Turning free work into a paying gig is probably one of the toughest things I’ve faced as a freelancer. In the beginning, building up my portfolio required me to work in positions that didn’t pay much — or anything at all.
Once I established myself, I had to face transitioning from free work to a paid position. And now that I’ve been the breadwinner and responsible for paying the household bills as a full-time freelancer, instead of relying on my regular paycheck, it’s even more vital that I constantly re-evaluate my time.
This especially applies to the projects I do and clients I agree to help. Like I mentioned, some free endeavours are necessary and look really good in your portfolio, but that doesn’t pay the bills.
So how do you transition from free work into a paying gig?
Thanks to a recent discussion in the Careful Cents Club, I’ve compiled a list of the best strategies, including many from my own experience.
1. Perfect your pitch
Before approaching your client about paid work, you’ll want to practice and perfect your pitch. Write out several different pitches and then practice in the mirror, or with a friend. You want to come off confident not nervous and like you threw everything together.
Your approach is everything, so consider your client’s communication style when crafting your proposal. Use language that reflects their mission and shows that you want to grow with the client — not just get paid.
Keep your pitch concise, yet informative (don’t give them your whole life’s story!) and make sure your client knows what they will be getting out of this new relationship. Illustrate why you are worth it and how you will help them grow!
And remember, be confident!
2. Make it hard for them to say no
When you’re working for free while trying to transition into paid work, your work needs to be stellar and irresistible. Make sure you are giving 100% to these free projects, so you can prove that you’re an invaluable asset to your client.
By submitting quality work — on time, every time — you can help ensure you’re at the top of their list for future opportunities. Do you have specific wins that you’ve helped them achieve? What stats can you share that will prove your case even more?
When I approached clients in an effort to get them to start paying me, I made sure to list out things like increase in blog traffic, newsletter subscribers, social media followers, and any other stats that would show progress. By making yourself invaluable and irreplaceable, it will be hard for them to say no!
3. Be honest and straightforward
Nothing will turn off a potential client more than approaching them with an emotional plea. Even when you’re trying to get a raise at a traditional job, experts advise not to share your sob story about your financial or personal situations.
Bosses and clients don’t really care that you’re a struggling freelancer or surviving in a single-income household — all they’re thinking about is the bottom line.
When jumping on the phone or Skype, remember to talk calmly about your desire to transition to a paid position.
Leave the emotions out of it — even if you’re slightly jaded they’ve taken advantage of you — and focus on being honest and straightforward about what you want.
4. Know your value
The best way to approach a client about paying you is to offer cold-hard facts about what you’ve brought to the table since working together.
How has the company or brand been impacted since you started working for them? Share any accomplishments, milestones or success stories, and use them as proof to why you should start getting paid. Keeping a “wins” doc of recording anecdotal wins or small progress metrics is a smart way to measure success when the time comes.
It’s difficult for clients who previously got you to work for free, to suddenly see the value in paying you for that same work. So it’s your job to know your value, and prove to them that you’re more experienced now — and worth getting paid!
In my situation I listed out all the tasks I did every day plus the increase in stats and other accomplishments. Then I listed my regular rate for similar projects. This showed my client all the work I was responsible for along with milestones I helped them achieve.
5. Leverage an anniversary date
Ideally, you’ll have signed a contract stating how long your free work term should be (for my situation it was 90 days) so the client won’t be surprised when you ask to continue with the gig but would like to start getting paid.
However, if you didn’t set those guidelines ahead of time, go ahead and point out how long you’ve worked for them for free.
Make your case to them about how many hours you’ve worked, how much time and effort you’ve put in and, of course, prove to them how valuable your skills are.
If you’re coming up on the 6-month anniversary mark, now’s the perfect time to pitch them about paying you. Using something like the end or the beginning of the year as an excuse to get paid, is a very smart strategy many freelancers use to raise their prices as well!
6. Consider charging a lower rate
In the case of non-profit companies and volunteer positions, they might never have the budget to hire someone for that position.
If this happens, consider lowering your regular rate to something more affordable and within their budget.
You still need to keep your overall time in check, but if the project is something you really enjoy or feel you’re making a difference, charging less than normal could help you transition that “free work” spot into a bit of revenue.
7. Be prepared to walk away
If you apply all of these tips and find that you and the client just aren’t able to come to an agree, be prepared to walk away from the gig.
The goal of doing free work is to eventually leverage paid work from other clients — whether that’s from direct contacts or something that looks good in your portfolio.
If the position isn’t helping you accomplish either personal or professional satisfaction, you’d be better off pursuing other clients. And if you’ve done your job right (whether you’re getting paid or not) you’ve become a valuable asset to the team.
So even if they don’t want to continue working with you on a paid basis, they might be able to work out a different type of deal. Things like introduction to contacts and media exposure are other types of “compensation” that might help.
But don’t be swayed by these extras — remember not to spend too much time on free gigs, so you can focus your time on making enough income to pay the bills, and in turn, grow your business.
“The person that hires you for free will NEVER pay you (in general) because that’s why they hired you; you were free.” — Seth Godin
Another perk to doing your job well is that they might approach you in the future when they do have the budget to hire you!
If nothing else, you’ll be the first one that pops into their mind when they have a paid opening or know a contact who is looking for someone like you.
Have you gone from free work to a paid gig? Are you in a situation like this? Share your thoughts in the comments!