4 telltale signs that you are about to do free work and how to avoid it

I have a love-hate relationship with giving away free consulting and free work. On one hand, doing free work can be a very smart chess move in business. You get to showcase your chops and “wow” a major influencer or business owner. It can potentially land you a much bigger opportunity that is paid work.

On the other hand, many businesses try and use those same reasons to not pay professionals. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, graphic designer, chef, lawyer, or doctor.

Here are 4 telltale signs you are about to do free work and how to avoid it.

You will hear phrases like…

  • “Show us what you can do on this project and we give you first priority in upcoming projects,” or “This is a great way to build your portfolio.”
  • “We just want to see what you can do and if it is applicable to our business…”
  • “I just need to see if we’re a right fit”
  • “Just give me this one thing at a discount, and I will send you all my other projects.”
  • “If you do this project at this price point (whatever they decide) I will send you referrals”
  • “Yes, I understand your work is versatile but I don’t know if you will be able to represent our brand without seeing you work on a project for us first.”
  • “You will gain exposure doing this work”

BS alert! These phrases should set your own BS detector off like wildfire. These phrases are the telltale lines that businesses use to get free work.

Let me be clear, if you need to build your portfolio doing free work is a great strategy. I fully support putting your butt on the line to show your chops.

That being said if you are in need of building that portfolio I recommend finding major influencers in your space and reaching out to them. The free work will (if you are good) create a measurable result in your business.

However, there are tons of people that are not beginning their businesses. They have portfolios, they have clients and they are great at what they do. This is not the time to give out your services for free. In fact, doing this would devalue your work.

When you hear these phrases, run! These opportunities are usually a way to do a ton of work and get very little in return. What you get back is usually a lesson to be more alert next time, and more choosey about your opportunities.

If you happen to forgo my warning and do this type of work, then make sure you have a clearly defined project scope and contract.

I can’t tell you how many times those two items have saved me. If a client is too cheap to pay you, chances are they don’t have the influence or reach to help progress your business.

They promise work in the future in exchange for work now.


This is a carrot being hung at the end of a stick. Like the donkey with the carrot, that paid work is never attainable. If you ever do attain the coveted “paid” work, it will be pennies compared to what you would usually charge.

Strategically you have a weak hand in negotiation. You have already invested time, money, and resources. You have shown your hand. The client can offer you paid work at an undervalued rate.

They know you put the work in and will offer you that lowball rate, you put all that hard work upfront and you want some money in exchange. Therefore, you will take that low price and be forever stuck in the underpaid and overworked category.

Don’t be fooled—the clients are usually more than aware that they’re doing this. Not all business is good business. However, there are loads of lessons to learn from that situation!

They are a “non-profit”

Non-profits can be a bit tricky. Because some non-profits really can’t afford to pay professionals. A good rule of thumb is to ask this question: “Are you getting paid to do your job?”

If they say yes, chances are they have a budget. If they don’t have a budget they aren’t serious. If they say no, then do the work, it’s good karma. Just make sure they are a 501-c3, so you can legally write off your services. Check with your accountant first though.

Doing some free work for a local 501-c3 can lead to more work. They are usually extremely well connected to the community.

We are a “startup” or ”bootstrapping.”

A startup can be a legitimate business just getting off the ground or it can be code for a “business that doesn’t make money.” My first suggestion is figuring out what category they’re in.

If they are legitimate, then make sure you get compensated in some way. This might be in the form of equity, results based compensation, or something else. Either way, get compensated. There are way too many times when startups get free work by hanging a carrot ahead of a “potential employee.”

If you are offered equity, make sure you understand the terms of the equity. This can get tricky.

The key is to know your worth and your value. I have always said your self-worth reflects your net worth and this true more than ever in the startup world. Start-ups are a great place to build your self-worth. A small team of highly skilled people can create massive disruption in the marketplace.

It is an ultra-competitive landscape and founders know the value of paying top talent.

The other end of the spectrum, is that some newer businesses just don’t want to pay talent. They want it for free, and they usually say they’re “bootstrapping”—that’s why they can’t pay you to make the website… even though they’ve been in business on record for at least 7 years… smell fishy? Yep, I’d say so.

I can’t even tell you how many conversations we had like this when we just started our marketing agency. Now, let me be clear, I’m ALL FOR BOOTSTRAPPING. I’m just saying that it’s not an excuse to not pay for talent.

You can’t get something for nothing. It’s just not how the world works—there’s always an equal exchange. The moral? if you find that someone is looking for something for nothing—politely turn down the work and move on to something more profitable.


How to stop doing free work:

9 times out of 10, if you keep getting asked to do free work chances are it’s due to one of the following:

  • You are selling to the wrong client
  • You are not expressing your value
  • Your message isn’t resonating with your audience.

How to sell to the right client.

The right client is the one that just loves what you have to offer and is excited to pay you your worth. To find those clients sometimes, we have to crawl through the muck that is a “bad client.”

But after we have done our fair share of dirt eating, we can hone in on our ideal client. This is also called a buyer persona. A buyer persona helps us, as entrepreneurs target the right client, with the right message. It’s where we showcase our unique value.

How to express your value.

Expressing value first starts with selling to the right person. No sense trying to sell refrigerators to the Eskimos.

Once you’ve locked in exactly who you are serving, the next part is to actually serve them. Creating value is easy. Your one and only goal is to help a small niche create a clearly defined end result they desire.

For instance, digital nomads who wish to build an online brand sign up for a Brand Strategy Training series. Instagramers looking to grow their following, sign up for the free Instagram training.

The point anyway, is that there shouldn’t really be too much “selling” or any convincing whatsoever. If you’re around the right people, and they believe what you believe—then the sale itself is very easy to make. It usually happens organically.

How to create messaging that resonates.

To make your message resonate you need to do three things in perfect harmony.

You have to sell to the right client + you have to know your value + you have to tell a story that moves people.

Telling that story isn’t always simple process—it’s a journey of self-discovery.

Your brand is a representation of your story. Your story or message will resonate with your customers when you have found your truth.

It’s when your voice becomes a beacon of hope for all those you serve. It’s when you stop living in fear, step out of the shadow and take on Goliath… whatever might come.

For some people, it takes years to make their message resonate. For others, they are lucky enough to dive in deep and figure it out quickly, whether it’s with a mentor, training, or self-discovery.

If you’re in the process of making your message sing—of finding that light inside of you, pick up a copy of The Branding Blueprint. It is a self-discovery course designed to help you create a brand that resonates with your clients.

Pick it up, unless you are afraid of digging deep and being a big player. It takes courage to play big, and you’ll need it.

Those are the 4 telltale signs you are about to do free work, and how to avoid doing it.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.