Monday, 24 January 2011

When should you work for free? Some thoughts on speculative work

I could be kept busy every day of the week working for free. Unfortunately I can’t do it.

This post is prompted by a recent request for some ‘spec’ (speculative) work.

A mid sized company got in touch asking about my photography services. They detailed what they were looking for and asked how I would approach it. I then spent about 2 hours writing a plan on how I would do the work, suggesting various styles of photography, the equipment I would use, highlighting potential problems and permissions that may be required, gave an estimate of the time and a very reasonable quote. I put together an online portfolio for them to look at which show cased my photographs that were similar to the type they were asking for. Soon after sending the email, I received a phone call. They were impressed with my plan and wanted a chat.

In the middle of the conversation the caller asked if I would do some spec work before they signed the job over to me. Basically what this would entail is me providing them with the images they wanted of the subject they wanted. A free sample. They would then decide whether to pass the contract onto me or not.

I was a little surprised at this request. Although I am often asked to take photographs for free, I’ve never been asked to provide a free sample of the exact images required before a photography job is offered.

My compromise to this suggestion was to employ me for a one-off photo shoot, that way there wasn't a big commitment of an on-going contract from their part, and I would be acknowledged for my work in a fair manner. There would be no harm done either way then. They weren't so interested in this suggestion.

The work itself would take a good 4+ hours to complete. Time well invested if I nabbed the contract on offer? I'm not so sure about that, and here's why in this instance....

They have seen samples of my work online, presumably before contacting me, and definitely after I sent them through an online portfolio for them to look at. It shows what I am capable of and my style of photography, but despite that they still wanted to make sure I was good enough before they booked me. I advised the caller that I can provide references and that I have never had any of my work rejected by a client.

What they would get out of this exchange is 4+ hours of my labour, equipment use, and images for their client, for their literature and for use online. A fair exchange for the chance of a contract that was acting as a carrot being dangled?

Where would doing this work for free get me exactly? There would be no guarantee that I would get the contract. I wouldn’t get an amazing experience out of it, or indeed photographs, that although would be of a good standard, wouldn’t be of a very exciting subject. It wouldn't be a great 'show caser', and not something I would be particularly inclined to talk/write about.

I don't think it would be the best start to a business relationship. The business would have already got something useful from me for nothing. Whilst I am doing their freebie, I am not getting paid. Whilst I am doing their freebie, I could be doing paid work. Whilst I am doing their freebie I could be working on securing paying clients.

I had to think on my feet and trust my instincts on this. Also, how would I feel after doing the work should I not get the job?

Have I heard back from this company? No. Would I have heard back from them if I had snapped up their offer to do a job for them for free. I highly suspect I would. Am I glad I stated my terms and thoughts on the matter? Yes. I've never regretted not doing any of the free work that I have been requested to do thus far.

Now, I have done a LOT of work for free over the years, particularly when I was starting out in photography. I spent 6 months (one day a week) on work experience at the Birmingham Post & Birmingham Mail newspapers. This was a great start. It threw me in at the deep end, every photography job was different, I learnt very quickly and got my work published.

And not forgetting the two years I studied at photography classes part time and gained photography qualifications.

I was willing to work for free for other photographers. I would get experience and they would get my help. However, no one took me up on this offer.

I’ve done free jobs that have REALLY interested me and that I would get a great experience out of.

I have also provided free photography services to companies that have provided their services to me for free. A fair exchange.

I work for free on the 4am Project. A personal project that is a global hit with photographers and although it takes a lot of work and effort, it is rewarding for me.

All of the above has given me a wealth of experience. The photographs I take now are partly the result of doing work for free.

Doing free work is a time consumer, no doubt, and I don’t have very much free time. I have a lot of other interests too and they mainly revolve around self development in one way or another. There is only one of me. I haven’t got support staff, unfortunately. I wish I did! I have to manage my time as efficiently as possible. I’m in business, I want that business to be a success and I have to do the right thing for it and make the right decisions.

What would paying for my services get?

Years of experiences built upon working hard, learning from my failures, investment of my time and financial investment in my equipment, top notch images you will be proud of, a fast, efficient service.

When would I be more likely to considering working for free, time allowing of course?

When I would get a great experience out it. Something I would really enjoy AND have fun.

In a skills/service swap situation, providing it works for both of us and we can both offer something the other wants or needs.

If doing a particular job for free would garner a whole heap of exposure.

If I got the chance to work with some amazing people and learn something along the way.

If the contract on offer was so tempting it would be madness not to go for it.

Times when you might wish to consider working for free....

Gain experience and learn your craft.

To build on your portfolio.

To obtain references.

To make contacts.

When laying the foundations of your business.

When you are in a position where you are not 100% relying on money from your new business. Perhaps you already have a steady job and your business start up is done in your free time.

Or if you just have a huge amount of free time and would rather be productive than sit back and do nothing. And if you are starting a new business I hope you would never want to sit back and do nothing for very long!

Reasons why you shouldn't work for free….

Doing free work in general won't help towards you earning a living.

People put more of a value on things they have to pay for. Do you want your work undervalued?

Is it a really big job? Will you regret not doing work for free? Will you regret doing it for free? What is your competition? Who else will the company be approaching?

You are not reliant on companies to show case your work - you can do it yourself! Get started online.

It potentially puts you in a demoralising position and under those circumstances you may not produce your greatest work

As you can see, there are so many things to consider; how you will feel, how you will spend your time, the rewards or lack of from doing free work.

If you are contacted about doing free work, there is no need to make a decision straight away. Don’t be pushed into it. Take control and tell the person/company that you will get back to them. Formulate some questions you may want to ask them if you need any more information. Don’t be afraid to ask for something in return, whether that be their services or indeed, payment.

Jessica Hische has made this handy, and funny diagram, which might just help you say yes or no to doing free work and put a smile on your face at the same time.

click to enlarge

I'd love to know your experiences! Has directly doing spec/free work paved the way to great things for you and your business? Have you done free work and regretted it? Do you give it consideration or simply say no?


kebabselector said...

Great post. As a general rule I won't work for free. I've done a bit in the past, but unless it's another one of my mates parties I will usually pass.

Maybe in hindsight it might bring in a bit more work, so that's something for me to consider. I suppose being asked to work for free is much better than the 'I want to use your picture and will give you a credit'

In my other world of IT I have stopped all free work - too often it comes back to bite you on the backside.

Kebablog aka Steve Cooper

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen - a well-considered post for when to work and not to work for free.

I don't work for free as I'm established in my career but I did as a student to build up a portfolio. I occasionally do stuff for friends or family, but even then there is a often a trade for when I need their skill - or at least a nice dinner.

However, I find myself in the position of considering free work again. I need to skill up further in content strategy and either I'm looking for a mentor or I'm considering offering myself out on a work experience basis for a week or two. The only way to answer the practical questions that keep coming up is to work alongside people who have been there and done that.

But still, it's not exactly 'free' - I wouldn't be getting paid but I'd be gaining contacts and experience and knowledge. Which falls under your fair swap, experience, amazing people category.

I do feel for some professions. Designers and agencies have to pitch for free - only if they win the contract can they earn that time back. Whereas PRs I know will charge for providing a project outline of what they would do.

Finally, in the case you outline, I suspect the business was totally trying it on here - and you successfully called them on it. There is a mentality re both photos and writing that anyone can do it. They've probably lined up the niece of the director to do it. But you get what you pay for.

I wonder if there could be a freemium approach as a next step beyond showing a portfolio. Not sure what that would be though.

Interesting subject!

Karen Strunks said...

@Steve. Thank you Steve. Sounds like you have an even balance of free/paid work. There's a lot to weigh up and it's not always cut and dried.

@Fiona Thank you Fiona. Yes, the exchange isn't always monetry. I would certainly consider work experience again, in a different field. As you say, skilling up. I teach myself an awful lot but there are times when it would be easier to work with people experienced in the profession.

We all need a helping hand at times. I try and help people when they ask for advice or want to tap into my experience. I know what it's like starting out and it can be a struggle without that help.

There are different degrees to all this. Giving a lending hand, and sharing knowledge/advice when asked, to money making businesses looking for something for nothing and everything in between!

Hmmm, freemium....There's an idea there. Will give that some thought. Perhaps for every 5 hours working time is booked, they get one hour free? Or for every 10 bookings, they get another free. There's an incentive there. And it works for coffee shops lol.

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