Are you taking yourself seriously enough? 5 things to remember when working for free

Making the leap from 'perpetual volunteer' to 'worthy professional' isn't easy but follow this guidance give yourself the best possible chance.

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I was compelled to put this post together by great comment I received today on a prior post.

“Great article, Liam. Particularly the example letter. I noticed that you (knowingly?) used specific language there when referring to you free service. I think I too often come across as a perpetual volunteer instead of a freelancer doing a favour. Off hand, do you have or know of any additional other resources that could help me better communicate that I’m usually doing this for pay?”

– Sam W

I’ve bolded the key points here and I really like the way Sam describes this “perpetual volunteer” mentality.

The scenario is all too common; you’re starting out and looking to build a portfolio of prior work, referees and case studies. In doing so, you are working for little or no income. Then comes the tough bit, making the leap from “perpetual volunteer” to what I call ‘worthy professional’.

It’s a topic I cover in my book aptly titled ‘Stop thinking like a freelancer’ as well as in my free book download ‘Hourly Rates Don’t matter’

To demonstrate my take on this I’ll start with a story.

Will work for love

In a previous life I was a musician and between 2007-2009 was very active in the entertainment space. This culminated in me heading up a record label making global releases, a well received podcast, a club night and live performances of my own. It was a great period and the exposure took me to perform all over the world including Sydney, Stockholm, Moscow, Ibiza and throughout the UK.

On paper this all looks great but if you’ve ever been close to the music industry you’ll know that at the lower levels there is almost no revenue to be had; in the lower tiers it’s all about love and passion for the craft. Due to this being the ‘norm’ a dangerous trend perpetuates the music industry – working for free.

It’s more often framed as ‘working for exposure’ but whichever way you cook it, exposure doesn’t pay your bills.

Making the step up into ‘worthy professional’ status in the entertainment space proved almost impossible for me so I gave it all up, to focus more on building out my freelance design-for-the-music-industry business (Brandshank) which eventually grew to the 10 person web agency (Tone) it is today.

I made the step up in the freelance space (where I’d failed in music) because I’d figured out one crucial thing:

If someone hires you for [insert your freelance skill here] they aren’t doing it specifically to acquire your skill; they’re doing it to solve a problem they have.

When you realize this it should change your whole perspective. Even as someone working for free, you should build value into your pitch and use framing to explain the outcome specifically.

When you’re working from a position of ‘value provision’ rather than ‘skill provision’ it makes it easier to make the transition from ‘perpetual volunteer’ to ‘worthy professional’.

Here are five things you should remember mind when building your profile:

1. Even if you’re working for free, continually circle back to the impact / value this work should have (and has had).

2. Always be clear about the value of long-term relationships in your project dialogue (your client will quickly make the mental leap between a long-term relationship with you eventually involving remuneration).

3. Achieve the maximum amount of leverage from showcasing this free work – don’t waste it.

4. Don’t lose sight of the purpose of working for free, always consider it your stepping stone; not a ‘new normal’.

5. Above all else; be selective with who you work with in this phase and provide real, tangible value you can shout about for years to come.

Hope that helps, I’m interested to get your experiences on making the transition from ‘perpetual volunteer’ to ‘worthy professional’.

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