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what clients really think of your offer to “work for free”

Recently I came across a question in a copywriter group that I see pretty consistently:

 

I have no degree and very little experience so I’m willing to work for free, which I’ve already proposed to two smaller businesses but unfortunately, I’ve received no response. How would you guys go about this? Any tips/strategies?

 

Here’s the problem with offering to work for free:

Free. Isn’t. Free.

Once more for those in the back…

FREE IS NOT FREE.

When you approach someone you’re trying to learn from with an offer to work for free, you’re making a couple assumptions:

  1. The biggest concern is money/cost. This is actually projection… YOUR biggest concern is money, as in you’re trying to make a living doing this. However, plenty of smart business owners out there consistently invest in paying experts to do things for them. Those businesses have operating budgets and marketing budgets, and funds earmarked for hiring out different roles and tasks. Money’s often NOT the biggest sticking point (unless you’re working with a solopreneur or a cash-strapped startup).
  2. Training you is easy. You may be the biggest sponge that ever existed, ready to soak up all the knowledge I have to offer… but it’s still going to take time and patience to get you to a certain level. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have to iterate, sometimes dozens of times. You’re going to have to be rewritten by someone. This is all part of the process, but it takes time and patience and your willingness to make a LOT of mistakes (and keep trying).
  3. You’re freeing up my time by doing work for me. Let me put it this way… my cost in “hiring” you for free is nothing. But every hour I spend coaching you is an hour I can’t spend making sales. Or planning/writing a campaign. Or thinking up a new product. This is called opportunity cost, and if you want to make a business out of your writing, you’re going to have to get familiar with this term. Opportunity cost means that for every one thing you say yes to, you’re also saying NO to probably half a dozen other opportunities.

So while it’s true that you’re working for free, you’re still actually costing me time and money. On the other hand, you’re getting direct access to invaluable knowledge that it’s taken me a decade to amass… seems like you’re coming out ahead on this deal.

There’s a cost to everything, and from a hiring perspective, here’s what sets off red flags for me when someone offers to work for free:

You aren’t very committed.

You may think you’re super committed because you’re willing to work for free. And you may actually be. But from my side, I see no skin in the game and a high likelihood you’ll turn out to be one of the 9/10 folks who will “do anything” or “work for free” who ultimately:

  • flake out and ghost me
  • argue with what I ask for
  • don’t put their all into it because it’s a low priority since they’re not being paid

That’s not to say this is you.

This is a lot of your beginner colleagues, however. To the point that it’s a thing. In a decade of copywriting, I’ve had ONE SINGLE PERSON ask to work for free in exchange for mentoring who’s actually stuck with it.

So consider this… if you’re getting paid, you’ve got an incentive to pick yourself back up after the inevitable flops and hard lessons. You’ll be motivated to show up and do your best… because you’re exchanging value (your time and talent) for value (monetary rewards and learnings to improve your career).

You tell me you’ll work for free and my instant reaction is… So?

Can I count on you? Can you deliver what I ask or are you another person who’s going to flake as soon as it gets challenging (i.e. anything beyond basic beginner stuff)?

It’s counter intuitive, but I am much more interested in someone who values their own time and skill and charges something, even if it’s low. And someone who shows tenacity and thinking outside the box.

Working for free is the offer damn near every new writer makes, which means you’ve just buried yourself. Isn’t the point to stand out?

So I’ll say it again:

Free isn’t free.

What else do you have to offer?

 

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve had several folks reach out to ask for pointers on how to stand out in other ways, aside from offering to work for free. Stay tuned for part 2!

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