When should I work for free as a web designer?

“I’ll do a couple of projects for free, and then get paying clients easily!”

“I can’t charge for my work if I have nothing to show in the first place! I need portfolio!”

That’s natural. You want to grow your web design business as fast as possible. Offering your work without asking for money is a great way to land a couple of projects quickly.

The goal of working for free

You have to think like a strategist. You don’t want to be used by your clients when working for free. Your goal is to treat the free work as an investment. An investment that should give you a high return, even if a form of payment is not money.

Looking at it from a different angle, you’re never actually working for free. Even if you don’t get paid, you will get benefits like experience, recognition in the industry, proof of your capabilities, confidence in your skills or new business opportunities.

You need to pick the free portfolio projects with a clear goal in mind. If you want to run a profitable web design business, you need a high return on your investments. You’re not a charity.

When done right, certain types of free projects can help you make more money in the long run. Today, we’ll cover three areas where it makes sense to work for free.

1. Work for free to gain experience.

The first and probably the most obvious example of when you might work for free is when you want to gain experience. 

When you’ve just started your web design business, limited hands-on experience can affect your spirit. Having real-life experience will help to boost your self-confidence, and you will improve your ability to sell to clients.

Learning by practice is one of the most effective ways to expand your knowledge. Offering to do a project for free will help you gain experience and reduce the risk for your client.

You’ve got to make sure you will gain valuable experience, though. You don’t just want to land any project.

If you’ve got the skills, the experience and confidence that you can finish a project, it makes no sense from this point of view to do it for free. Real valuable experience comes from doing something new or something you find challenging.

If you find a job that can allow you to noticeably level your skills up and help you improve on a weak area, then it makes sense to do the project for free. But if you already are capable of getting good results for the client, then you should charge for your expertise.

You want to stop doing work for free once you have enough experience, and you feel confident in your abilities.

Once you are confident, it makes more sense to start charging money. Having more resources will allow you to get even better results for your clients.

An example – you never created a website before

Let’s say you have never made a website for a real business. 

You lack the basic experience in what it is that you are selling. You’ve watched some YouTube tutorials on web design but never really put that into action. All of these mean you might not have much confidence to start making cold calls right away.

Doing just one or two free sites for a real, local business is going to help you a lot. It will give you a ton of confidence, teach you a lot about how other business owners think, and make your sales pitches more convincing. 

Not everyone believes what they are told, but they usually believe in what they can see. 

If you want to get confidence in a new skill or area, it is fine to do a few free projects until you are ready to start charging money. 

Chose your clients carefully

Bear in mind, you don’t want to work for free for just any client. 

When you first start web design, it’s better to work for free for the right type of clients than work for the wrong kind of clients and get paid. 

Working for the right type of clients helps your business grow much faster.

Working for the wrong type of clients usually means you can’t progress over time. 

New potential clients will always look at who you worked with and the results that you got them. They usually won’t know what they paid you, or if you got paid at all. Working for free for great clients means you can quickly start charging other great clients to help them as well.

2. Work for free to prove you are capable.

Proving to be capable might sound similar to getting hands-on experience, but it’s quite different. In this scenario, you have experience, skills and confidence, but you are unable to prove it.

This can be an excellent approach for someone who:

– has some experience working in another industry;

– is working for an agency, but doesn’t have their own portfolio or worked under NDA.

Another example is someone who’s gotten a lot of training but hasn’t yet directly worked with real clients. They do have in-depth knowledge but have nothing to prove it.

If any of the above scenarios sound like you, you need something that proves you know what you are doing, without any doubt.

With this approach, your goal is to quickly do some free (or cheap) projects to demonstrate your ability. Since you already know what you are doing, you should be able to work fast, and quickly build real results.

What kind of projects you want to look for

This approach can make a lot of sense when you are good at what you do, but not good at selling it. Having real results and real clients makes selling a lot easier. It’s a great way to reduce the fear of cold calling or cold emailing potential clients. 

What to watch out for is that you might get used by the clients to do a LOT of free work. 

Since you don’t need experience, you should stick to quicker jobs that won’t drag on for weeks or months. Look for easy jobs that will quickly show your skills without having to do excessive work with little return. 

You want to be showing maximum skills with minimal work.

If you’ve got the skills and experience, you will bring the clients tremendous amounts of value. You don’t need to go an extra mile – save that for the paying clients.

A method to land paid jobs

Often you can get paying work with the same client after you demonstrate your abilities on a smaller project first. 

You can use this method as a sales tactic. I’ll do this part of free, and if you like the results, then we can work together on a bigger project

Just make sure that even if they don’t hire you, then you can still leverage the work you did to get paid projects with someone else. 

Overall trust is a major part of selling, and people find it very hard to trust you when they can’t see any real results. If you struggle with selling but know you are capable of delivering fantastic work, then consider some quick small demo jobs to show off your skills. 

3. Work for free to get recognized

How do you find new clients in a niche or industry you’ve never worked before? 

A lot of web designers don’t have a big budget (or any budget) for marketing their services. Even if they did, how do they find suitable business owners in a particular industry?

A great way to get the word out is to do a few strategic free jobs that you know will get you massive attention. Your goal with these jobs would be to increase your profile. 

You want to piggyback off someone who is already well known. 

If you want to become the go-to web designer in a particular niche, then work with one of the top businesses in that niche. Your target audience is already somewhere around them – their clients, partners, suppliers, followers, and so on.

You want to access their vast network. To get that, you can offer your services for free to one of the leading businesses or influencers within that network. 

Once you land deals with the most known and get them great results, others will often reach out to you. They aspire to be the best as well so they’ll be interested in whatever you can do for them, once they see the results.

Working with the leaders in any industry or niche gives you massive authority and social proof when making future sales. Your trust levels soar. People are much more open to hearing what you have to say.

The main challenge of working for free with top influencers

First, you need to get the person at the top to agree to work with you (even when it is for free). Even if you remove the financial risk, they still have other risks to consider. You have to make sure to have a clear deal with the minimal downside for them.

I have used this approach myself to work with top sportspeople and best selling authors. These jobs increased my profile and led to future paying deals I probably would not have gotten otherwise. 

If you want to become the go-to web designer in a chosen niche quickly, consider doing free work for the top people in that target market. Make them a deal they can’t refuse and deliver some great results. Then turn around and leverage that project into dozens of other paying projects in the same or similar niches. 

Working with other well-known businesses and brands is the fastest way to grow your own business. 

When NOT to work for free

Working for free can be a great way to help your business take off in the very beginning or when entering a new market. You need to remember – if it’s work for free, you need to be very strategic with your goals. 

There are common scenarios that web designers face when working for free is not a good idea.

Preparing free samples for a client

A client might ask you for free samples of your work before they decide to work with you. They might want you to create a small part of the website (e.g. the homepage) with a promise of paying for the whole site if they choose to work with you.

In reality, it’s just working for free with nothing in return. You might get the job, but you won’t gain experience, prove your skills or open doors to new niches this way.

A buy-in for more work

Some clients will ask you to do free or cheap work with a promise that once they earn some money, they’ll have lots of projects for you. 

Again, this might sound like a great opportunity, but it hardly ever works out this way. You would be taking a huge risk with little reward.

It’s similar to something we’ve covered earlier, but there’s a significant difference. You can use working for free as a way to get more work later, but it has to come from you, not a client. If it’s the client’s idea, you’re setting yourself up for abuse. 

You want to look for projects where working for free opens doors for you, while not being a requirement.

A website for a non-existent business

If you’re just starting, you might feel tempted to design a mockup website for a fictitious company and use that as a portfolio piece.

It sounds easy – you don’t need to look for a real business, you don’t need to sell, you can start designing right away.

There are two problems with that approach, though. 

First, you won’t gain any business experience. Running a successful web design business is not only about building websites. It’s also about building and managing relationships with your clients.

Second, an imaginary business won’t get any real results from your work. Most trust that you can leverage later in the sales process comes from the results you’ve created for your past clients. If there are no results, a mockup website won’t help you build much trust.

Free portfolio projects – a strategy to reach goals

To sum it up, if you want to work for free, you must have a clear plan in mind. Think about what you want to achieve by working for a particular client for free, what’s in it for you? Is it experience, creating a proof of your capabilities or a foot in the door into more work in a new industry?

Can you think of other examples of how a free portfolio project might boost your web design business in the long run?

Remember – with free work, always have a clear goal in mind! See you next time!

Read other articles in the 1K Challenge series now:

  1. How a website can help a business?
  2. Core skills a web designer needs to know now.
  3. Why do most web designers struggle to make sales?
  4. How to improve your web design sales 1000% by earning trust.
  5. How to find the perfect web design client.
  6. A simple 6-step process to land portfolio clients.
  7. Confused people don’t buy – how to control sale in 3 steps.
  8. How to prepare for a sales meeting? (With a template and my notes.)

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