Should I Work For Free?

In one of the Slack organizations I am in, some of the people in the design channel were talking about how spec work permeates their industry and how it is harmful. They talked about how this came to be and the effects of it. I stayed out of the discussion for a while, but I finally posted this to try to help understand what they were saying and state my perspective. Since I thought it might be valuable to you if you are a freelancer or consultant, wanted to share it here.

The Post

I have worked more in a software development capacity, so I am not steeped in the “spec work” culture as much, but I basically would not give work away for free for someone who is able to pay money. I think part of our responsibility as people who take on clients is to verify the following before engaging to learn more:

  • what is the significant business problem you have?
  • why are you trying to solve it today?
  • have you had and solved problems like this before?
  • do you have a budget for this project, and is it at least $X0000 dollars?
  • are you the project owner?

I will admit to mostly lifting this from Brennan Dunn’s Double Your Freelancing Rate book and related materials. But I think it is a good list to qualify leads that will prevent a lot of headache. There are certainly clients that will filter out of the process at this point, and the best case would be for you to be able to direct them to someone else that would be able to help or to a good resource to learn more. I think we have all run across someone who wants a MailChimp clone for $500, and we just have to say that this is almost certainly unreasonable, and here is why, and here are other resources that you can investigate and the potential advantages or pitfalls of going that route. Sometimes people just have an unrealistic or uninformed expectation, and at least we can tell them why we think this is incorrect and help them on their journey.

A business might think they need a new website, when in reality they have a product or positioning issue, or they are not getting enough traffic to their existing website, or other problems. So I think it is our responsibility to understand the underlying problems the client has and to make sure that we are solving the actual problem they have. That is a lot more valuable than just saying “yep, you specify it, I code it.” Or, “you give me a design, and I design it.” At that point you are a commodity, and will be able to charge accordingly. If you can provide more value than that, then you are not in the same market segment and can justify a higher rate as a result.

I think it’s easy to blame the industry or norms, but I think it’s important to say “what can I do to ensure that the projects that I take on are going to be the kind of projects that I want to work on?” Part of it is working with clients to establish better default communication and expectations.

It’s interesting though. I think that there likely some “free” work involved in most consulting industries. If you write a blog post or go to a conference or a networking event, or learn a new technology or process, or meeting with leads, this is time that you are not charging clients. But it is probably really important to ensuring that you get new work in the door. If you were turning away good work every week, would you have any incentive to do spec work?

Thanks for reading, and I’d actually love to hear more about this. I think it is an interesting topic.

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