There’s a hashtag doing the rounds on Twitter: #FreelanceIsntFree. Seems a bit obvious to me – of course it isn’t. Why would you give away your time and talents, unless you’re volunteering for a good cause?
The hashtag concerns itself with non-payment of invoices: people using your services then not fulfilling their end of the bargain.
Yet there’s another, sneakier situation to which the same premise could apply: when a grotty freeloader asks you to work for free on the promise of more, paid work in future.
This sort of malarkey should usually be responded to with a resolute single finger.
Yet what should you do when an interesting offer comes along for a paid project, but the client wants you to first demo your skills by providing a sample of what you can do with their materials?
It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Technically all the above still applies. You’re giving up your time and talent, without the certainty of remuneration.
Surprisingly, for the Human Freelancer movement, this demands a sensitive, considered approach and some finely attuned intuition.
Here are a few points to mull over if you find yourself in this situation:
- Does this seem legit? Check out the company, what do they stand for?
- Are you willing to take a gamble to win this extraordinarily interesting project for your portfolio? Do it, if it seems juicy enough.
- How desperate are you for work? Early on, say yes to most things, only later can you afford to be selective.
- Can you ask for assurances that you aren’t competing against other people? If you are, people will definitely lose out and that’s not fair if you’re all putting the effort in (if anyone ever tries to turn your art into a ‘competition’, with the prize being the job – tell them to go fuck themselves).
- Have you got any standard T&Cs that you can ask the client to agree to, so they can’t use what you produce?
- Have you even asked if they’re willing pay you for creating a sample, regardless of whether you win the work?
- Will similar work from your portfolio do the trick? That and a friendly chat over the phone to talk them through it might help.
- What are they scared of? Perhaps the client’s been ripped off in the past, or they’ve never used a freelancer before and don’t know what to expect. Get to the bottom of the fear and there might be other ways to mitigate the risk for them.
You aren’t a loser if you weigh all this up and politely turn down the invitation to work for nothing. That makes you honest and principled.
Remember, if you decide to cobble together a response or proof of concept, this is just a bespoke demonstration of your abilities. It just has to be ‘good enough’ and ‘along the right lines’, so try not to put too many hours into it. That’ll also take the sting out of the tail if you don’t get the job, or never hear back from the client. Some shitboxes are like that; in which case you’ve had a lucky escape.
And if you do win the work, be sure to account for the time and effort you spent demonstrating your skills.
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