3 lies about working for free

I very rarely get people asking me to work for nothing. When I do, all I hear is someone telling me fibs.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Personally, I think hindsight is useless. Having to wait until after a thing has happened to then realise it was a bad idea, is no way to live your life.

“In hindsight, having that 15th JD and coke probably lead to me falling down the stairs and severing my spinal cord.”

In hindsight, I wish I’d never worked those few times for free.

We all make mistakes, right, but I don’t want you to waste your literal time doing the same.

So read on for 3 lies about working for free.

1. You will gain experience

When you start your freelance career, you’re excited but you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

Keen to learn your craft by accepting offers of free work, seems, on the face of it, like a great idea. I’m going to now, make an assumption about you. And that is you lack the confidence that comes with experience. So, when someone wants what you offer, you’re stoked – you cannot believe they like your stuff. So you do it for free because it would be great practice, right?


The person asking you to give your services away for nothing might sense that you’re inexperienced and they’re using that knowledge to their own advantage. Maybe you’re doing certain things that reveal you’re a novice, and here are some of those things:

  1. You’re open about your lack of experience
  2. You exude zero confidence
  3. You have no clear business process
  4. You don’t set boundaries

It’s more than likely you’re lying to yourself, convinced no one will pay you a decent rate until you’ve been slogging in your industry for 20 some years. That’s another lie. Don’t listen to yourself or anyone else who tells you that bullshit.

Some folks just have the raw attributes that make them good at what they do from the get-go.

2. You enjoy your job

Maybe you get to use crayons or flash a camera about.

Perhaps now you’re self-employed, you no longer have to deal with a handsy boss. You can take fridge breaks whenever you damn well please and never have to hide the fact you spend most of your day surfing the internet. 

So why should you expect to get paid too?

Creatives are especially prone to cheeky bastards asking them to work for free because it’s seemingly a joy to paint / take photographs / design websites / write stuff.

That’s a myth.

This is not a hobby, this is your occupation. Doing a favour for family and friends is one thing, it’s quite another when a stranger expects you to do it because you’re ‘living the dream’.

3. It will be great exposure

Do you remember that time you called a plumber and said:

“Hello, I wonder if you can fix a leak in my bathroom? I won’t be able to pay you but I will tell all my friends about your services.”

No, you don’t remember because you wouldn’t dare ask your local tradesperson for free graft. It’s rude and insulting.

If you keep saying yes to working for free you probably need to seek the advice of a professional to figure out why you think it’s ok for people to treat you like shit. You might be under the misguided impression that it will attract paying customers. The bottom line is this: it isn’t just the person who’s asking the favour that doesn’t value your work – you don’t either.

Creative found DEAD trying to live off exposure.

You can’t use it to heat your home. It doesn’t put food on your table. And if I had a pair of Christian Louboutins for every time I heard that line “you’ll get lots of exposure”, I’d be Imelda Marcos.

Hold the press: exposure isn’t currency or luxury goods

At no point did my performing an acoustic set to an audience of old farts, did I ever secure a paid gig. Nor did it lead to a recording contract because A&R people didn’t hang out in the venues I played. 

If the audience is not your audience people won’t buy from you.

The same applies when I write a free article for a market that will likely, never buy from me. Generic business types usually don’t want what I’m offering.

And another thing: if the brand in question has no influence or reputation, it will do nothing to boost your position within your industry. All you’ve done is invest time and talent into gaining absolutely nothing for your business.


Stop buying these lies about working for free.

People who ask for freebies know how good you are, otherwise, they wouldn’t entertain getting in touch. They just don’t value it enough to pay cash.

They’ve probably been consuming all your content. They’ll say nice things and tell you what a great [INSERT CREATIVE JOB TITLE HERE] they think you are. That’s sweet but take it as a compliment and move on with your life.

Sure, people might ask for your services based on some charitable purpose, and it’s your choice if you wish to give up your time for some good cause. You’re still not obliged to do so.

But Sarah, you don’t get anything if you don’t ask.

That’s very true, and if people are brave enough to ask me for free work, they probably deserve something for nothing but some copy isn’t what I had in mind.

What you have will benefit them, way more than it does you.

And they know that. So don’t be blinded by flattery, and don’t think you’re damaging a future relationship that might/maybe/possibly lead to paid work. 

Focus on the people that not only love what you do but who are more than willing to pay the asking price. Because getting paid for your actual job should be the bare minimum requirement for any occupation.

Think about this when you next get a begging email/DM:

  • Is it furthering my career?
  • Is it boosting my profile?
  • Is it opening up influential doors?

If it isn’t doing any of that, just say no.

If you keep attracting terrible people who think you should provide them work for nothing (or very little in return) it’s all your fault.

If your online spaces aren’t geared to proper paying clients, what do you expect? If your target customer is a little hazy, your pricing structure, a disaster, and your buying process, non-existent, that’s all on you.

If your business copy isn’t actively discouraging the time-wasters, this shit will continue.

If you don’t start believing you’re worth cold hard cash, it might be time to throw in the self-employment towel.

If you want a free piece of long-form from me, check out my blog. Please contact me if you’d like to feature one of those posts.