Working for free

Should we give our time away?

Conventional wisdom states that you should never work for free, for all the obvious reasons. But some reasons aren’t always obvious to those on the outside.

Firstly, let’s define “working for free”. I’m talking about our regular creative work (writing, designing, coding, whatever) that we would normally charge for. Volunteering or similar activities don’t count.

So what work would I choose to give away for free? In the past I’ve chosen to design/build websites for friends/family/local groups over the years, and more recently I’ve designed a few free book covers as part of a possible career change.

Websites

The websites I made for friends were almost never used. I spent a lot of time on them and gave them the same care and attention I’d give to paid client work. I was disappointed and extremely annoyed at the time that I did all that work for what seemed like no purpose after all. With hindsight though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I re-learned what I already knew: when people get free stuff, they just don’t value it. It didn’t matter whether it took me 5 hours or 50 to create a friend’s website: as they weren’t paying for it, they were taking no risks, and therefore were not properly invested in it.

I now choose not to do websites for friends because

  • they don’t value my time
  • they don’t value the outcome
  • there are plenty of free or low-cost ways to get a website using a platform like WordPress, Squarespace, etc.

While this seems a negative view, there are lots of positive outcomes from doing friend’s websites: the personal learning that comes from the process. Maybe I learned some new tech, or a new method. Free work can hone your skills, if you’re happy to bear the other costs.

Book covers

Designing book covers was something I’d been thinking about for a while. When I left my last full-time job to return to freelancing at the end of 2016, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Freelance web-design/development was becoming harder to find with my ‘old-school’ skills, and the nature of the work had lost the creative design aspects which I used to love.

I’ve always loved creating cool visuals, and I knew that I wanted to find that elsewhere. I decided to spend some of my time practising the design of book covers. In fact, a lot of my spare time last year was spent on it.

Through various connections, I made contact with a small indie publisher, Burdizzo Books. They produce horror anthologies for charity: All authors contribute stories for free, and the books are sold with all profits going to small charities. Here was a small enterprise that was doing something really good: using their collective creative talents to help small charities. I really wanted to help, so I offered to do their book covers for a year. So far I’ve created 2 covers which they loved.

Hymns Sparks Both Books
Covers for “Hymn Book” and “Sparks”, two Burdizzo Books charity anthologies, available on Amazon.

Of course, my motives weren’t 100% altruistic. I figured that if I had some book covers in the wild it could help me get noticed. The classic “exposure”, which everyone says doesn’t work, and which I tended to agree with too. But I’d never tested it for myself and thought I should try.

Did I get any work from this exposure?

Nope.

The outcome is exactly what everyone says: getting exposure from doing free work just doesn’t happen most of the time. But I was OK with that as I’d done this work for practice and to help a good cause.

I also did a couple of other free covers after running an introductory offer. These were great fun to do, I learned loads about formatting for CreateSpace and Ingram Spark, and the covers were loved by the clients. But again, no noticeable results from this “exposure”.

I networked on social media but that really doesn’t come naturally to me as an introvert. I did find a couple of paying clients. But because I was a “new” designer (despite 20 years web design experience), perhaps people were nervous about commissioning me. Totally understandable, I’d be cautious too.

After 18 months of doing free covers and a few paid covers, I’m finally starting to get noticed. I’m practising all the time and when I post up new practice work, I get more confident and a bit more noticed. It really is incredibly difficult to get noticed for creative work on the web. I’m up against extremely talented artists and designers who have been doing book covers for years. But I know that continual good work is what will eventually get me there.

Reality bites

My mum died last year and things were really tough in my personal life for many other reasons. I fell into depression and just tried to survive the day-to-day. Only now in spring 2018 am I feeling like I’m ready to enter the world properly again. I don’t know what the future of work holds for me, maybe a combination of web freelancing and book cover design. Or perhaps something else entirely: I’m now working with a careers coach to look at other possibilities too.

When I look back on the last year, I’m unclear how much of the free work contributed to my lack of employment. The actual hours spent on the free work weren’t that much, relatively speaking. So I don’t think the free work had a negative impact; no, my lack of work was due to much larger factors that I had not really addressed.

Conclusions

I could only afford to do free work because of all the paid work I’d already done prior. A decent savings plan had given me a buffer to work within. I would advise then that you shouldn’t do free work if you’re already struggling for money.

I would also advise that if you choose to do free work for friends/family, you might be disappointed by the outcome. It’s hard not to feel a bit used when we invest so much time, effort and care into something that our friends or family don’t seem to value.

But the free work I did on the book cover design was great. Sure, the “exposure” hasn’t given me anything back yet (no new clients have approached on the basis of that work), but I loved the learning, the creativity and getting to know the contacts I made. Those things have been very valuable to me.

So, “Don’t do free work.” Yes or no?

I would largely agree. Free work undervalues our skills. It can only be done when there’s no fundamental risks. Exposure is definitely a myth and doesn’t yield results (unless perhaps you’re very good at marketing and networking.) The time sink can be considerable, and you have to be happy with the outcome of getting nothing back for your efforts.

BUT…

If you have something specific you want to get from doing free work, if you can fund it or somehow support it without going broke, then I say: Why not? You might be surprised what you get out of it.

Final words

This was my personal experience, with a bunch of reasoning and factors that may not apply to anyone else. Your mileage may vary, etc.

Be cautious, be sensible, pay your bills.

But above all: never stop trying new things.