Howells.

The free work dilemma

Like everyone else, this year I’ve had some fun projects, some challenging, and of course some disappointments. But it’s an interesting exercise to analyse the different types of projects against how they came about, who you worked with, and how financially fruitful they were.

One segment of projects that stand out—for the wrong reasons—were the projects I did for free.

I rarely do work for free but sometimes interesting propositions come along for projects I’d like to do for people that I think will turn out into a good portfolio pieces, or would yield fantastic connections that will bear fruit.

It’s surprising when I look at the outcome of my recent free projects, which have yielded no new business, connections, or tangible benefits. This is in stark contrast to all the work that I have done for myself, be it entire websites or individual blog posts, all of which have all yielded interesting opportunities.

Opportunity cost is tricky to recognise and grasp especially given the fairly amorphous nature of what we do. But before you commit to any favours—however exciting they might seem—I would urge you to consider how else you could spend that same time investing in yourself or your business. You might find that the playful mashup you develop in the same time you planned for the freebie might hit the front page of Hacker News, or that the mock redesign of a website might hit the front page of Behance.

Better for everyone involved is to barter. If the person asking you to develop their site is an incredible designer, decide up-front how much work is required and then ask them to dedicate the same time or equivalent to design your new identity. Or if they are well connected in an industry you want to move into, ask to arrange meetings and introductions up-front. It helps balance the professional relationship and then you don’t have to call the work you did, “free”. (And to this point, make sure you enforce the agreement: I’ve been in situations where the other side of the bargain never materialised since they were too busy to reciprocate.)

Taking equity is an entirely different, more complex conversation that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss. But before you even consider this route you need to believe in the project, the other people behind it, the potential for profitability, and stick to it for the long-term. It’d take a lot for me to seriously entertain taking equity in most startup ideas I hear about.

When I started on my own I did a lot of work for free. After most of it, when the valuable contacts or follow-up work didn’t materialise I regret not spending that time on my own projects; honouring them with more care and attention that they deserved. Your own, carefully considered side-projects make for a much more interesting portfolio piece or talking-point than a quick unpaid job you probably had to rush. Investing your time in yourself before offering your services to other for free ultimately yields more dividends than freebies that risk disappointment.

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