Freelancers: should you ever work for free?

Written by: Sapphire Li, BA

Communications specialist, 8+ years writing and copywriting for companies
Or would some scrooge swim in the money they saved from not having to pay you?

When Gary Vaynerchuk posted advice about "working for free for someone you want to be", it sparked a lot of negative reactions.

Without context, working for free does sound like a losing proposition.

Are you going to be doing free work for weeks on end, for a business who otherwise couldn't afford your services?
Is some scrooge going to count all the money they saved from not having to pay you, while you do the jobs of 2 people?


When done strategically, offering to work for free can open the door to profitable paid client work, a door that you may not be able to open at all if you don't offer to prove yourself in a risk-free way.

What do I mean exactly?

How Bryan Harris landed a $3k/month contract

Bryan Harris from Videofruit (now Growth Tools) was working a day job when he cold emailed Neil Patel and offered to turn Kissmetrics' infographics into videos.

In his email, Bryan didn't just rattle off what he could do, he actually created a video for Kissmetrics and shared it with Neil upfront. Neil later hired Bryan to create explainer videos for Kissmetrics at $3000/month.

Bryan Harris' email to Neil Patel
Kyle  <[email protected]>
to Neil


I just discovered you a few weeks ago and have been reading through guicksprout like a maniac.

Your content is Incredible! I also recently encountered Crazy Egg through an Appsumo deal they ran a while back. When I found out that was your company I became an even bigger fan!

I stumbled across the infographics that you guys post on KissMetrics blog and am working through converting one of the more popular ones into a video infographic.

I thought I would share the first draft with you...


The final will be out next week sometime. I'll sit over when it's finished up.

Keep rockin' out!

How did Bryan, who was practically unknown at the time, get hired?

He did free work upfront by creating a sample video to show Neil exactly what he could do for Kissmetrics. Suddenly, Bryan wasn't just an unfamiliar brand on the store shelf begging for someone to take a chance on him. He was standing at the end of it, offering ‘try me before you buy' samples.

Bryan likely would not have even received a reply if he just talked about who he is and what he could do for Kissmetrics. Why? For business owners and managers, taking on someone new is a risk. Even if you have solid experience and skills, they have no clue how you'll be able to apply them to help their business.

When you do a bit of free work upfront and provide them a concrete idea of exactly what you can do for them, you're no longer like the 99% of other people who expect a VBP (very busy person) to figure out how to put their skills to use. You're presenting them with ready-to-go ideas and solutions to improve their business.

How Charlie Hoehn landed a job working for Tim Ferriss

This is also how Charlie Hoehn got his big break. He wrote an email to Tim Ferriss and offered to create a free video if Tim would consider taking him on as an intern. Tim hired Charlie to be his part-time intern at first and eventually promoted Charlie to the role of Director of Special Projects.

Charlie Hoehn's email to Tim Ferriss
Charlie  <[email protected]>
to Tim

Mr. Ferriss-

After visiting your site countless times since May '07, I've come up with a few suggestions that could improve your readers' experience. Here are two of the I think you need…

1) A network for your followers: Right now, you have a lot of passionate and devoted readers who comment on your blog. These are people are likely to spread your ideas. You need a place where your loyal readers can interact with each other more freely, and share their stones about how your book has inspired them.

What it would take: A micro-network. You could frame it as "a crusade against the 9-5 workday."

How I could help: while I was interning for Seth Rodin, I learned how to create micro-social networks for very specific niches. I could easily set this up for you, making it a more exclusive “invite-only”, if you wish.

What the benefits are to you: Allowing your most devoted readers lo share their lifestyle design stories will provide you with even more case studies for blog posts (or for a follow-up book). It will also serve as a spot for your readers get to know one another, and they'll appreciate that you've given them that opportunity.

2) A more dynamic 'About' page: Currently, this page starts off with a quote about you from Albert Pope, followed by three thumbnail pictures of your face and a great deal of text outlining your achievements. While your credentials are impressive, this page doesn't really capture your personality or the lifestyle you've designed for yourself.

What it would take: You need a video between 2 and 5 minutes, that captures the excitement that comes with lifestyle design. The video would showcase exciting things you've done (skydiving, tango, motorcycling, etc.), and would be a great way to show your readers that you are the real deal.

How I could help: I can make this video for you for free. I've been editing video for more than four years, and started a business in creating movies for special events. All I would need to make your video are great pictures and videos of you. The more they show the human side of you, the better.

What the benefits are to you: Reading something is fine, but an image is far more powerful. This video will establish an even deeper credibility with your new (and old) readers. Even if you end up deciding that it's not right for your site, you'll still be getting a great video about you that would normally cost several hundred dollars. If you like my work, we can discuss other ways to implement videos into your site (including higher quality and more exciting videos for your blog).

In exchange for these things, I hope that you'd consider taking me on as an intern (real-world or virtual). I would love to help you out on future projects. Let me know what you think, and I look forward to hearing from you.

By now, you may be noticing a pattern in who Bryan and Charlie offered free work to and what they offered.

They reached out to well-known people who had the authority to hire them and the budget to do so.

They offered to do something specific for free to prove themselves, not work for free for an indeterminate period of time.

You don't necessarily have to provide free work upfront to get the same results

Personally, I have landed new clients by simply providing actionable improvement ideas upfront, instead of doing a bit of free work to implement them as well.

For example, if you're a developer and your ideal client is Andrew Chen, one actionable idea for him could be integrating a text-to-speech API so his audience can listen to his articles like a podcast.

Another example. If you're a content marketer and your ideal client is Amy Porterfield, one actionable idea for her could be providing editable worksheets to go along with her webinars.

Providing actionable ideas still helps you stand out among the majority of other people who just talk about what they do or their benefits and results. This may be cold email "best practices" but it does not work well for getting clients because they have no clue how you'll be able to apply your skills or experience to help their business.

See below a template of how to provide valuable ideas upfront to get hired by someone you want to work with.

Template: provide valuable ideas upfront to get new clients

Subject: A few membership ideas for Art of Say
Hey {First name},
Good job on making your email templates editable.1
Here are a few other ways you can provide value and increase paid upgrades:2
Add a free membership tier that lets users save their edited email templates and bookmark their favorite ones.
This gives users a reason to come back more often and discover new templates.
Offering a free membership tier also means these users would already have an account and don't have to create one to upgrade.
Enable comments on each template
This lets members ask questions about the templates and help each other. A supportive community creates engaging content on their own and keeps users coming back.
A little background about me: I'm a PHP developer who has helped companies like Verve and Compass build and improve features their customers love. I recently helped Groove (a skincare subscription company) build an interactive onboarding survey with a 20%+ higher completion rate and it recovers a lot more people who stopped the survey mid-way.3
Let me know if you're open to a 15-min brainstorm call to bounce around a few ideas?4
Edit template Reset Copy

1.   Make a comment about an aspect of their business to show them you've done your homework about what they do.

2.   Share a few valuable ideas of what you can build for them that would help achieve an important business goal (more conversions, signups, paying customers, so on).

3.   Briefly describe what tech stack you specialize in and mention a recent project you built for a client and the metrics it helped them achieve to get them excited about the potential of working with you.

4.   Ask for an initial call, framed as a brainstorm to pique their curiosity to learn more.

Edit template Reset Copy
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