The Dangers of Freelance Work Given for Free
Never Work for Free (or On Spec)
Freelancers often jump at the chance to prove themselves and work ‘on spec’ — shorthand for on speculation, or in anticipation of future income. It’s a trap. Here’s why.
Welcome back to my 15-lesson series for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and anyone seeking to start or run an online business. I am the successful president of Seven Oaks Consulting, a niche content marketing agency specializing in business-to-business (B2B) technology content marketing. In 2022, the agency celebrated a milestone event: our 15th anniversary. We began publishing content in the form of 1 5 lessons learned for our 15 years of business. If you missed a previous lesson, links to the earlier lessons are published at the end of this article. (Note: You do not need to read the articles in order. Each one is a self-contained nugget of valuable information. I highly recommend you read them all.)
Never Do Work for Free — Also Called “Work On Spec”
On spec…what does that mean? It means:
Creating anything for free to prove your skills, value, or ability to perform a freelance assignment.
“Spec” assignments look like this:
“We love your work, but we require all writers to provide an original 300-word sample on the topic of our choice to ensure that their unedited work meets our requirements. Can you provide this, please?”
“I need to see a sample of your marketing plan for my company. Can you provide this?”
“I like the design work in your portfolio, but I have very specific requirements. Can you draft up what I’m looking for to ensure it’s what I need?”
Notice something about each of these three scenarios? First, none of them offer payment for your time. In each case, the requestor is asking for a significant investment of your time, at no cost to them (but at a cost to you), to prove your talent, skills, and experience. This request often comes on the heels of a lengthy review process after you have provided your resume, samples, references, and everything but your blood type to the interviewer.
Free samples are called samples “on spec” or “on speculation.” It means you are throwing the dice and gambling that you will get lucrative freelance work after you respond to their spec offer.
Unfortunately, the world is filled with shady characters who abuse the goodwill of freelancers to get free work ‘on spec.’ Here’s how the scam works.
The “Please Provide a Sample” Scam
I fell for this scam when I was new to freelancing. Hence, I share it here in the hopes that a word to the wise is sufficient.
In my case, I was responding to proposal pitches on Guru.com, a freelance platform similar to the modern version — Upwork.
I was bidding to write a marketing plan for a natural health company.
Here are a few facts about me that the bidding company knew from my profile:
When I was bidding, I had over 15 years of marketing experience for some recognizable companies.
I earned a Master of Science in Direct and Digital Marketing from New York University and graduated first in my class.
I had glowing reviews on the platform from previous buyers.
I did not have a sample marketing plan for a good reason. Marketing plans, by their very nature, are highly confidential. They provide strategic insight into competitors and the marketplace as well as the overall market strategy and tactical plan for the company or product that is the subject of the plan itself. As a result, 99% of the marketing plans I have written throughout my 30-year career have been written under a tight non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which forbids sharing the work product in any way.
I understand the end client. I really do. Now that I hire freelancers via Fiverr, Upwork, and LinkedIn, I understand the need to trust and verify. I trust their resumes, websites, and portfolios, but I need to confirm that they have the skills they claim to possess.
I have seen far too many polished final articles published to websites for which the original author had significant and protracted editing, to the point that their original work — what I, as a content marketing agency owner, would be hiring them to produce — was useless to me. And I’ve seen the contrary: fantastic writers who can write an almost perfect first draft.
But when you’re evaluating samples, that’s impossible to ascertain. You only see polished drafts on websites. Hence, the need for original samples.
But here’s the difference…
Legitimate Offers Never Ask for Work “On Spec” (Free)
Legitimate companies never ask writers, graphic designers, or freelancers to create work for free.
They PAY THEM FOR THEIR TIME.
It may be a minimal amount…but they pay them something.
My Story of a Stolen Marketing Plan
Back to my story for a moment, if you’ll indulge me.
In 2012, when I had a lull in my consulting business (see my article), I started bidding on projects on Guru.com. One of those projects was a natural health company’s marketing plan. By this time, I had written several plans for online and bricks and mortar natural health companies and was confident I could exceed the client’s expectations.
My initial online interactions with the client were positive. It was a reputable company. So I did not hesitate to provide him with a 5-page draft of his marketing plan.
I not only didn’t get the job, but the job disappeared from the Guru.com system.
And then, when I started following the doctor’s business online, I noticed a few things.
He began using every suggestion I had provided.
He opened social media accounts I recommended.
He posted according to the schedule I suggested.
He began blogging on the topics I suggested.
It was more than a coincidence.
I was convinced he had used the system to gather proposals, then requested free samples to use the free samples as his marketing plan. He had no intention of paying anyone for the work at hand.
And why should he when suckers like me did it for free or on spec (speculation), as they say?
Never Work for Free
I don’t care how big the name of the company, brand, or website hiring you. Do not work for free. Legitimate companies pay you for your time. They pay for samples. They pay for work. They do not ask people in the freelance hiring queue to provide free samples. No. They don’t.
If they do — run the other way.
You’ll thank me later for this advice!
Lessons Learned from 15 Years as a Freelancer
If you missed any of the previous lessons, catch up using the links below.
Lesson 3: Can You Make It as a Freelancer?
Lesson 4: Choose a Micro Niche for Maximum Impact
Lesson 5: The Importance of Personal Branding
Lesson 6: Protect Your Online Reputation
Lesson 8: Build a Shopping Mall to Avoid the Roller Coaster
Lesson 9: Never Work for Free (or On Spec) (you are here)
Lesson 10: Freelancers Need a Plan for Time Off
Lesson 12: Budgeting Basics for Freelancers