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How to say no when someone asks you to work for free

You soon realize, when you start your own business, that you become irresistible Working for free to anyone who needs a favour. If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ve likely heard the requests and the reasons why you should give your services out for  free:

  • You’ll get great exposure
  • We can’t afford to pay you the amount you’re asking for
  • Want to barter?
  • Friends do favours for each other!
  • We’re doing you a favour offering this to you!

In my opinion, the only 3 reasons to work for free are:
1) To gain experience (real value: skills)

2) To gain contacts, testimonials and referrals: (real value: exposure)

3) You’re actually helping someone who truly needs it and can’t afford it (might provide you with exposure, but the real value: altruism).

Unless you get real value from the free work – it’s a complete waste of time. Time, of course, is the part time entrepreneur’s most precious resource.

There are two reasons not to work for free
:

1) Often, the client doesn’t value actually paying for work. Is that the sort of client you’d like to work for?  It’s a fact of human nature that you only value what you pay for. I once worked for free for a non profit, only to be replaced with someone they actually paid.

2) Working for free also has a detrimental effect on you. You are more likely to feel resentful, taken advantage of and as a result, not give your best work like I did.  And of course, I eventually got replaced.

So, how does one get away from all the requests for free service? Have a look at this Toronto Star article, where Rhonda Abrams provides a list of responses you can give whenever one of those requests comes your way:

Great exposure:  Thank you, but I obviously have enough exposure since you contacted me.

I don’t have a budget for this project:  I would be happy to help out. But I can give you only 10 hours for free.

We’re friends: Sorry, I don’t have the time. I need to (choose one) finish the paying projects I’m on, look for paying work.

She also adds the best advice: If you do actually end up working for free, send a bill with your fee listed, but add the words “Fee Voluntarily Waived.” That way the client knows what value of service they received, and shows you won’t always work for free.

Read the full article here.


If you still feel the need to work for free, make it work to your advantage. Ali Brown outlines the concept of the beta client here: offering services at reduced rate to clients, with the understanding that they will refer you to others.

Let us know what you think!