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Should you ever work for free?

When you’re starting out as a contractor or freelancer, there’s one big hurdle you need to get over: your lack of a portfolio. Hopefully you’ve got something you can show from your work as a full-time employee, but clients will also want to see what you’ve done on your own. And when you’ve got nothing to show, the temptation is to build up a portfolio by offering to work for free.

According to recent reports, 43% of freelancers have ended up working for free on at least one occasion. Many established self-employed professionals will say no one should ever work for free. And in an ideal world, they shouldn’t. But sometimes, it’s the only option – especially if you’re desperate to build up a portfolio.

Limit what you’ll do for free

If you do decide to initially work for free, make it clear to your client that it’s a one-off. If they like your work your usual day rate will apply. Make it clear exactly what you’ll deliver for free and put a limit on iterations. That way, when you get asked to change something for the umpteenth time you can politely back out.

Also, make sure the client is willing to give you a testimonial, making it clear to them that you will use it on your website, social channels, etc. Make it easy for them by drafting a (not too gushing) testimonial for them to approve.

Another option is to put a limit on the free time you’ll offer a client. Get written agreement that if they continue to engage with you beyond an the initial period, you’ll start charging for your work (possibly on a sliding scale until you reach the day rate you feel you should be charging). If they like what you’re doing, they’ll be happy to pay to continue to work with you.

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