Ask Iona





I’m ready to build my freelance web design business, and I’m quite keen to get started. The only problem is finding clients. My portfolio is full of self-directed projects, and most people are not willing to take a chance on someone who has no credible experience yet.


I did come across one job that looks interesting – it’s the type of project that I’d like to do more of, and will look great in my portfolio. However, when I spoke to them they told me it’s not a paid role. I’ve been told in the past to be wary of this type of work, but there’s a possibility it could be my chance to get in the door.


Is it worth doing the job for free, or should I leave it alone and keep looking for paid roles?





This is a toughie. On the one hand, freelancers entering desirable, packed industries may decide that working for free is necessary if they want to gain crucial experience and make a name for themselves. And what about charities or disadvantaged individuals? It is the rare freelancer who doesn’t want to put their skills to social good and is motivated purely by financial gain. On the other hand, working for nothing will make it harder to establish and progress your freelance career in the long-term. That much-vaunted alternative to cash – “exposure” – is impossible to measure and it isn’t accepted by landlords, mortgage lenders, supermarkets and utility companies, the last time I checked. Unpaid work is also bad for the whole freelance eco-system. It drives down pay, expectations and standards across the board. And allowing companies to ascribe zero value to your skills and time undermines your all-important self-esteem and reputation. So there is as much a moral case for refusing unpaid work as there is a practical one.

For commercial clients, only the smallest of workloads, for the most tangible of alternative benefits (e.g. a massive profile boost), can ever justify unpaid work, whatever stage you’re at. Far better to spend time marketing yourself to companies you KNOW will pay you. Beware those that ask for meetings, request that you attend pitches or send over detailed proposals without any mention of pay. At the very least, ask about expenses – this usually sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Reserve your professional generosity for those that need it. Build in an affordable pro-bono buffer so you can say “yes” to genuinely charitable requests, especially as you become more successful. Also, keep an open mind about voluntary initiatives, campaigns and networks within your industry. So long as everyone else is participating on the same terms and you keep the commitment manageable, you could open up a whole new world of exciting (and paid!) opportunities.

Meet the author

Iona Bain Resized.jpg
Iona Bain

IPSE Freelancer of the Year 2018, Founder of Young Money Blog and Author of Spare Change.