Working for free

Why is there such a stigma against pro bono work? 

I commented on a posting a few weeks ago by Dan Petty, where he tells how he started doing work for acclaimed watch maker Nixon. The story is fairly common in the web services industry: company needs work done, freelancer admires company and offers to do work for free, company appreciates work and (fingers crossed) a new relationship is formed. My comment mentioned it was great to see free work being appreciated by Nixon, and having it turn into a meaningful client relationship. The comments I got back, while not necessarily negative, mentioned how doing work for free undervalues the services being offered, and bring down rates within the industry, another common sentiment.

My question is, why free work bad? Why do people think they are “too good” for doing free work, and why do they think freelancers performing the work affects them and the rates they charge?

Having been a freelancer for the past 4 years, I can definitely speak to the hustle and grind freelancers go through to get their solo-careers off the ground. It’s a career where you’re always on the lookout for your next project, while at the same time, being presented with many non-ideal opportunities to “pay the bills.” Sure, everyone has a different set of goals for their careers, but mine would be having the opportunity to create web products within industries I am passionate about, and with clients helping to push those industries forward. To me, the excitement comes from both the actual build process and having the opportunity to collaborate with companies, and within industries, I admire.

From a potential client’s point of view, most clients work their butts off to create a brand and personality that resonates with people. Every so often, one of these brand earns enough clout to become an industry icon; not only becoming a leader in their industry, but helping to create change and move it forward. These are the types of clients I dream of working with. The problem is, so does everyone else.

During any project courting process, price is a huge factor in a client determining who they are selecting to work with. If someone want the project bad enough, and sees enough opportunity aligning themselves with said company, why not lower their rates as low as possible (potentially to nothing) to land the project.

In a case like the one I described above, what is so wrong with being able to do this? Because some people are willing to take the risk of doing said free work, to hopefully start a relationship that could propel their careers forward, you think they shouldn’t, and hide under the guise of “it’s bad for the industry”? No, sorry, it’s not. You just either don’t want, or don’t have the means, to take the same risk some do to land the project. I don’t mean to be abrasive about it, but that’s what it comes down to.

Risk (in)tolerance isn’t something to be ashamed of, and at the same time, shouldn’t be ignored in the client-services industry. Just as an entrepreneur in the start-up space risks his/her savings account to create an opportunity, freelancers and agencies risk doing work for free, to create relationships and opportunities that can help advance them forward.

I’ve always admired scrappy independent creatives. Whether it be web designers, musicians, or writers. People who fly under the radar and create opportunities from nothing. There’s always going to be someone younger, smarter, cheaper, and who works harder than you, trying to take your work. Instead of knocking these people for being nimble and risk tolerant, we should appreciate this path, and if not your own, adjust your process to better compete against it.

Can’t knock the hustle.

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