How to Successfully Transition From Free Work to a Paid Position

This 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’m responsible for paying my bills as a full-time freelancer, instead of relying on my regular paycheck, it’s even more vital that I 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 to a paid position? 

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. Be 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. 

2. 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. 

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.

3. 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! 

4. 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.

In this case, 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. 

5. 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!

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About the author: Carrie Smith is the financial artist and owner of Careful Cents, a site that helps creative freelancers discover the art of making a living. In May 2013 she quit her full-time accounting job to pursue entrepreneurship and blogging. She recently launched her new course called, Solopreneur Finance: Managing Money On Your Own Terms. When she’s not writing about finance, and geeking out over numbers, she enjoys painting, sketching, and making food with her chef husband. You can connect with her in real time on Twitter or Instagram: @carefulcents.

10 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own

  • John S @ Frugal Rules May 13, 2013, 11:24 am

    Great tips Carrie! We faced this on several occasions as we moved to running our own business. Knowing your value is huge, especially when you have the numbers to back it up. We do have a lower rate for non-profits and fellow small business owners. I know it’s less but they can also be great sources of referrals and can, at times, be a great client to count on getting regular work from.

    • Carrie Smith May 13, 2013, 6:43 pm

      Offering a lower rate has definitely paid off for me too, when it comes to making connections and landing other gigs. I’m glad you guys have a system that works for you too!

  • Jeffrey Trull May 13, 2013, 5:01 pm

    While I’m not 100% against free work, I do believe it needs to accomplish some specific and valuable goals to take it on in the first place. In general I’d only take on free work if either 1) It would make an AMAZING addition to my portfolio or 2) I felt VERY confident that client would consider paying me a higher rate.

    I’ve definitely done some low-paying work just to build a portfolio. In most cases, I’ve had to move on to other clients. In my opinion, clients that are low-paying stay that way.

    • Carrie Smith May 13, 2013, 6:42 pm

      Great point Jeffrey and I like your approach to working with free or low-paying clients. It’s nice to have balanced work experience, but it’s also important not to stuck in a cycle of only doing free work.

  • Alexandra Sheehan May 15, 2013, 1:44 pm

    Great tips! It’s important to leave the emotions out of it. Also, while you are doing the pro-bono work, it’s important to track your progress. Sometimes I have so many things going on that it’s hard to remember everything I’ve done for each client. Also, #5 is definitely the most important one. You can’t settle for something that doesn’t make you feel good, because then you may start doubting and/or undervaluing yourself (which is NEVER good as a freelancer!) Thanks for the tips Carrie!

    • Carrie Smith May 16, 2013, 5:52 pm

      Excellent point Alexandra about tracking your progress! There’s no point to work pro-bono if you don’t get good experience or value out of it. Glad you found the tips helpful too. :)

  • Sarah Li Cain May 23, 2013, 3:27 am

    Definitely being straightforward is one of the best strategies, but also the hardest. I think as someone who is fairly new to freelancing, it is really hard to keep emotions out of it. The more someone thinks of themselves as operating a business, the more they will keep the emotional side of things out. I always try to remember what I used to do in my previous job (in how to leave emotions out) and not take anything so personally. Sounds cliche, but after all, it’s business right?

    • Carrie Smith May 24, 2013, 7:10 pm

      Very true point! It is hard to take the emotions out of your business affairs, especially when your business revolves around you and your services. But for the most part, it’s the best strategy for building a successful career. Good luck Sarah, and keep it up!

  • Michelle May 29, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Thank you for providing this strategy and things to think about. I am looking to transition to freelance work in two years and have been wondering about how to build up a good portfolio and contacts. I’ve often heard that you have to give some work for “free” in order to grow a business. This post illustrates that idea. Thanks!

  • Sandra Harriette June 8, 2013, 8:46 am

    I love this! I’m in this situation right now and have worked free gigs for bartering purposes. So far, I have not seen the few I have done turn into paid opportunities, but I have gotten a lot of good feedback and was able to improve aspects of my own entrepreneurial image.

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