Is It Ever Worthwhile to Work for Free?

on April 17 | in Small Business Ideas, Small Craft Business Tips | by | with 3 Comments

Fiona Pullen, author of Craft a Creative Business, also runs the UK-based The Sewing Directory and Craft a Creative Business. Fiona guides you if you want to turn sewing or other creative pursuits into a successful business in her book; she also stopped by earlier this year to discuss How to Cope with the Sense of Isolation When Working from Home.

Fiona is back with her thoughts on whether it’s ever worthwhile to work for free, and how to make your own cost/benefit calculations for your life and career. We’d love to hear from you too. Do you ever feel it’s worthwhile to work for free? Why or why not? For a more specific breakdown of the calculation in practice, check out Fiona’s personal examples at Craft a Creative Business.


Is it ever worthwhile to work for free?

I’m sure you have all seen at least one of the many posts in the blogosphere at the moment about how our work is undervalued, and how too many companies expect us to work for free. I agree. It is an inherent problem in the craft industry that people think we run our businesses as a “hobby” and therefore will be prepared to work for nothing, or very little.

However, unlike all the posts stating that you should never work for free, I’d like to explore in this post whether it can ever be worth your while to work for free. I’ll admit I always have at the back of my mind is working for free encouraging companies to think they can continue to get away with not paying crafters for their work? But also I understand that sometimes people want a sample of what you do to decide whether it’s worth paying you in the future.

If you look outside of our industry into the software industry for example, how many of those companies offer you a free 30 day trial of their software to test it out in the hope that you will then become a paying customer? How many musicians do gigs for just expenses or very little money to prove to a venue they have what it takes to entertain their customers? How many fashion designers intern for free to get a foot in the door? I do believe that in our industry a similar thing can work but the circumstances need to be right.

All Offers Should be Carefully Weighed
I don’t think we should approach things with an automatic “no to free work,” by this I also mean expenses-only work as you are still actually working for free even if your travel/hotel is covered. I think that each situation should be weighed on its own merits to decide if it is likely to lead to paid work in the future, or earn you money in another way.

For example, I recently wrote a double page feature for a large weekly magazine for no money as a freelance writer. (Normally I get paid for writing for magazines.) However, I knew this magazine had a very big distribution– more than 10 times those of the craft magazines I normally write for– and would reach a whole new audience. I have recently published a book on the topic I was writing about (craft business) and it would be promoted in the feature.

The week the feature came out sales of my book rocketed and it pushed my book back to the top of the charts. I don’t have exact figures yet but I would estimate that feature, which took three hours of my time to write, sold hundreds of copies of my book earning me around $200 or so in royalties. The week after I was told my book has had to be re-printed because the publishers have almost sold out. So I am very glad I did not turn down that free work.

A few years ago I did a couple of events/seminars for free for an organization who now pays me to do them. If I hadn’t done the free ones they would not have seen me in action and realized that I appeal to their target audience. They were the first company to ask me to do this, and now I’ve had offers from many other companies. It got my name out there as someone who could teach about the craft business. They asked another person around the same time as me to do it for free and she refused saying she only did paid work. They have not asked her again, and neither has anyone else, she hasn’t had chance to build a reputation in that area.

Not All Free Jobs Are Worth Your While
However, not all free work is worth your while. Just as it shouldn’t be an automatic “no,” it shouldn’t be an automatic “yes” either. Everyone offers you exposure when asking you to work for free. But you need to figure out whether that will actually deliver any tangible benefits for you.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it likely to lead to paid work with the same company?
  • Will it lead to more sales of my book/product/service?
  • Will it build my reputation which could lead to paid work from other companies in the future?
  • Is it something I’ve always wanted to do?
  • Is it somewhere I’ve always wanted to go?
  • Will it be helping a friend or someone who has helped me in the past?
  • Will it help establish me as an expert?

I’ve accepted expenses-only jobs because they were in a part of the country I wanted visit. I made sure I had some free time whilst there to explore and viewed it as a free holiday. I’ve also done expenses only work to help out friends who have supported me and helped me in the past.

A couple of times I’ve accepted non-paid job just to push my boundaries and try something I’ve never done before. All of these things work for you, so even though you may not get money in exchange you get something you want out of it.

This is the key point– it has to benefit you in some way. Not all benefits are financial; the benefit can be experience, it can be attending an event you couldn’t have afforded to attend otherwise or it might be challenging yourself and growing your experience.

If your expenses are not being covered, so therefore there may be a cost to you, then the benefit needs to be much bigger for it to be worth your while doing.

Also I want to note here that it is worth asking around to find out if the company making the offer ever pays other people for their work, and if they pay well. Some companies never have a budget for these things and will only work with people who will work for free; in this case it is unlikely to generate future income for you unless the exposure is so great that other (paying) companies may approach you.

How Can You Calculate If It Is Worth Working for Free?
I do a financial calculation on all offers I get which helps me decide whether to say “yes” or “no.” The benefit to me and my business needs to be larger than the costs and loss of income for me to agree to the proposal.

Costs
Firstly I look at any potential cost to me as this is the easiest figure to calculate– travel, food, hotels, supplies, etc., when teaching at an event. Even when people offer expenses they often mean just travel and hotel, not food and drinks, so make sure you think about every penny you would need to spend.

For blog or magazine projects they may supply the main fabric for you but you are still using your own thread and trims, electric to power your sewing machine, needles, etc. You may have to mail the finished product to be photographed if so factor in the postage costs.

Loss of Income
Then I look at loss of income. If I will spend three days traveling to and teaching at an unpaid event, that is three days I am not working on my own business and earning money. I take my average monthly income and break it down to a daily income to see how much I will lose. If you will spend two days making, writing and photographing a project for someone else’s blog how much would you have earned in that time working on your own business?

Make sure you include time spent traveling, buying supplies, advance preparation work, time spent editing, etc. Every minute you spend should be included here. This figure is accounting for your time; another way to calculate it is to take the figure you normally charge per hour for your work and times it by the number of hours you will be spending on the job.

Benefit
You then need to compare the two figures above to the benefit. This is where it can be tricky as often the benefit can be hard to calculate. I tend to use a combination of past experience and estimation to calculate the benefit for me. For example, I know at events I’ve taught at in the past I tend to pick up at least one new customer who will spend around $200 dollars with me in the following year.

I estimate that around 10% of people attending one of my seminars will buy my book. So therefore I take the expected number of people in attendance (I always ask for this information when I get an offer), divide by ten and multiply my royalty rate per book to determine the financial benefit to me.

I’d then add the royalty calculation to the potential income figure to get my overall figure.

Some things you have to try at least once just to see what the response is and measure any benefit so that in the future you can do this calculation more accurately. I will generally give each magazine that approaches me one free article to see what the response. If it’s very beneficial for me (such as the one I mentioned earlier) then I would work for them for free again. If there is very little response then the next time I ask them for payment. Obviously in an ideal world I would get payment for any future article I write regardless of the benefit to me, I was would try asking on the second occasion. However, if payment wasn’t an option but it was very beneficial then I would still do it.

The potential financial benefits mentioned above are tangible benefits, and you can put an approximate figure to them. The problem is the most intangible of the benefits, the one people always try to sell you on… “Exposure.”

What is Exposure?
Exposure basically means getting your name out there and making people aware of you and your business. It can be beneficial; if you are new to something and want to build a reputation, then exposure can help you. If you are looking for a book deal then exposure can also help there. If you have something big to promote such as a book, a forthcoming event, a new product, etc., again– exposure can aid you. If they have a very large reach it is good for getting your brand, product or name out there.

The hard thing is measuring the level of exposure you will get as you need to ask plenty of questions to the person asking you to work for free. If they want a blog post, how many people visit their site? What is the average number of visitors to their guest posts? Can they put you in touch with someone who has blogged for them before to find out what they thought of the experience? Who is their audience? What percentage is relevant to you and your business? How will you be credited? Will you get a follow link?

If you’ve been offered a magazine feature you want to know– how big is their readership? What are the demographics of their readership? (This info is generally in their press pack.) Where will you be positioned in the magazine and how many pages will you have? How will you be credited? Will your business be mentioned or just your name? Can you include a logo or photos of your products?

If you are being asked to teach or speak at an event, how many visitors are they expecting? How many do they expect to come to your class/seminar? How will they promote it? What are the visitor demographics? What is the rest of the show about? How long will you be expected to speak/teach for?

You need as much information as possible to determine the level of “exposure” you will get to help you decide if the benefits will outweigh the costs and loss of income. If they do then say “yes” to the job, if they don’t then say “no.”

What about you? Do you ever work for free, and if so have you found it’s ever been worth your while? Or do you think working for free under any circumstances no matter how beneficial devalues the industry as a whole? Do you use any calculations to decide if it is worth taking an unpaid job?

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3 Responses to Is It Ever Worthwhile to Work for Free?

  1. SJ Kurtz says:

    This reminds me of the friends’ bands who played for free for so long that they had to change their name to get folks to buy their music.

    It depends on what situation it is. Test patterns, yes. Write a blog post, yes (that’s editorial, and I pay myself, as it were). Write for a paid publication (online or print) to promote my product, sure (that’s advertising that would have cost me money).

    Write to promote someone else’s products: no.

    That’s no benefit to me, just the magazine, and if they can’t pay writers to fill their pages, they should not be in business. That’s what copywriters get paid to do (that’s one of the other hats I wear).

  2. Pam says:

    Yes. Cost benefit analysis is important. It’s not always about the money but the value.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    This is a great article. There are definitely times when working for peanuts is the thing to do. I really like your point about your answer shouldn’t be an automatic yes, or an automatic no. It’s too easy to jump in making a decision, but carefully weighing what you’d gain by doing free work vs. your own costs should definitely be considered before giving your answer. Thank you!

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