happy little biz

Should you work for less (discounts or otherwise?)

Ever had a discounted client situation that just turned into an arm wrestling match? Ugh. Not fun for anyone.

Figured this week I'd cover a rather controversial topic: working for free.

You'll read plenty of articles out there that are on both sides of the fence. Some very strongly stating many reasons why you should never work for free, and some showing very well the 'return on investment' working for free can give you.

So should you ever work for free? Is it worth it to discount your services in certain situations?

Here's my take on it, in a nutshell: only do it if you don't have any expectations for the exact outcome. That way, no matter how things turn out, you won't feel let down or taken advantage of.

Asked to volunteer or give some free product for a charitable cause you believe in? Got a request to be a guest speaker on a podcast you love? Best friend getting married and asks you for a discount on your services for his big day and you totally don't mind? Perfect. Go right ahead and give whatever you're comfortable giving.

But what about other situations, where it's less easy to tell if you'll be ok with the outcome? Well, here's some food for thought.

If you run a service-based business it is almost always worth it to offer something for free to your potential clients so they can see you know what the heck you're talking about and are worth what you are charging. This does not mean you should offer something big and time consuming or expensive for free. No, what I'm talking about are things like a 'stretches for runners' video on YouTube if you're a massage therapist that works with runners, or a '5 tips for making small spaces more functional' handout if you're an interior designer who works with condo owners. These should be things that take very little of your time and money to create.

Giving away small things for free helps build trust in your level of expertise and allow potential clients to get to you know you a bit better, without having to spend any money. And at the same time, if folks take what you are offering without ever paying you a dime for your services, it's no big deal, because you didn't invest a lot of time and energy into the free item.

What about discounting your services? If someone asks for a discount, should you do it?

Again, I come back to: only do it if you're not attached to what the outcome will be. And I'd take that one step further in saying only do it if there is a mutual benefit. If you offer a referral discount, that's completely reasonable. You get new clients and the person referring people to you gets to pay a bit less for your services. Win/win situation. Similarly, if you're like me and bill people in instalments rather than all at once, you could offer a small discount if they pay 100% in advance. Again, a win/win situation: you get the total up front so you know you won't have to chase anyone to get paid, and they get to pay a bit less.

If you're new to a creative industry and trying to build a portfolio, do not work for free unless it's a situation where you are very sure you'll get some benefits. For example, an unpaid, short internship with a well respected design firm could be worth your time because you'll learn a great deal from working there. So there is mutual benefit: they get your ideas and abilities and you get to learn from their years of experience.

If you're working on something for friends and family in order to build your portfolio, I strongly recommend charging something for your services and treating it like any other client relationship. Use contracts, bill them just like you would any other client. In this way you are establishing yourself as a professional with expertise, not just a paid labourer.

But what about those situations where someone asks you to work for free or at a heavy discount 'for the exposure'? Or if someone offers you work at a low price but promises 'it will be steady and there will be a lot of it'?

It might be tempting, but as I've heard many self-employed professionals say... Working for free for 'exposure' is bullshit.

My experience has been that these kinds of projects are actually huge time sucks. They cost you a lot of time and energy and mean you can't focus on building your business and finding clients who will actually pay you what you are worth. It is simply not worth your time. I actually think it is better to take on a part-time job in an unrelated industry to pay your bills while you build your business, rather than taking on a bunch of projects at a heavy discount 'for experience'. That way, you aren't putting yourself out there as the professional who is cheap, or who can be convinced to lower their prices.

So what's your take on this? Comment below or weigh in on twitter (I'm @nyxie) if you like.

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