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The Freelancer Files: Avoiding Working For Free... Except When It Benefits You

by Dana Winslow

One of the Most Feared Questions a Freelancer Hears

Can you send me samples of your work?

"You mean my portfolio?" "No, something specific to your project? And you want it for free?"

I know I'm not alone when I say that I loathe this exchange. Whoever said that there was no such thing as a stupid question had clearly never been through this.

Inadvertently working for free is one of the biggest dangers of freelancing. In this article, I'm going to cover several different variations on this tune, including spec work, client-specific samples (including free samples), and pro bono work. More importantly, I'm going to help you create a framework that protects you from getting tangled in the working-for-free trap, yet helps you proactively leverage specific types of free work to build your business.

So, What is Spec Work?

If you're asking this question, then you are either new to the world of freelancing (welcome!) or you are one of the luckiest freelancers on this planet.

Spec work is work done, either in part or in whole, without payment or contract. In fact, it's usually done with little more than the hope that it will lead to payment. It's kind of like a sample – and the plan is that if the prospective client likes the sample enough, then he or she will hire you to complete the project or work on future projects.


Think of it almost as an upscaled sample lady (or sample man) from the supermarket. You know the people I'm talking about... the ones who are standing near the aisles with tiny little crackers topped with various cheeses, sausages, fake cheeses (scary), fake sausages (scarier) and just about anything else that you can think of to place on a cracker. And while you're braving down these samples, the nice lady (or man) begins telling you all the benefits of buying that cheese or sausage. And wouldn't you like to buy some and bring it home to share with your family?

No? What if I give you this handy-dandy coupon?

Now you're talking.

The Difference between Spec Work and Free Samples

Personally, I don't know what the big deal is about spec work – except that I think that people are getting it confused with other forms of working for free.

Spec Work is not something that is requested. A potential client doesn't email you and ask for spec work. They may ask for samples; they may ask for entries into a contest; they may ask for previews. But they don't ask for spec work.

Now, I'll be honest. I learned about spec work several years ago while I was working in radio. Yes, that's right, I used to be a DJ. But I also used to produce commercials and to do that I had to work with the sales department at the radio station. At least once or twice a week, I would go into the recording studio with one of the sales people and sub-produce a spec commercial. What does that mean?

That means that I would not worry about refining various things, such as the copyright or sound effects. I wouldn't even necessarily talk about anyone or anything specifically. Sometimes the commercials were little more than jibberish with some music and a station jingle. Nothing fancy – in fact, it took us longer to transfer the new commercial onto a cassette than it did to record it in the first place.

And, bam, just like that, my sales person had a sort of portable portfolio – it was a portfolio of what we could do, not a portfolio of what we had already done. He could then take that spec commercial with him, along with his proposals, business plans and whatever else he used, and he could pitch this comercial to a potential client. If he needed help, I would go with him and we would make the pitch together.

And what was great about this spec commercial was that this sales person was able to show his potential client what we could do. These meetings usually consisted of things like contest ideas, remote broadcast possibilities, airtime scheduling for recorded commercials and live promos. Without having a commercial that was specific to that client, we were able to convey how we could relate that client to our listeners.

I'd estimate that roughly 85% - 90% of all new clients came and signed contracts with our radio stations based on this spec work. The others either had already planned on advertising (either with us or with another station or both) or were not interested in advertising.

Now I know what you're thinking. "Well, sure, but that's radio. That has nothing to do with web design. How am I supposed to do spec work then?"

But, if you understand what spec work is and use it correctly, then it does translate to web design and web development, graphic design, and just about any other freelancing field that you can think of.

For example, video. I really do hate working with videos online. It is such a headache, especially when I have clients that have videos all over the place and they're trying to put them all in one place. Now, they're perfectly fine with having the Vimeo player, YouTube player and whatever other player for locally-hosted videos littering their site... but I cringe every time they send me a bunch of new links to embed. And they rarely, if ever, want more than an hour or two spent on videos. So I needed to find a way that would bring together all videos – hosted remotely or locally – and make them look uniform and take less than a few minutes to implement. Well, yeah, you can imagine how many times I was saying to myself "good luck with that".

Like I said, my clients at the time had a lot of videos, but the videos were not the focal point of their site – so they didn't want a lot of time spent on them. So, one day, I marked this need down to work on it – and that was my plan. In the future, when I was between projects, I was going to find a solution that would help me with these clients as well as any other clients who might lean on even more videos. That became my spec work assignment, which I worked on when I was not busy on my local servers.

And then came Dallas Drupal Days and a presentation offered by Travis (yay!) on presenting media in Drupal. I swear it was like he heard my frustration because, wouldn't you know, he made a module for Drupal that presents videos all in the same, uniform player no matter where they are hosted or being streamed from. So, after a couple of weeks of playing with this module on a local server, I not only presented this solution to some of my older clients to refresh their online videos, but I was also able to propose a new video-centric site design to a local dance school, and propose building a whole new site for the local community theater project. Just like that, I had 4 new projects going.

If used correctly, spec work can be a great way to convey confidence, competence and deliver more work into your lap. But we'll talk more about all the benefits (and curses) of spec work a little later.

Before we get to that, I want to talk a little bit about what spec work is not. Spec work is not a requirement to get a job or a new contract. Spec work is not a finished product. Spec work is not always related directly to the client to which it will be shown.

In other words, spec work is not a free sample. You don't walk into a potential client's office and show them a new logo just for them and call it a "spec logo." You don't show them a working web site complete with their logos and colors and call it a "spec site." Those are samples. They are finished products that you have not been paid to complete.

Beginning to see the difference?

When a client asks for a sample, that client is asking for something specific to his or her needs. Whether that be a site, a logo or some articles to be written up. Should you agree to do a sample, that client expects that you will send him a finished and working copy for his specific needs, complete with solutions and answers.

Samples take time – a lot more time than spec work takes – because the client expects to see something finished. With a sample, they expect to see something that they could use right away if they wanted to.

This is what makes sample work so dangerous for freelancers. I'll talk more about that in a little bit.

When to Use Spec Work

One of the most important things to remember is that spec work is a freelancer's tool – not a tool for the client. Samples and portfolios are for the client's benefit; but the spec work is all for the freelancer. And since it's primary function is to bring in new accounts and clients, the best times to do spec work is when you don't have other work going on.

Regardless of whether or not you have a particular person or company in mind for the spec work you're doing, you should have a plan for it. In the world of freelance, nothing you do should go to waste. Especially your time and your work. So, whether you're trying to prove something to yourself, expand your skill set, or want to make sure you're keeping up with the latest trends while work is a little slow, decide now what your plan is – before you even think about working on a spec project.

And I usually recommend not thinking about a particular client while planning out your spec work. Why? Because that spec work will end up being too tailored for that potential client. And then it can create a real mess.

My favorite time to do spec work is between projects. I have a couple local servers set up and, really, I just start playing around to see what I can come up with. When I have something I like, then I find a client who might benefit from it and I show it to them as part of a proposal. 90% of the time, I have a new client by the end of the week.

For example, videos. Have I mentioned how much I hate working with videos?

The key to spec work is to not finish it. Do enough to answer a question but not enough to answer everything. When proposing the video players to everyone, I didn't show the dance company or the community theater project a whole site or any logos. They got to see previous sites that I built (thanks to my portfolio) and the answer to their video needs (thanks to my spec work).

When Should you Avoid Spec Work?

If you're busy, then believe me, you probably have no need for spec work. As long as you have a surplus of projects going, you probably shouldn't spend time working on spec work that doesn't answer your clients' needs. If you think of something but you're too busy at the moment, then you can do what I did with the videos – write down the idea somewhere so you can work on it when you're not busy.

Also, avoid working on spec work while you have a specific question being asked or while a particular client is on your mind. If you try to answer too specific of a question or if you think in terms of answering a client's needs, then that spec work will end up being too specific. It might be usable, but if the client you had in mind doesn't go for your pitch, the work really will have been a waste.

If you do everything right, it doesn't matter if the first client declines your idea; it can be applied to many other clients' needs in the future. When you use spec work to your advantage, it will pay off eventually.

And definitely don't do spec work if it doesn't say something about you. When I worked on those videos as spec work, it said something about me. It said that I was willing to look ahead and continue to broaden my skill set. It said I was willing to take on a project with which I was uncomfortable and find a solution. It made me look competent and passionate. Then, when I took this idea with me to old and new clients, my proactivity demonstrated my confidence and knowledge.

Your spec work should tell the same story; maybe with different adjectives, but overall the same story. It should convey your passion and competence and willingness to learn new things. If you don't have a story to tell, then don't worry about working on spec work until you do.

And finally, spec work should not take you very long. Spec work is like framing a house, not hanging the drywall, laying carpets and painting. With my video example, all I showed to those clients was the video functionality. The site that I built to house the videos was a basic Drupal 7 setup with default themes and exactly three contributed modules: Media, Mediafront, and File Entity. That's it. No fuss or worries went into SEO, design, or workflow. I didn't care how user-friendly (or unfriendly) the site was, just so long as those videos worked and I was able to demonstrate how these clients could use the same features on their site.

Spec work may take some significant time; but make sure it's because you're broadening your skills and expanding your comfort zone – not because you're making everything production-perfect.

So then, What's Wrong with Sample Work?

It's so sad what a few bad seeds can do to an apple orchard, isn't it?

Eight to ten years ago, I would have told you that there was nothing wrong with offering free samples of your work. Potential clients, especially if they lived in some other city or state (or even country), were nervous because of the lack of face-to-face contact and community accountability. And because they were so nervous, they would often ask for a sample – something that you could put together that related directly to their company and their needs, so that they could use it to determine whether or not they should hire you.

I know what you're thinking...

Isn't that what a portfolio is for?

Eh.... kinda.

You see, a portfolio is a collection of things that you have done, successfully, in the past. It lists graphics you've designed, sites you've built, copies of articles you've written, testimonials – anything that can prove to new and potential clients how good your track record is. The problem is that not everyone is good at taking something you've done and relating it to something they need.

Do you ever see someone else's haircut and think, "I wonder what that would look like on me..."? But you may have a different hair color, different height or weight, or different facial build from the person with the admirable haircut. So, the only way to know for sure how that haircut would look on you is to 1) get the haircut and hope it works; 2) talk to a professional and see what they say; or 3) find a way to superimpose that haircut onto your face (Photoshop, anyone? Or just the L'Oreal Web site?).

Portfolios work in the same way. Yes, potential clients can see what you've done in the past, and it may look great. But some people just have a hard time viewing things differently from how they are presented. That site that you designed in shades of pink for a makeup company may look awesome – but the electronics store is wondering how that would translate to a blue and beige e-commerce site. That psychology web site that hired you to write blog posts is awesome, but an employment firm wonders if you can make the adjustment to use the more casual language they want.

Essentially, what you did before was spectacular... but does that mean you're necessarily a good match for the next client in line?

This is why eight or ten years ago potential clients would ask you for samples. It provided them with that needed translation between what you had done and what you could do for them.

Unfortunately, as the use of freelancers became much more accepted and widespread, the scumbags started coming out. There weren't very many, but there were enough of these dishonest individuals to wreck it for the rest of us.

These horrible "clients" would ask for free samples from several different contractors and then never hire or pay for anything. Within a week, they would have thousands of articles, logos, graphics or even website code to do whatever they pleased with; didn't have to hire anyone... didn't have to pay a deposit... and didn't have to pay anyone.

These are the people that ruined samples for everyone else. Honest clients who want a free sample in order to make an informed decision can blame one of these dishonest idiots.

Now, no freelancer worth his or her salt will ever provide free samples. You may agree to trials or tests provided that there is either some compensation for the work done during that trial or that you retain ownership of the trial work. Even then, though, you won't find a top-notch freelancer doing that. Why? They don't need to do that. They have developed regular clients, working marketing campaigns, high salary expectations, and portfolios that reach back into the 90s. Their work speaks for itself, and they don't "need" your project; they have so many potential clients coming to them, they pick and choose what they want.

Nowadays, there's also a bigger scale. Companies and web sites, large and small, are advertising for freelancers to apply for their projects by submitting free samples. "Design us a new logo, and we'll pick the one we like best and hire that person." Well, that's all fine and dandy, but what about the 8,946 people who submitted logos and did not get hired? How are they paying their bills? If each one spent just 7 hours designing that logo, then that company just received 62,622 man hours for free. That's a lot of free overhead! And yet only one applicant was hired and paid anything. Well, let's hope it was worth it, shall we?

At least in this case there's less risk of dishonesty. The company did, in fact, intend to hire and pay for something – just not for all the work that went into that something. They were honest and forthright with their intentions. But as a contractor, it's still a big risk. What if you were one of the people who spent 7 hours designing that logo? Divide up your costs for that 7 hours (including lost opporunity cost) and where are you? Probably at a loss. Can you afford to lose money when you work?

I certainly can't afford that.

Okay, So How About Pro Bono Work?

As you're probably aware, pro bono work is professional-level work done as a charitable donation. Traditionally, pro bono work was limited to the legal field, but it is growing in popularity and need in many industries.

So, what exactly does that mean for you as a freelancer? This means you can sign on to do a contract pro bono, providing the client with professional quality work without pay or at a substantial discount. In return, you may get advertising, referrals, a charitable writeoff (based on the fair-market value of your services, assuming donations to the charity are tax-deductible) and a new notch in your portfolio.

And let me tell you – nonprofits are way more liberal with their praise and referrals than paying clients. I did one pro bono site about 6 years ago, and the publicity I got from that 1 site led to 15 new clients. I did a paid site redesign about a year and a half ago for a news station, and got just one new client from referral.

Pro bono work is great for advertising. It's a good marketing plan, and it makes you likeable. People like other people who give back to their community in some way. And face it, designing a web site for that child's crisis center down the road is a great way to show everyone that you are giving back to your community. People like working with people they like. Hey, I once got hired simply because I was living in Texas; that particular client said, "It'll be like Southern Hospitality got bottled and uploaded – perfect, since every one knows how nice people from Texas are."

People like people who are likeable. And people who do pro bono work are definitely likeable.

Just don't go crazy with the charitable work... After all, you still have bills to pay, right? So you need income coming in. I limit my pro bono work to about one project every 12 to 18 months. Find a restriction that works for you set your own limitation.

What Are Some Ways I Can Stay Safe from Working for Free?

Now that you understand the primary ways that you can work without monetary compensation, there are some specific things you can do to protect yourself from the damaging forms of free samples, competitions, and inappropriate free work.

First, have a strict payment structure set up and stick with it. If you want to offer things like samples or discounts, you certainly can – but place reasonable limitations on those samples and do not make exceptions for anyone. Potential clients might be allowed one free sample worth no more than $50. Perfect. But don't end up sending them something that you would normally have charged $150 for. Make sure that this sample policy and payment structure is clearly advertised on your site or listed on your resume. If your policy is to never give free samples, be sure to make that clear.

If you do decide to provide a sample (free or not), make sure there is still a contract involved. A contract conveys how professional you are, and lets the client know that you take your work very seriously – even if you are not charging for it at the time. You should also include important terms and policies in your contract, such as limitations, what happens if the client uses the sample, who retains copyright ownership of that sample, and at what time ownership can change hands between you and the client.

And be discerning when deciding to whom you're willing to give a free sample. I can sit here and preach all I want against free samples, but you know what... if Billy Crystal approached me and asked me to give him a sample of what I could design for the Oscar.org web site, you can bet your bottom dollar that he'd be getting that free sample.

If you're nervous that maybe someone is going to run off with a sample and use it, protect it. Watermark it so that it's unusable and then lock it so it can't be edited. If you're a writer, don't send a document – send it in the form of a watermarked picture. Don't have the resources to watermark your work? Find a friend who does. Trust me, you know someone who knows how to lock up and protect files.

If your potential clients are not understanding why you're unwilling to give a free sample, put it in terms they can understand by relating it to their business. Dress designers don't always understand web design – but they do understand when you talk to them in terms of giving away a free dress. Bakers don't always understand logo design – but they understand the notion of giving away a free cake to everyone who walks through their door.

And finally, just say no. I know, this is really just an antiquated marketing line... but it really does apply here. If a client asks you for a sample or spec work or anything else for free then politely decline. Offer up your portfolio instead.

Spec work and samples are only tools that you can use to your advantage if you choose the terms. The minute a client asks for such a service, it's probably no longer on your terms. That's why it's so important to follow my earlier advie, and clearly post your policies regarding free work.

So, What's Your Take on Spec Work?

Spec work is just like any other marketing tool that a freelancer can use to get his or her message across. To me, it ranks right up there with a portfolio in terms of the messages that it conveys about you as a person and as a contractor. It's a professional way that you can prove to yourself and your clients that you can do more than what you've done in the past.

But it's like every other tool out there. It's only going to work if you know how and when to use it. When misused, it becomes a liability instead of an advantage. You can end up throwing away more money than you can afford to lose.

In the long run, it's always better to get paid for your work than not – especially if the reasons for not getting paid are all the wrong reasons.

So, how are you using occasional "free work" to your advantage, to get new clients and provide better services to existing ones? Share in the comments below.

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