Freelancers: Work For Free – The Reward Will Be Greater Than You Can Imagine

We have shared quite a few articles on working for free. And usually we are not big advocates of that. Today we would like to share a different opinion by Dann Petty who shares how working for free landed him a contract with NatGeo. While Dann is a design/UI/UX expert, I think this approach may be relevant for photographers as well.

Freelancers: Work For Free - The Reward Will Be Greater Than You Can Imagine

I recently wrote a post about how to make your clients love you, which reminded me of the one key things that kick started my career and landed me the type of work I was looking for. It will for yours, as well. I am talking about working for free.

Before you laugh, slam the computer, and tweet that I’m the dumbest person in the world, let me tell you a few stories about how I got where I am today.

You see, sometimes in order to succeed as a freelancer, you’ve got to think like an agency. Agencies don’t only get work by their awesome portfolios. They do pitches and sometimes free or low priced work. They have to. Big work doesn’t just come out of the sky. What makes you think freelance is any different?

I’m not saying do unsolicited pitches, because that never works unless you absolutely nail it. Even so, 99% of the time you won’t. I’m saying if a client comes to you requesting work with small to zero budget, don’t let that run you off. Think about it like a pitch for future work. From my experience, the reward is way greater than the money. You might get referrals, additions to your portfolio, trade services, or free products. All of that works just as well for you as the payment would.

Here are a couple of stories that hopefully will inspire you to try this.

How working for free with Marshall Barkman, professional golfer, landed me National Geographic.

Early in my career, while still in college, I worked for free 99% of the time. I wasn’t doing anything huge. Mainly, I did local websites just to get my name in the door. I worked fast, plus had a full-time job at American Eagle Outfitters and not to mention, I was a full-time student. It didn’t keep me from following my passion and getting my name known. While my colleagues were out attempting to charge big bucks already, I was passing them by doing more work at a much lower cost but higher reward.

I landed a project for a professional golfer, Marshall Barkman. I designed the entire site and did tons of flash animations all for free. Now, a couple years later, I landed a huge three year deal with National Geographic building their marketing website, and some print materials for NatGeo Wild. How did I get that job? Marshall dated the Creative Director at National Geographic. Prior to that, she was at MTV. If I had not done that project for Marshall, I wouldn’t have landed National Geographic, the biggest contract of my career. Random luck? I don’t think so!

Freelancers: Work For Free - The Reward Will Be Greater Than You Can Imagine
Website for National Geographic

Summary: Working for free paid off. I landed a killer site (well it was at the time) in my portfolio, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I charged a fee. In return, I was referred to one of my biggest clients, National Geographic, and landed the biggest contract I had ever had, even to this date.

Becoming’s “White Knight.”

Nixon, the greatest watch company out there, in my opinion, needed some serious help with their website. It had been over 10 years since it was updated, and they only had one go-to agency since they started the company. As a surfer, Nixon was already one of my favorite brands. When I was living in Encinitas, CA I even tried to get in and talk to their Creative Director, with no luck.

One day, Nixon reached out, needing some quick help with the site they were about to launch. They needed a last minute fresh pair of eyes to give them another option, and they needed it fast. They also had no budget left. Literally, zero dollars. That didn’t stop me from helping them. I spent the next few days concepting exactly what you see on today. You can see my first concept here still. I did all of this for nothing. They had to force payment upon me by sending me discount codes, watches, a signed Rob Machado surfboard personalized to me, and not to mention tons of referrals and great friendships. To me, this project was the greatest project that I’ve ever done. It was built on pure passion, not fueled by green paper or macho greed. I’m now known as Nixon’s White Knight, haha.

Freelancers: Work For Free - The Reward Will Be Greater Than You Can Imagine
A gift from Nixon and Rob Machado

Summary: Offering to concept for free landed me a lifetime relationship with the company. If a project comes to you that you are passionate about, let that fuel you, not the money. Work within their budget or for free. The reward will be out of this world. Because of this project, I’ve been asked to do big projects for all of my favorite surfing brands.

Remember, good things come to those that help others in need. Follow this mind set, and you will be rewarded in your freelancer career.

Best of luck!

About The Author

Dann Petty is a freelance designer based in S.F. He is the co-founder of Holler product incubator and founder of Merican Made. You can follow him on facebook and twitter. This post was originally published here.

lead photo by Pete.

  • Dave

    Good article. I agree – but I do think it takes some keen discernment to work out when you working for free is really helping someone out, or means you’re getting screwed over.

  • Smildjan

    The decision to work for free like most things can’t be resolved with some sort of golden rule that covers every situation. Like any problem in life you need to assess the situation and use your judgement and common sense to decide the best course of action. You shouldn’t just give out work for free to any old Herbert that comes asking but once in a while an opportunity may arise where doing just that pays dividends. You need to think about the possible outcomes realistically rather than using blind optimism. Sure people will say “it’ll be great for your portfolio” or “we’ll refer to your friends” but seeking out partners you can trust and respect as well as targeting those that share a similar passion can pay dividends.

    • Smildjan

      Bah! Typo. It should read “We’ll refer you to our friends”

  • Robert Lowdon

    The thing is, work for value. For instance every year we do a bit of charity work and get tax receipts because of it. I’ve done trade for advertising which brings in business. It’s the value that needs to be considered foremost, not just “free”. Free doesn’t exist there is a cost to everything.

  • Jon Peckham

    my problem doing Pro bono work is that I was too often exploited and taken advantage of. I’m still poor with very little work and very little recognition. Human behavior has been my problem and often, Free creates mis-trust and Greed. How do we handle that?

    • motusman

      Quid Pro Quo! I am a motorsport photographer, one of my customers is a mechanic with his own business…I take photos of him off roading and he does my car repairs for next to nothing :O) Instead of offering something ‘free’, just ask for a small favour in return…like an ad, or poster display etc…as has been mentioned, nothing is truly ‘free’……apart from air :O)

  • Doug Gray

    Working for favors is nice and all, but you still need to put food on the table. Some are in better position to do that than others, so taking jobs on for future potential benefits may work. Spending your own time and money to do something for free for someone else though while you don’t have a steady income, and those are the people they approach to work for free, isn’t exactly something everyone can do.

  • Kurt Langer

    I can’t be bothered reading the article as usual otherwise Ill never live my own life. But definitely believe Ive had a better life by never working for free. Just stupid. Who in the world works for free?

    • pubilius

      You work if it is something you do not enjoy. If you enjoy it, it is never work. Getting paid is a luxury for something you truly enjoy.

      • Doug Gray

        Enjoy doesn’t put food on my table.

        • Paul Danger Kile

          This article is about: doing real work as a student, in order to have a portfolio for after graduation.

      • Paul Danger Kile


  • Jerry

    “While Dann is a design/UI/UX expert, I think this approach may be relevant for photographers as well.”
    Umm, no. No it does not. Pro bono work means that after exploiting the photographer they will move on to the next gullible photographer. If you insist doing free work try get something tangible out of it.

    • Paul Danger Kile

  • BSU_Broncos_Rock

    I must say that I totally disagree with this article, and find little relevance between a Photographer and design/UI/UX expert. Let’s start with numbers, if 1000 people do all of what they do for free, what do you think the percentage will be that will end up with a great photo gig? Let’s say .5% and I think that is a stretch. So if that was an accurate number, then 5 out of the 1000 photographer will land a great gig and the other 99.5% or 995 photographers will be dumping money out the window. I doubt that .5% would even be close. Luck sometimes is being in the right place at the right time. Let’s say those same 1000 photographer charge (have value) for their work. I would guess that the success rate will be better if they charge than if they all gave away their work. You have to value your work, so others value your work.

    The author also states you are doing this work for free. What? If I do work it is never free for me and I am not talking about not charging. There is a big difference, between free and not charging. If I do work, it is costing me money, so where is the free? Besides the cost for my education and equipment, it take gas to get where I have to go and that is just a start to what real costs are. I have all the cost associated with running a business and those are real costs. Again, where is the free? I understand I might not charge a customer, but that isn’t the same as free.

    I choose to do no charge work for a couple of Non-Profits and will choose to sometimes not charge for some other work, but it isn’t free, it is costing me money. I believe as a photographer that I should give back, so that is why I have the Non-Profits which I help. I am donating my time, equipment, experience, and yes my expenses $$$$ to support a good cause.

    If I as a photographer am giving away my work, not charging for my work (outside of a few non-profits) that tells people one thing. It tells them I don’t value my work, time, and effort and that my work has zero value. Do you have any idea how many people and businesses look to scam new photographer to do work for free, even as they the business is charging for their work and making money. There are many many unethical businesses out there that know that there is always another dumb photographer around the cornet willing to do work without charging. What kind of a stainable business model is it to do work without charging? For the miniscule few that make it, there are many thousands that do not.

    Business says, I am going to charge my client $10,000 to do this work, but will say to the Photographer, I want you to do this for free, but I will credit your name on my web site. How many jobs is that going to get you and what is the real value of what you have given away.

    This article sucks! For evey few that give away their work which results in something good, the other 995 can’t aford to continue as photographers, because “Free” doesn’t pay the bills.

    Just my opinion.

  • Paul Danger Kile

    Many computer programmers work, even if nobody is paying them. Linux and Ruby easily come to mind as examples, but a perusal it GitHub will show thousands of people doing work for free. The work that’s done there does get noticed by recruiters, but that’s a new trend.

    Has a photographer ever become wildly successful doing work without a paying client? Trey Ratcliff has. He does eventually get paid for prints, training, and commercial uses of his photos, but they are also licensed under a Creative Commons license, just like free software. The license that Trey uses allows his fans to use his photos for non-commercial uses, for free, as long as you give him credit for making them.

    The thing that employers notice the most, is whatever you accomplished most recently. That’s human nature; it’s true for photography too. If you are starting out, then doing real, great, work on your most recent project is important, even if you are not getting paid.

    There’s a huge difference between doing fine art work without a client, and doing what this author did. The work that the author did involved the entire business analysis process, so it is more important to future clients.

    • Paul Danger Kile

      I wanted to publish an essay, just like the one that this author just did, but I didn’t do it, because I knew that whoever did, would make the other readers angry, and angry people are not receptive to new ideas. I applaud the author for his courage to do so anyway.

  • Andrew Richardson

    should be retitled “Work for Free (Strategically)”

  • Brad Tombers

    When I don’t have a lot of paid gigs going at a certain time, I donate my photography skills to non-profits who could use the extra exposure. One of my favorite ways to help is to go to the local animal shelter and take photos of the pets for their adoption website profiles. It helps them get adopted more quickly, and I can practice and really help out. Win-win.