Should virtual assistants ever work for free?

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

In one of my favorite Facebook groups for freelancers, a member asked about working for free. She’s been pitching to potential virtual assistant clients and a few had been requesting a free trial from her and she wanted to know if this was common or acceptable.

I was adamant in my response that this wasn’t okay and that she shouldn’t work for free.

A few days later I was still thinking about that post and I realized I had made some assumptions when I replied. I assumed that she shouldn’t work for free under any circumstance because I inferred she already had work experience. If she does, then I stand by my response, but if not, then I have to say it:

Sometimes, you should work for free.

Or at least a really low rate. Not everyone will agree — but hear me out. There are some instances where it’s worth it.

Work for free (or very little) to gain experience

When I first decided to create an Elance profile (now Upwork) I was nineteen years old and had very little work experience and none of it was remote work. I had babysat, worked in grocery stores, did some housecleaning- that sort of thing. I was really lucky that one family I babysat for also needed some help with their jewelry ecommerce business so I started polishing jewelry for them. The owners of that business are the ones who introduced me to Elance and who also helped me get my footing doing more involved tasks like customer service, photographing jewelry, etc.

After I created my Elance profile, I struggled to get jobs that matched the rate I was making at my in-person job. So I took on very low paying jobs to learn new skills. I decided that if I could make at least $7.25 (minimum wage in my state at the time) then this work was worth it. I was only freelancing on the side and I approached my online work like a paid internship.

I was able to get positive reviews for my profile (the first one really is the hardest to get)! I learned the freelancing jargon, I learned how to detect spam job listings, and I learned how to pitch. Instead of spending my time reading about theory and best practices, I dove straight into the work. I actually did very little research on pitching in the beginning, which I think helped me stand out. And of course, the first couple of clients ignored my lack of work history because I demonstrated a few skills (clear communication, ability to write well, friendly attitude) and I was cheap.

Some people pay for training and some people get paid to train

Most freelancers would implore you to not under bid. It’s not fair to you, it lowers the expectations and average pay for the industry as a whole, and it makes the freelancing game even more competitive. But here’s the thing: everyone should be paid depending on their experience and skills. Not all virtual assistants deserve $30/hr. Having an honest conversation with a potential client where you acknowledge your lack of experience, your eagerness to learn, and the few skills you can offer up and then taking a low rate plus opportunity is worth it to some people. It was worth it to me.

People pay for knowledge and a foot in the door all the time. We pay thousands of dollars for college, ebooks, online training, coaching, certifications, the list goes on. And we should! I don’t shy away from paying for quality information. But you shouldn’t shy away from accepting payment to learn. Jobs can offer more than just money. They can also offer genuine feedback, the opportunity to learn new software that wouldn’t be feasible to purchase yourself, networking opportunities, credibility in an industry, etc.

There is not a blanket rate all virtual assistants should accept. There may be an average and there may be an ideal, but those don’t apply to every individual. Consider your experience, where you need to grow, who you could benefit learning from, and if you’re able to land work at your current rate, when deciding what to charge clients.

Don’t fall into the low-pay trap

There is a caveat to working for low pay — it’s easy to get stuck there. I remember thinking “I feel like I’m worth $10 an hour, but I’ll ask for $9 to play it safe.” I remember when $20 an hour felt like a huge number. The leap to asking for higher pay is not easy for everyone and admittedly, I still struggle with this sometimes. It’s so easy to settle for what you are getting so be sure to reevaluate your jobs every few months and honestly assess if you deserve more.

What about free trials?

I’m more apprehensive suggesting someone do a free trial than I am suggesting they work for $5 an hour, even if they are a beginner. You should be able to communicate that your time is worth something and you deserve to be paid for it. If you can’t swing a low rate without giving up a trial, then you need to work on your negotiating skills or accept that this client is a dud.

As a general policy, don’t offer free trials or accept free training from people unless you know their brand very well and you’ve both agreed this is mutually beneficial. If both parties are approaching the situation with an internship mindset, then I think it’s safe to proceed. There are some authors who I would work 10 hours a week for free just get to the opportunity to learn from them. Remember that payment doesn’t have to mean money. Finally, don’t assume you’ll be given the opportunity to learn just because you want it — make sure you discuss with the potential client what they can offer you as far as time, feedback, and resources.

You are setting the tone for your relationship

The biggest mistake I see when people start working for free or a reduced rate, is the perception that develops in the client’s mind. If you approach a job like the client is your teacher, or worse, like they are doing you a favor by hiring you, you are going to have a hell of time earning respect from them down the line. You will find yourself being questioned more often than if you had started with a confident attitude. For some people (certainly me), this will lead you to second-guess yourself and then you’ll make silly mistakes which will confirm your client’s concerns about your work. For others, in can lead you to feel resentful and frustrated.

The jobs I accepted when I first started out were exclusively short-term tasks. None of the contracts lasted over a month. At the end of the contract, if they offered more work, I would force myself to let them know my rate had increased due to demand — and it was true. Little by little, my rate consistently got higher. If they chose not to hire me at my new rate, that was okay. I had higher paying work lined up elsewhere and I wasn’t going to tarnish my reputation by accepting low pay just because I had in the past.

Some jobs offer more than money

Even now that I’m experienced and able to charge more, I sometimes accept less than my normal rate. It’s not often and it’s only when I’m being offered something more than just money.

  • The chance to work for someone I really admire and want to be associated with. Some names look great on a resume and some people are an inspiration to be around — that’s worth something to me.
  • Consistent, long term work. I prefer to work short, project based jobs for lots of people — I make the most money that way. But I have a few clients who I’ve developed a positive relationship with and whose consistent income is comforting.
  • High-level training or company perks. I sometimes joke that I’d work for Buffer just for the perks. You may come across clients who have content, programs, and incentives that are worth more to you than earning your usual rate.

None of those things are worth a drastic rate reduction however. And sometimes, it might not even be the hourly wage that is reduced. Maybe you accept more rewrites on writing assignments than your usual policy or perhaps you throw in a few extras in your projects.

In the end, it just depends

Most of the time, experienced virtual assistants should not work for less than what their peers are making. However, if you are new to the workforce or are trying to break into a totally new industry, then working at a low rate can be beneficial. The most important skill you have as a freelancer is the ability to problem-solve and think critically. So the next time someone offers you a job but only after a free trial or for a lower than normal rate, ask yourself “What do I really get from this experience?”.