Shaking hands with a new client

The Art of Turning Free Work Into Paid Work

As you venture into the world of running your own business one thing you’ll hear often in the beginning is, “we’ll give you the opportunity to gain exposure and build your portfolio in exchange for free work.”

As frustrating as this is to hear now, it wasn’t always a bad thing. When you were new in your business, never had a paying client and not particularly rounded out in your business skill set, experience for free was more valuable than whatever cost you would have commanded in that position.

The problem is now you need to convert your rates from “gaining experience” into dollars. How do you trade in all that good will you’ve generated in exchange for money?

Invoice for Free Work

One of the secrets to converting free work to paid work is to establish value prior to doing anything for free.

A top tip on how to do this comes from a fellow entrepreneur, Mike Kim. On his podcast, The Brand You Podcast, Mike instructs listeners to show value by invoicing for all work and discount that amount to the agreed upon price. This will establish your value in the mind of the person or people you are working with.

For instance, if you agree to do a free 101 training for an organization, you would generate an invoice and send that invoice to the organization ahead of time outlining exactly what you’re doing, what it costs and discount that service to $0 balance due. Rather than giving away free work, you are providing top shelf value as a courtesy to the client. Everyone knows the value of your skills, time and work.

Establishing Clear Measures for Your Free Work

Another approach that will help your client value what you do is establishing measures for your work. If a client can see precisely how much money your work generated or significant time savings in their work, it will be easier to translate that impact into a financial investment.

If your work is artistic in nature you need to be very careful about who you work with. Establishing measure for art is incredibly subjective and often goes to the lowest bid.

You want to be able to ask the client the question, “So I’d like to know, what were you able to accomplish as a result of the work we’ve done here?” and use their as leverage for negotiations.

Establishing your value through reached measures makes it easier to move from free work to paid work.

Create a Timeline for Free Work and Expectations

An issue you will run into is no end date for your free work. When you create a timeline for a project along with an expectation of wanting to work together in a paid capacity, a finish date for your project provides a natural opportunity to have the conversation.

The longer the relationship lingers without a wrap up date, the more awkward it will feel when you do bring it up months down the road.

When you agree to work with someone for free, let them know up front, “I’m really excited to work with you on this and you will see how much value this brings to your business. At the end of this project, if it works out as we expect, it’s my expectation to share with you additional services I offer which will be just as beneficial to your bottom line.”

That client now knows that you are not working for free, but you are partnering with them. You take the reins of the relationship when you establish these expectations up front.

Choose Free Clients Who Are Willing to Pay You

One of the most obvious ways to make sure that your free work translates into paid work is to choose to work for someone who is willing to pay for services. Do your homework on their situation. Research their Facebook page. Look at their LinkedIn. Read their blog. Talk with others who who have worked with them. Trust your gut.

Though I try not to inject myself into too many articles, I need to speak up on this point. Within the first five minutes of meeting with someone I can tell if they are cheap or generous. If my gut tells me this is a one way relationship, I’ve learned to listen and get out after dozens of times when I’ve ignored my gut and hated every second thereafter.

When you go in choosing clients who have the willingness to pay for services related to yours, you aren’t guaranteeing you will eventually be paid, but you are upping your chances.

Choose to work for free only for those clients who are willing to pay.

When the Client is Not Willing to Pay You After You’ve Worked for Free

There is one major reason you will not be able to convert a free client into a paid client. That reason? The client does not value what you do.

Your initial reaction to that may be, “no, they value what I’m doing. We’ve worked really hard on what we’ve done so far.” The question you have to ask yourself is, “are they seeing an opportunity to take advantage of free labor or do they truly value what you do?” As painful as it is to hear, if they’re not willing to give you money when you begin proposing paid services and communication starts to dwindle, you are dealing with someone who does not value your work.

Your best bet is to cut ties with that professional relationship and move on. If they come back and approach you, great. However, the chances of that happening are very slim because this type of person will move on to find another resource to deliver that same work for free. As much as they are excited about you helping them with their project, it’s still ultimately about them, not your relationship. Here is a glimpse into the heart of someone who won’t consider paying you for your work after they were happy to accept free work.

  • They do not think about your spouse or children who depend upon you being paid for your work.
  • They do not think about the other clients you have who do pay you. This free client consumes just as much, if not more time than paying clients.
  • They satisfy their conscience by taking you out to coffee or lunch and consider that a fair trade. In fact they may have even offered this as an initial meeting opportunity.

Though it is tough to come to grips with, this client is a money pit and when you’re not in the room they’re not thinking about you or your life’s circumstance. Move on, professionally. If they are a personal friend, you can still be friends with them, just make sure you don’t work with them.

You Will Be Taken Advantage Of and That’s Okay

At the end of the day, all the planning and prepping will not prevent you from being taken advantage and you won’t always be able to convert free work into paid work. It’s okay. Even though you had hoped it would lead to greater opportunity, it’s a good learning experiencing on what to do next time.

Make sure you move on from relationships that don’t value your work or you will begin to question your worth. If you are qualified to be doing what you’re doing… If you have brought value to the table in any relationship using your skills… If others marvel at how you do what to do with such ease… Your work has worth and it’s the challenge of the entrepreneur to discover those who will value your work as much as you do (if not more).