Working freelance really is the best. Especially in a time where the British government seems to have some sort of hate deathmatch going on with employee rights, whether they’re ditching your chance to claim unfair dismissal or suggesting you trade those rights for company shares, you are genuinely better off being your own boss these days.
But with that position come new challenges, especially if you are in a creative line of freelancing such as copywriting and graphic design (or “typing” and “drawing pictures” as others would have it). People will ask you to do a “quick job” as a favour, and it is always a quick job, no matter how long the job actually takes. If you’re dealing with a particularly poisonous line of scumbag, they might tell you that this work could give you more “exposure” or that if they like this work it will lead to paid work further down the line. You should feel absolutely free to set these people on fire, because they are terrible and deserve that terrible things happen to them.
The rather brilliant Jessica Hische has covered this subject comprehensively in her ingenious flowchart, Should I Work For Free? (Mostly the answer is No. Unless it’s your mum because seriously, what kind of monster are you?)
But, accepting that anyone who offers you “exposure” is a snake-oil salesman of the absolute lowest type, and excluding situations where you are morally bound to work for free to save the badgers/pay back your best friend for that kidney she gave you one time and hasn’t stopped moaning about since, is there any time when working for free can actually help your career?
When You’re Doing It For Fun
If you’re working in graphic design there’s a reasonably good chance you’re doing it because you enjoy it. You like making things look good, experimenting with cool visual ideas and generally being a bit of an artist.
And the fact is that often your best ideas, the ones that really put you a cut above the rest, aren’t the ones you have when you’re putting together a website for a regional plumber. They’re the ones you have for cool ideas on your own time, like a set of fake government information posters about the zombie apocalypse, or your spoof packaging for a new breakfast cereal made entirely out of knives and marshmallows.
This stuff can really help build up your portfolio, and showing people what you can do when you’re let off your leash means you’re more likely to attract the bigger and more ambitious clients.
When It’s A Favour For A Friend AND You Think They’re Going to Take Off
I can’t keep saying this enough. Anybody who asks for freelance work for free while promising exposure is a laughable conman and you’re best response always to run away as quickly as possible while shouting insulting things over your shoulder.
But sometimes it’s a good idea to offer work for free. Now this comes with a lot of provisos. First, the person in question should be somebody you know and trust. Somebody who’d be happy to do a favour for you if the roles were reverse. Secondly, you should trust their product. You should be sure, for yourself, that the company they’re starting up will be a huge success. The sort of thing that you think will bring in paid work later. Thirdly, you should be the one to offer to do work for them, not the other way round. And don’t mention working for free until they’ve made it clear they can’t afford to pay you. Oh, and finally, it helps if the project looks like it’ll be fun to work on as well!
When It’s A Small Job YOU Spotted for an Already Paying Client
Now here we’re using your definition of small job, not your clients. But sometimes if you spot the occasional tiny thing that needs sorting, and offer to fix it, this sort of thing can shift you from the position of Occasionally Useful Freelancer into Invaluable Resource. This, in turn, will keep a steady flow of proper, paying freelance work coming your way, and anyone who’s been freelancing for long knows that a steady client is worth three one-off ones. Just make sure that you offering to fix something quickly doesn’t turn into a long string of “can you just do this small job”s.
Sam Wright is a freelance writer who covers self-employment and graphic design issues. He currently works with Brand Republic.