working for free stairs to nowhere

Is Working for Free the Best Way to Start Your Business?

The idea of doing projects “on spec” (without pay) came up in one of the few Facebook groups I participate in.

To be more specific, a woman launching a new service business was offering to work for free in order to get testimonials and build her portfolio.

Is this a good way to start your business? Or is spec work a flight of stairs leading nowhere?

In business (almost) nothing is true across the board. What works for one entrepreneur may flop badly for another. In this Facebook conversation, I felt qualified to chime in and express my opinion, based on my extensive, often painful experience in a field closely related to the one being offered for free. Here is a slighly modified version of my comments:

I’m going to do something relatively harsh here…by recommending you seriously limit this offer (to work for free).

Having testimonials is great, but absolutely not necessary to launch your business. In a way, you’re postponing the launch of your business by clinging to the idea that you need “proof” of the value of your services.

Your time is extremely valuable. Especially since you have a family who likes having you around and “present.”

In all likelihood, doing content marketing for yourself will advance your business more than doing free work for other people, no matter how good their testimonials will be.

The thing is, there’s a huge need for the service you provide — but most of the people/businesses who need your skills do not fully appreciate that need. They don’t feel pain, so it’s hard to pry money from their hands, especially at a rate you deserve.

You would do well to seek people who already feel that need, that have a bleeding neck problem, to use the words of John Paul Mendocha.

See if you can get testimonials from colleagues and friends who already know you and are familiar with the quality of your work. Build up your portfolio working on your own website and marketing materials.

It’s also well worth your time to connect with people who might already be in touch with your target audience. Maybe you can work out a referral arrangement or a way to bundle your services together. Or subcontract work from other established people in the space you want to occupy (or an adjacent one).

Think graphic designers, etc.

And remember, don’t sell your services, as such. Instead, define the transformation you produce for your clients. How will their lives and businesses be different, better than before they hired you — or anyone else for that matter.

Define what you’ll do for them — and what you won’t. Specialize, if you can.

BTW, I’m not always right. This just advice based on my experience.

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What about you? How do you feel about spec work?

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2 thoughts on “Is Working for Free the Best Way to Start Your Business?

  1. I completely agree with your view, Donnie. I won’t say writing on spec is bad/wrong, but it’s not the true goal of any professional writer. As you say, to offer your writing for free only delays the inevitable of wanting to be paid.

    At the same time, if a less experienced writer truly feels that a spec assignment will pay dividends down the road, I say go for it. Otherwise, as you say, seek out clients who value your service and are willing to pay a reasonable fee for it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Seth.

      I won’t pretend I’ve never written on spec. In my personal experience, though, most of those “opportunities” don’t go as far as you hope they will. You tell yourself, “Once I knock this project out of the park, I’ll have clients lined up to pay me.” But oftentimes the word never spreads, and if it does, you’ve created an anchor — clients often suspect they can hire you on the cheap. And you may feel obligated (or at least pressured) to take their lowball offers.

      Probably more important than that, though, is that you’re probably not going to deliver the very best work you’re capable of producing, because how much time, effort and genius will you give up for free…while everything in your life is waiting to get paid?

      There are always exceptions to the rule, and everyone will have to make up their own minds about whatever situation they find themselves in. I just wanted to share my thoughts and experience, because I understand the temptation and I’m familiar with the opportunity costs associated with doing free work.

      All the best to you, Seth!

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