Should You Work For Free?

Let me save you some time and tell you that in my opinion the answer is yes.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of caveats and exceptions, but let me explain…

This blog has always aimed to be a help to you if you are thinking about starting your own business…

And only being in the early stages of my own career I don’t have all the answers on what it takes to achieve success, but I do have a decades worth of experience, the lessons from which I’ve tried to share every week. All in the hope for maybe just a couple of people it can help them fast-forward through some of the lessons it took me a long time to learn.

Now, working for free is a bit of a taboo topic, especially in the freelance video industry and I’m sure that there’s people right now screaming at their phones telling me I’m completely wrong, and maybe I am.

All I can share on this blog with any certainty are my thoughts and intuitions and from the past five years of regularly volunteering to produce video projects for free, my intuition says that if you choose the right projects to help on, it can be a massive springboard to bigger success, whether that be in your career or financially.

My own career started when one day a guy walked in to one of my lectures at University and said he needed help with a netball project he was working on. I emailed him and said, “I like making videos, would that be a help to you?” A year later I was producing paid sports projects for the university, which then led on to working for a London Sports Agency.


After doing my first voluntary project, a couple of weeks later I had the chance to use camera’s like this

Taking projects on for free can be a huge confidence booster too. If the person doesn’t like your work, or you make a few mistakes, there’s no problem. With no money on the table the client can’t expect anything, so whatever you can produce for them is a bonus!

If you’re wanting to launch your own photography/videography business but are hesitant to actually start producing paid work, I would offer you this very simple advice…

Look through your own network, your friends and family, friends of friends and I’m certain you’ll be able to find small business owners or athletes, musicians, aspiring models, someone who would benefit from having some great photos or videos to share on their website, social media etc.

Approach them and very honestly tell them your situation and say how you hope by working together to produce some content you could both benefit.

The first one is the hardest and by the time you’ve done this for 5 clients, I’m sure you’ll feel ready to start doing some small paid work.

And before you take that first voluntary project on, below I’ve written 5 lessons I’ve learned from all the work I’ve done for free, I hope that to you they can be a useful guideline when you’re deciding whether or not to take on the project…

Lesson 1 — Can you still pay your bills if you take it?

I’ve always wanted these blogs to have a huge dose of practicality in them and the first question you should ask yourself when a project doesn’t have any budget, is will you still be able to pay your bills if you do it?
 It shouldn’t cost you a lot of money or time to do the project and if you are doing the work and giving up your time for free it’s not unreasonable in any way to ask for expenses like travel money.

Sometimes if you really want to do the job you might have to pay fuel and other costs out of your own pocket, but that’s a decision only you can make.

Lesson 2 — Make sure the person or client is not taking advantage of your good nature

Sadly there’s been a few projects I’ve worked on that it’s become apparent the client is trying to get as much out of you as they can for free and really doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices you’re making for them.

When you’re young and just starting out it’s hard to tell if this is the case, this leads me on to lesson 3…

Lesson 3 — Everyone will promise you the world, decide whether they actually have it offer

Everyone, and I mean everyone, will tell you that if you do this project for free there will be lots more paid work down the line that they can give you.

There’s not.

If they tell you this I would be hugely sceptical about taking on the work. If they use the ‘future paid work’ line is most likely a bargaining chip to convince you to do the project.

And if you think about it, if they’ve got the budget to pay you later, why aren’t they paying you now?

What’s more the moment they do get a big budget, they’re not going to spend it all on you as a thank you for doing the work for free, especially if you’re a new photographer/videographer, they’re going to go look for the biggest, most exciting production company they can get.

The best opportunities I’ve gained from doing free work and when I’ve directly approached a client and said, let me produce this for you for free. If you like it, I can do more in the future for this amount of money.

Lesson 4 — Establish time frames, a one off video is fine, don’t let it become a recurring thing

If you set the precedent you’re happy to work for free, it can become a dangerous thing. Establish you’re happy to do one video for free, then the next has to be paid.

It’s easy to turn a free client in to a paying one after one video, after five or six videos it’s nearly impossible

Lesson 5 — Put as much effort in to a free project as you would in to your paid work, it’s supposed to be great to show what you can achieve

This all ties in to the idea of producing one video for free for a client.

Choose the type of film or photos you want to produce, make a great one for free and then use that to pitch to all the other clients in the similar industry.

My favourite business thought leader Gary Vaynerchuk regularly talks about how “karma is practical” and “giving without expectation is the only way to truly achieve success” and in my experience I’ve found this to be completely true.

There’s no better feeling than producing a great project for a friend, not expecting anything for it and then watching your content help them achieve their goals.

My intuition says that the old saying “Life gives to the givers and takes from the takers” is a very important one to remember.

So I hope this article has been a help in your decision whether or not to do a project for free.

And I wish you every success,

What I’m Currently Reading…

‘Crushing It’ — by Gary Vaynerchuk — it’s a great one! Check it out here…


About Jack

I help people, brands and business communicate more effectively with their customers through visual, audio and written content.

I do this through Southpaw Sport, the sports content marketing company I’m currently building as well as on a freelance basis working for agencies and production companies.


You can follow me on YouTube where I post weekly vlogs sharing my experience and opinion on content production.

YouTube —

And my social media for behind the scenes look at what I’m up to

Instagram — @jackwrtompkins

Twitter — @jackwrtompkins

Jack Tompkins