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No client ever directly asks you “will you work for free?” But getting asked to work for free indirectly is not that uncommon. Here are some of the reasons clients sometimes give. In general, you should never work for free. Even if your intentions are honourable no one values something that doesn’t cost anything.

Watch out for these “will you work for free?” euphemisms.

“It will lead to more work”

Great. But you should be paid for all your work. You shouldn’t be required to put in any free work to get paid work. If you agree to this then the client can blur the lines between when the free work ends and the paid works starts. Where does it end?

I had an agency ask me to do some designs so that they could secure the job and thus “lead to more work”. The thing is this was the agency’s client, not mine, and so the risk was theirs. My response was I quoted to do the design only and said that if they secured the job I would discount that amount off the main job. I never heard back.

Exposure doesn’t pay bills, money from paid work does

“It will give you some great exposure”

Exposure does not necessarily mean more paid work. In fact, it could give you a reputation as someone who gives out freebies. For example, if your logo is shown at a conference with thousands of attendees that sounds great but the likelihood of getting work from it is scant — especially if it’s the kind of exposure you get in return for work as opposed to something paid for advertising. If you paid a client for exposure they would have more obligations towards you than if you gave them some work since you. Exposure doesn’t pay bills, money from paid work does.

“It will look good in your portfolio”

If you wanted to do something for free to make your portfolio look better then you could create some arbitrary work yourself without having a client dictating to you what you do. Besides, any work you create is yours anyway (in terms of copyright) so work you get paid for also “looks good in your portfolio”.

Any prospective client that mentions money before anything else is likely difficult to work with

“We don’t have the money right now”

A website is an integral part of almost any business. If a company can’t get the funds together for something so basic what are they going to be like to work for if and when they actually do have some money? A shortage of funds is their problem, not yours. As a rule-of-thumb, any prospective client that mentions money before anything else is likely difficult to work with.

“We need to know you’re the person for the job”

If they wish to know if you’re the right person for the job then direct them to your portfolio and allow them to ask you questions over email, phone or in person. You don’t have to work for someone for free for you and them to know if you can work together. Taking anyone on is a risk and you’re not obliged to mitigate that risk by giving your time away. It’s up to the client to apply the principle of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”).

Tim Bennett is a freelance web designer from Leeds. He has a First Class Honours degree in Computing from Leeds Metropolitan University and currently runs his own one-man web design company, Texelate.