Kali Hawlk

Financial Writer & Digital Marketer

Lacking Experience? Do Some Work for Free

If one of your resolutions for 2014 was to start up a side gig, you’re in good company.

More and more people are establishing their own side hustles to supplement incomes from “regular,” 9-to-5 jobs. Although taking on more work may not sound like the most appealing endeavor for folks who already put in 40 hours a week at the office, a side hustle is often well worth the time and effort required.

Think about it: what could you do with an extra $100 to $500 per month? That is a completely realistic range of income that you could pull in from a side gig.

And while there’s been a lot written about what you can do to make money on the side, there are still so many folks asking how.

I believe the answer to this question is simple, but it’s one that not many folks want to give. The reason? It kinda sucks: when you are first starting out, when you’re looking at trying to get your very first gig or client but you don’t have any experience under your belt yet.. consider doing some work for free.

I know, I know – it’s the last thing you want to hear after being regaled with case studies of people who started freelancing on the side and within six months were making something crazy like $10,000 a month and had the ability to quit the day job they hated. That’s the goal, right?

Well, yeah. Folks with those kinds of success stories are out there, and they’re living the dream. Some of them are even within our own personal finance community:

Michelle at Making Sense of Cents regularly blows us all away with her monthly business income reports, and Holly at Club Thrifty hustled hard in order to quit her job and become a full-time freelance writer (and in fact, if you click on that link and read Holly’s post on how to become a freelancer, you’ll notice that the first thing she mentions is to write for free).

So yes, your wildest dreams are possible, but making them happen immediately when you don’t have any experience isn’t probable. By that I mean things don’t just happen overnight, and they absolutely do not happen whatsoever without a lot of dedication and hard work.

I’m sure those inspirational women I mentioned would tell you they started somewhere, and it wasn’t with making bank the first evening they sat down with their laptops after they got home from their full-time jobs.

In my experience, the norm is that you’ll find yourself in the same position you did the day after you graduated college and started looking for your first career position: you need experience to get the job, but you need the job to get the experience. That’s where the whole consider some work for free thing comes in.

I can it hear it now, dear readers, thou doth protest: How hypocritical to tell us to work for free when some of your goals for 2014 include making more money!

True, my goals did include growing my own freelance business and earning more. Which is why I phrased my suggestion with “consider,” meaning, think about it if you’re feeling stuck, and I said “some work,” meaning, don’t do everything for free all the time.

As for me? You best believe I’m still doing some work for free. Not all the sites I write for are paying gigs.

If you’re feeling like you don’t know how to get started with a side gig because you lack experience, here is a step-by-step mini guide for those of you who are seeking success with work on the side in 2014:

  1. Have your own site. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog or simply a site that tells folks all about you (like a portfolio site). If you want to work with people online, you still need a shingle to hang out, a virtual storefront. A site is to an online freelancer what a brick-and-mortar building on Main Street is to a bakery.
  2. Build connections within the niche you wish to work in. Do this by starting a conversation on Twitter, commenting on blogs, and emailing folks with ideas or a dialogue that can add value to a current project of theirs. Be friendly, be sincere, and remember that on the other end of the line is another human like you.
  3. Be willing to do some work for free. Once you’ve established yourself as a friendly face in the line of work you’re interested in, reach back out to folks you’ve made connections with and see if there’s anything you can do to help them out. Explain that you’re looking to gain experience and would love the opportunity to help with a project, or offer to guest post on their blog. Alternatively, do some work for your own audience – create a guide or a tutorial to offer as a free download, offer 15 minutes of your time in a free consulting session, or allow folks to contact you with questions or problems that you can help answer or solve free of charge.

Still not convinced doing a bit of work for free is the way to go? Let me spell out some of the ways this can benefit you when you’re new to the scene and don’t have experience or a portfolio built up just yet:

  • The obvious one: you gain that invaluable experience. If you don’t have a thing down in your portfolio or a single reference that can vouch for you, spending a few hours of your time of three different projects gives you something substantial to start showing other potential clients and partners.
  • It’s a learning opportunity. If you’re new to the job, working for free will allow you to get the kinks out of how you operate before you take your service to a paying client (who probably won’t be pleased if you bumble and fumble around with their project because you’re still learning).
  • You’re building an awesome reputation. When you establish yourself as the friendly, easygoing web designer, or writer, or SEO consultant when you offer to help others, people remember that. They remember someone who was genuinely nice and interested in helping – and folks will talk. They’ll tell their friends, partners, and connections within the field. In other words, some of the work you did for free is laying a foundation for more, paid work.

So if you’re struggling with taking that first step into side hustle-dom and you’re not sure how you’ll ever pick up a job when you’ve never had a gig in your niche before, consider doing just a bit of work for free. Those freebie seeds you’re planting now just might allow you to reap serious monetary benefits later.

Have you done work for free? Do you think it eventually led to other, paying opportunities that made those upfront, unpaid hours worth it? Or do you refuse to do any uncompensated work – and if so, why?

35 Comments

  1. I don’t think I would work for free unless it was a side gig or I had a secondary income (i.e. my wife’s) that could sustain my finances until I get a paid job. As far as side hustles, I think free work can really help at the beginning. I’ve done some spreadsheet consulting but really only have one client. If I want to gain legitimacy, I would probably have to take on some low-paying or no-paying jobs so that I have some solid items in my portfolio as well as references. In that case I would work for free.

    • I understand – I would not be able to do something like an unpaid internship or have no source of income and still work for free. This post was definitely geared more toward working for free if you’re looking to get established with a side hustle in a particular field. Working for free has really helped build up my portfolio – you could probably get away with doing some unpaid or low-cost work to boost your portfolio, since you make a great chunk of change off your website alone!

  2. I did a ton of writing work for free before landing several recurring jobs. It definitely helped to get me where I am today.

  3. I have done work for free before. Sometimes it is necessary. I plan on doing some more this year in order to try and score some more paid gigs.

  4. I’ve absolutely worked for free. When I started applying for freelance work it helped that I could not only point to my portfolio of work on my site but on other sites as well.

  5. I barely like doing work I get paid for. How can I just give it away? :)

    I hear what you’re saying. There’s a period where you might need to pay your dues to build up references and a portfolio of work, and if doing that work for free is the only way to do so, you best do it. Better to at least reap the benefits of exposure and experience.

    • I TOTALLY understand, DB40! No worries, I was not trying to convince anyone that it’s a fun process – I hated having to do it, honestly. But it allowed me to move on to paying gigs, so I can’t complain too much.

      I like that you mentioned exposure. Sometimes that’s almost as good as getting paid, because folks may find the product or service you created for free – and then come to you wanting to hire you for a paid position.

  6. I’m kind of divided on this. I think if you’re doing work for free to give back to your community, support a good cause, or to get some early exposure in your industry, I’m all for it. But I think there’s a fine line. As a graphic designer, the most common line I hear from clients when they’re looking for some sort of discount is “it will lead to other opportunities” — which it almost always, never does (good paying clients never say that). When you’re volunteering your services for free, that’s one thing, but I have a real thing against companies asking you to work on spec. When you see companies put out writing or design contests, where everyone does the work, but ONLY one gets paid, it might seem harmless, and maybe I’m old school, but that irks me. I don’t go to 3 mechanic shops, have them all work on my car and only pay the one that does the best job. Ok, maybe not the best example, but I’m seeing so many jr writers, designers lowballing their prices just to get the job. And I think it’s really important for people not to devalue their time and the work that they do. Having said that, true volunteering can be a great way to build connections and trust within your industry.

    • I hear you, Anthony – and I agree. Nothing irritates me like applying for a writing gig and having them respond, “oh we love your work! But write us a sample you won’t be compensated for first before we actually hire you.” Obnoxious! And getting into a race to the bottom on prices is never a good idea. It hurts everyone.

      I was definitely writing more about, as you put it, true volunteering. Not necessarily working for free when the company can pay you, but working with others like you in your industry who can put in a good word or be a good reference for you in exchange for your unpaid work.

  7. I have definitely worked for free or close to it. I always view the work and connections I am making as part of my long term career “quilt” and I have no idea what the quilt will look like in the end, but I love the pattern and diversification it has. As a financial planner, I have gotten numerous new “paying” clients from those I helped at no charge but just wanted to help to make sure they had a financial plan in place.

    • Love the analogy, Shannon! That is an awesome way to look at a career/business! Thanks so much for sharing – and I’ve had that same experience, I’ve picked up paying jobs from the references of people and blogs that I helped for free :)

  8. On the rare occasion I’ve worked for free, it’s only been a small side project where I might not have much experience. Mostly though, I would expect to be compensated something, if not a full rate other experts are making. Work is work, and I found in my experience as a freelancer that you set yourself up with a certain standard. Otherwise people do, or could take advantage of you. But let’s just say someone came up to me and said, “can you design a wordpress site.” Well sure I’ve muddled my way though my own, but I would probably say yes if I had time, but not charge them tons of money because I will probably be making a lot of mistakes along the way.

  9. I do agree that it can be beneficial to do work for free when you’re first venturing out for a side hustle. You kind of have to prove that you’re worth it in a sea of millions. Plus, you’re still gaining experience and networking on the way, which means you’re getting something out of it, even if it’s not money. I love that blogs serve as a ready portfolio, too. Makes it easy to refer people to your work, and it makes it easy for them to find you!

  10. Doing work for free is a great step in moving on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately we live in a world where people want to see experience in the work they are paying for. How are you supposed to get experience though if no one will hire you on. That is where volunteering to work for free can pan out. They can bring you on risk free since they don’t have to pay you and you get the experience you need. Even if the projects are just for yourself, that can be a huge bonus. It shows you are passionate about the work and have finished products under your belt that you can show off.

  11. I few my blog as working for free. I have never made a penny of the site itself (I haven’t monetized) but it’s been worth all the freelance work it has gotten me. Creating a body of work for free can really pay off in the long run. For people who do graphic design work or photography, it can also make sense to do a few gigs for free just to build your portfolio and have word of mouth get you paying gigs.

    • Great point! Having your own blog can be like working for free – but for yourself. That sounds way more appealing than doing work for someone else without the compensation, for sure. And I agree, having a portfolio to point potential clients to is like an investment in your freelance career. Pay in early, reap the big benefits down the road.

  12. I have, but I’m done with that phase. I know what I’m worth!

  13. Oh, and I should also say … as an editor with no budget (my 9-5, M-F) I fully get it. I hate that I have to try and scrape together content for free whatever way I can get it. I find experts who aren’t writers but want to build their brand and demonstrate thought leadership are often open to that. But I would never ask a professional writer to write for nothing.

    • Good for you! I’m trying to learn my own worth :) It’s hard telling people, “you will pay me this much, period.” Lol! But it’s a skill a freelancer has to learn. And thanks for providing some insight from the other perspective – I can imagine it’s hard as an editor with a limited budget to figure out how to get quality work without underpaying someone deserving. I’ve never stopped to think about it from that point of view. I’m glad you reminded me there’s someone else on the other end of this situation!

  14. In the old economy people used to do internships which basically meant working for free. Who would pay you a rate if you have no experience? It’s ironic I work for free since I don’t make money on my blog and in my posts I write about investments. At my job I write and evaluate things that I get paid for.

  15. I agree, Kali. While in a perfect world, we would be fairly compensated immediately, sometimes in order to get to that point, we do occasionally need to work for free … for a period of time. One thing I would like to do is more freelance writing, so I plan to grow my portfolio with some free guest posts, which I am happy to write. I think there is a fine line to make sure you’re not getting taken advantage of. I did write bios for fiverr. My reviews were great, but I would have earned more working for Walmart. It’s not a slam against fiverr because they are very clear on what you get paid, but I couldn’t write bios in a timeframe where $5 (or really $4) was reasonable compensation without compromising the quality of my writing. Honestly, I would have been happier writing them for free. LOL! It did, however, help me feel more confident about my writing when I’d get great feedback. :) Have a great weekend, Kali!

    • I think you pointed out the important things to keep in mind – sometimes, to get to the point of great compensation, we need to do some unpaid work for just a period of time. Not forever, or only doing unpaid jobs! And I think it’s important to at least do work you enjoy if it’s going to be unpaid. That way, you’re still getting some sort of value from the experience!

      That’s awesome you’ve had some experience with fiverr, with excellent reviews as well! I think some folks are able to pull in a decent side income from the site, because they can do things very quickly or with very little effort. Writing would definitely be a harder one to get a fair rate out of. Maybe you and Max could try posting a gig where you take a picture of a company’s logo with Mr. Pretty Kitty! I’ve seen gigs like that on there and thought I should try it with my own kitties, but if you get to it before I do, let me know how it works out :D

      PS – If you ever want to write a guest post for CSM, I’d love to have you! Hope you have a great weekend as well!

  16. While I wasn’t working for free, my first few years in the Army certainly felt that way! Working for a reduced salary or free is a good way to earn experience and has the potential to serve as a good networking tool.

    • Oh gosh, I bet! I think that trumps me feeling sorry for myself for having to sit and crank out some content for an hour without getting paid – at least I didn’t have any Army officers to worry about! I’d crack under the pressure ;)

  17. Good advice and applicable to a jobs outside of the Internet too. I know several people who have found full-time jobs from volunteering and internship experiences. In fact my social worker was hired by the agency after he finished his internship. It’s a great way to “get you foot in the door” and prove you’re a good worker and deserve to be hired.

  18. I write my own blog for free and I occasionally write free guest posts, but I haven’t worked for free for any of my clients. I started out with pretty low rates though! Once you have built up a reputation (which I did with paying gigs), you don’t have to work for free for anyone else anymore. I write my own blog for free because I just love doing it!

    • I agree – once you have a great reputation, you can demand the rate you want and don’t have to work for free or for lower rates. Working for yourself for free, in the form of blogging and guest blogging within a niche, is definitely a great way to build a portfolio without having to work for someone else without being compensated. Somehow doing your own thing and not making money from it always does sound better than unpaid work for someone else! :)

  19. I have never done free work and will not consider it, even if it does have the benefits you have mentioned.

    I did create MY SITES since 2002, being passionate about some stuff (martial arts, web design etc.). My web design experience was built on my own projects, which would earn me few advertising bucks too, even if nothing serious. So I was kinda working for free, but not for others, these sites were mine and in my portfolio.

    After 2 years I started having paying customers and I do PAID work ever since. My projects have become more numerous and better, they keep my creating juices flowing and help me develop even more, but I don’t accept to do unpaid work and never did. So this can also work, it’s not easy, but it can work :)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! I agree that it’s definitely possible to develop your side gig income without doing free work – but as you pointed out, it takes time. Personally, I’m impatient! I was writing from a perspective that assumed someone would want to break into a particular field and develop a client base as soon as possible. I think doing a bit of free work will help you gain experience and a great reputation extremely quickly – which will, of course, quickly lead you to a position of charging for your services.

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