The Role of “Free” in Freelancing

351840_antique_cash_registerIncluding free or “freemium” elements in online software and products has become the norm. There are several existing discussions about this business model, some questioning its effects on the industry, others touting its success. Whatever opinion you may have, freemium is the model commonly adopted by web app software startups. In fact, most of their users probably expect it.

This trend is not exclusive to web app startups, however. Even freelancers seem to apply some aspects of this model to their services. Let’s take a look at how it’s done and how to make it pay off.

Starting With Free

In Charlie Hoehn’s e-book “Recession Proof Graduate,” he recommends that fresh graduates with no job experience offer to do web working projects for free to start their careers. Since the work is done remotely, they can manage this free project while searching for paid ones.

I see this idea reflected in my own career path. I was still a college freshman when I started freelancing, and I did a lot of spec work back then — both graphic design and writing. My experience is not unique; I often hear of new freelancers doing something similar.

Kristine Clarisse Cruz, who has only been a writer for two months, told me that she gives away sample articles to hook potential clients into a working relationship. When I asked why she did this, she replied “I [want to] establish a good first impression with my potential clients and leads, and allow them to see what kind of work I can do….” Kristine doesn’t have a portfolio yet, and this practice allows her to build it and gain clients at the same time. It seems to be paying off, because according to her “I’m actually earning more now than when I had a regular job.”

For beginners, working for free is an important part of the learning process. Fresh graduates and new talents are able to practice their craft and get hands-on business training, usually at low risk to themselves and the client. Through direct experience they learn about client communication, setting deadlines, and managing expectations (especially their own).

Like all first steps, we quickly move beyond this model. But do established freelancers also use free services in their practice?

Free as the Front End

Past the beginner stage, it’s common for freelancers to stop giving away their services unless they are doing pro bono work. But this doesn’t mean that they no longer perform professional tasks for free. Many of us leverage freebies for the purposes of promotion, marketing and gaining authority in our fields. We do this by giving away ideas and information via blogs, social media and case studies. Others work on open-source projects. While this brings us new opportunities, we are faced with new challenges as well.

One such challenge is that your potential clients might judge the value of your free work differently than you do. WWD blogger Nancy Nally is one of the many freelancers who uses her blog, Scrapbook Update, as an anchor for her paying projects. “First, my writing credits from my web site aren’t viewed as highly by many people looking at my writing credits because ‘it’s just a blog’ and I own it myself. That is despite the fact that the site is highly respected in its subject area.”

Lack of control is also an issue. Once you release your free ideas, services, or products into the world, you’re never sure what the results are going to be. According to Nancy, offering free content causes some copyright problems “I do have the common blogger’s problem of my work being stolen and republished by other sites fairly regularly.”

Making Money — Finally

As Kristine and Nancy have illustrated, it is possible to use free projects to induce income generating work. Doing this successfully, however, takes effort and thought. Here are some points to consider:

Remember what you are really selling. Even if you have free content, services, or products working on them does not mean you should lower your prices or devalue your other projects. It’s never just a press release, a logo, or an e-book — these things can be found somewhere for free, or at least close to it. Usually, what we’re really selling is talent, reliability, years of experience, or excellent customer support. Our real product is the value we provide.

Think small. If you’re producing some free blog posts, e-books, or reports, you don’t have to make all of them available for free. Writer and developer Nick Cernis suggests micropayments as an alternative. In his post, “The End of Free Content”, he elaborates on this idea:

“Continue to provide free content just as you are, but sell your more unique content for a small one-off fee or ‘micropayment’. You choose what you sell, your audience still gets a stream of free stuff, plus they get to support you by buying paid content if it’s relevant to them.”

Web cartoonists may be familiar with this idea, especially since it was one of Scott McCloud’s more controversial proposals regarding monetizing online comics almost a decade ago.

Set criteria. Establishing limitations and criteria allows you to work on free projects with less stress. What types of people or organizations are you willing to work with? How much free time do you have to devote to this project? Do you have to be given a non-monetary reward?

While it’s hard to imagine being a freelancer without doing at least one thing for free, we shouldn’t get carried away. Remember that: 1) Freelancers have clients. 2) Clients pay freelancers to do stuff. The rules of the business don’t get any simpler than that — no matter how complex and unpredictable this new “freeconomy” seems. At the end of the day, cash in your bank account is the only objective measure that business is going well.

Have you ever worked for free? How did it affect your freelance practice?

Image by ctechs from sxc.hu

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