marshall, I wouldn’t have landed National Geographic, the biggest contract of my career. Random luck? I don’t think so!

Website for National Geographic

Summary: Working for free paid off. I landed a killer site (well it was at the time) in my portfolio, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I charged a fee. In return, I was referred to one of my biggest clients, National Geographic, and landed the biggest contract I had ever had, even to this date.

Becoming’s “White Knight.”

Nixon, the greatest watch company out there, in my opinion, needed some serious help with their website. It had been over 10 years since it was updated, and they only had one go-to agency since they started the company. As a surfer, Nixon was already one of my favorite brands. When I was living in Encinitas, CA I even tried to get in and talk to their Creative Director, with no luck.

One day, Nixon reached out, needing some quick help with the site they were about to launch. They needed a last minute fresh pair of eyes to give them another option, and they needed it fast. They also had no budget left. Literally, zero dollars. That didn’t stop me from helping them. I spent the next few days concepting exactly what you see on today. You can see my first concept here still. I did all of this for nothing. They had to force payment upon me by sending me discount codes, watches, a signed Rob Machado surfboard personalized to me, and not to mention tons of referrals and great friendships. To me, this project was the greatest project that I’ve ever done. It was built on pure passion, not fueled by green paper or macho greed. I’m now known as Nixon’s White Knight, haha.

A gift from Nixon and Rob Machado

Summary: Offering to concept for free landed me a lifetime relationship with the company. If a project comes to you that you are passionate about, let that fuel you, not the money. Work within their budget or for free. The reward will be out of this world. Because of this project, I’ve been asked to do big projects for all of my favorite surfing brands.

Remember, good things come to those that help others in need. Follow this mind set, and you will be rewarded in your freelancer career.

Best of luck!

I’ve been a freelance designer for over the past 10 years working with clients like: Obvious Corp, Medium, Google, Airbnb, National Geographic, Activision, Nixon, R/GA, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Hurley, Nike, Adobe, Virgin America, The North Face, Transformers, Reebok, Lucas Arts, MTV, Red Bull, Mini Cooper, NFL, Oakley, Digitaria, BSSP, Fluid,Quiksilver, Patagonia, Lightt, and many others.

Check out my work on Behance or Dribbble and follow me on Twitter.