Should Freelancers Work For Less Or Free When Starting Out?

When you’re new in the SEO freelance world, you might come across advice such as “You can work for less or free in order to get more clients”. The aim is to build your portfolio and build some case studies that you can use to pitch to future clients in hopes of receiving full payment for your services.

But this can go downhill very soon as clients can exploit you and undervalue your services.

In such situations, you wonder if this is a good idea or not. By the end of this post, you will understand if you should work for cheap and free or not.

I have also asked some amazing freelancers/business owners about their experiences and these will help you navigate your freelance journey better.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

This is not a good strategy, especially for the long term, because the clients might end up exploiting you which can lead to frustration and burnout. You can work for non-profit organizations for some time if you want to build a portfolio.

Personal Experiences

I started my freelance/solopreneur career in 2022 after leaving my two-month job at a company. At that time, I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, like what should I offer, how to price my services, how to contact clients, how to make contracts, and more. I was very desperate to get clients, not knowing anything about how this thing works.

In search of my offer, I decided to offer three services:

  1. Audit
  2. Mentorship
  3. Consultation

After some time, I got in touch with a business owner from Thailand. His niche was iGaming and he was looking for consultancy. I asked him to pay me $8 an hour, but because I didn’t have any past experience or case studies, he offered to pay me $3 an hour.

My work was to do everything from admin work, website consultation, audit, helping in his business expansion, and more. The pay was very low compared to the work I was doing. I never did any paperwork, or anything else before working with him. He ghosted me after a while and never contacted me back.

I also did free work to get more clients. I posted a while on r/seo that I will provide free SEO audits to a few websites. My aim was to make the audit free and charge for the implementation.

A bunch of people showed up and I decided to do a full SEO audit for 3 websites. It took me more than 50 hours to complete these 3 audits, and after sending the audit + recommendations in a Google Sheet, they ghosted me. They didn’t answer me and all the work was in vain.

After these experiences, I decided not to work for less or free for any more clients.

I have asked a few awesome freelancers about their experiences, and here’s what they said:

Corina said that she hasn’t been exploited.

I haven’t been exploited. I offered to work for free, so this is my choice.
If you don’t have experience and would like to gain some, I suggest to create your own website instead of working for free on someone else.

Corina Buri, German speaking SEO Freelancer

Whereas Tasmin had a bad experience working with clients for less

When first starting out, it can easy to slip into accepting rates that are lower than you’re happy for. In my first year of freelancing, I had clients take work with no intention of ever paying me. I had other clients ask upfront for a significant discount (on an already extremely low rate). Then, when the work started, they pushed for significantly more deliverables, increasing the scope, and expecting much more than we originally agreed to.

In both cases, I ceased working with those clients as soon as possible. But it was a steep learning curve around the importance of having processes and systems in place to protect your earnings, time, and mental energy.

These days, I rarely come up against clients trying to exploit me financially. I have build strong systems around my business and I protect my boundaries a lot more than when I first started.

Tasmin, Conversion Copywriter and Messaging Strategist at Fika Digital

Emily was very firm in saying no from the beginning

I’ve been very firm in saying no to this since I started working as a full-time freelancer. I have encountered situations where someone I’d worked with wanted to roll over unused retainer time to a new month when our contract did not permit this. I stuck firm to the terms of the contract in these situations—and was very glad I’d drawn one up!

Emily Gertenbach, Principal at (e.g.) creative content

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Working For Cheap Or Free?

Pros Cons
Portfolio: It allows you to build a solid portfolio that you can use to pitch other clients No Income: Not being paid (or paid less) can be challenging, since you have to pay the bills yourself
Experience: Helps you get the necessary experience before taking on other clients Exploitation: The clients will push you to do more work and may take advantage of your skills for free work.
Exposure: Allows you to get exposed to a variety of industries and clients Time investment: You will end up investing a lot of time without getting any significant ROI
Networking: Helps you connect with people in your preferred industry for potential long term growth Burnout: Working for long hours without getting paid well can lead to frustration and burnout
Confidence: Helps you gain confidence in your theoretical skills. It also provides you with an opportunity to improve yourself. Undervaluing skills: The clients will undervalue your skills and will expect you to work for less or free every single time.
Credibility: It helps establish credibility and makes your client trust your services. Difficult to raise rates: These clients will always expect you to work for cheap and will not work if you charge them your regular or higher rates
Testimonials and case studies: It helps you gather testimonials, reviews, and case studies. Bad Referral quality: If you ask these clients to refer you to someone, they will end up behaving similar
Ghosting: These clients may choose to ghost you after the work is done, and never provide testimonials or reviews
Unsustainable: Working for less or free is not a good long-term strategy and is not sustainable.
Pros and cons of working for cheap or less

Speaking of pros and cons, here’s what Tasmin says about the pros and cons:

In certain circumstance, working for free could open up doors to more opportunities for you by broadening your connections, offering high-value case studies for your portfolio, and solidifying your authority and thought leadership.
However, accepting work for less or free has to be an exception, not the rule. It has to be on your terms and you have to know exactly why you are doing it and whether you are happy with that decision.
Otherwise, accepting work for less or free will leave you resenting the work, feeling bitter, and, more often than not, burnt out as you overcompensate for the low rate by taking on more work.

Tasmin, Conversion Copywriter and Messaging Strategist at Fika Digital

And Emily says there are no pros to working for free:

In my opinion, there are no pros to working for less or for free when you’re dealing with a client that is a for-profit business that’s intended to engage you as a professional and NOT a volunteer. Even if you’re new to your industry you deserve to be paid a competitive rate for someone with your level of skill and background.

Emily Gertenbach, Principal at (e.g.) creative content

Working in a situation where the client will exploit you, or undervalue your skills doesn’t sound like a great idea. This form of working has more cons than pros. Most of the time companies will not think about building your portfolio or giving you a testimonial. Instead, they are using you as a way to get their stuff done for cheap, or free.

How To Deal With Prospects Who Want Your Services For A Lower Price Or For Free?

When dealing with clients like these, you can emphasize the value and benefits, and even negotiate the offer with them. Another good strategy is to scale down the offer to match their needs. The best option is to walk away from them cause they will not make a good client.

There are many times when you’re reaching out to someone to offer your services, and they’re just not ready to pay the full price. When doing discovery calls with them, they will tell you the benefits of working for them for free. You know what I’m talking about, right?

This is a bad situation and sadly, this happens a lot. I have also experienced situations like these.

But how should you deal with these kinds of prospects? Here are some things you can consider:

1. Emphasize the value and benefits

A lot of times the client is unaware of the value you’re bringing to the table. Sometimes they only want a certain thing, but upon researching you find out that their needs are different. In those cases, communicate the value of your services and the benefits.

If the client is not comfortable with paying your fees, then you can negotiate. In these cases, make sure that you should at least receive an industry-standard rate. In any case, don’t go below it. This would lead to burnout and frustration.

Recommended Reading: SEO Pricing: How Much Does SEO Cost in 2023? (Industry Research)

2. Scale down the offer

Another good strategy is to scale down your offering to match the price.

For example, a prospect is asking you to do an SEO audit, and your price estimate is between $1000-$1500. They don’t want to spend this amount cause their budget is not more than $300.

Here, freelancers make the common mistake of doing work worth $1500 for $300. This signals to the prospect that you are excessively charging your services which leads to a bad reputation.

Instead, reduce the scope of the project. So instead of doing a comprehensive SEO audit worth $1500, reduce the scope of the audit to match the $300 budget. This will save you a lot of time, and you won’t have to compromise your services.

Here’s some great advice from Tasmin on this topic:

If a client isn’t interested in paying the full amount for my service, I’ll reduce the scope of the project to match their budget. These days, I don’t give discounts or reduce my rate. My prices are what they are for a reason. They’ve been carefully built to reflect the value of the work you are receiving and to honor the time and expertise that goes into them. If you want me to work for less, we can reduce the scope.

Tasmin, Conversion Copywriter and Messaging Strategist at Fika Digital

When you’re working for free, make sure to get reviews, and testimonials, and build case studies. Use these to get paying clients in the future.

Do the needed paperwork before working with the client. Include how long you will work for free with them and the scope of services.

3. Walk away

The best option is to walk away. Don’t work with these prospects cause they will not be ideal.

A lot of clients exploit freelancers so that they can get their work done for as cheap as possible. You may feel bad to let them go, but don’t. Trust me, don’t. If they don’t respect you or your rates, then they will probably not value your services.

Here’s a great advice from Emily:

I don’t work with them—simple as that. When I first started out, there were times I accepted a slightly lower rate after negotiation—but in those instances, the rate I worked for was still within the realm of reasonable industry pay and I found there to be other value in the work…i.e. I knew the client could refer me to many more people or it would be a good portfolio piece. But I was still making a rate that I would not consider to fall into the “less or free” category.

Emily Gertenbach, Principal at (e.g.) creative content

What Should Freelancers Do To Avoid These Clients?

Be transparent and clear about your pricing, screen them before getting on a call, always do your paperwork, and learn to say no if it’s not a good opportunity.

There are a few bad actors who will not value your skills, time, or expertise. They’re always looking to get the work done for cheap, or rather for free.

In most cases, avoiding these clients is the best thing. Here are some things you can do:

1. Be transparent about the pricing

Be clear about your rates before pitching to the clients. Calculate your rates and put them on your website.

Another thing is to establish minimum rates. Don’t accept projects that are below your minimum rate. The next best thing you can do is to charge upfront. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

Here is what Tasmin says:

Rather than reducing your rate or working for free, build a laddered offering where you have lower-tier offers that you can offer to clients who don’t have the budget for your main services. Having clear, transparent pricing on your website will also help prospects self-qualify themselves before getting in touch.

Tasmin, Conversion Copywriter and Messaging Strategist at Fika Digital

And here’s what Emily says:

When you’re just starting out as a freelancer it IS important to carefully calculate your rates before you start pitching clients. This includes looking at what your peers with similar experience are charging, as well as crunching the numbers to figure out how much money you need to pay yourself after taxes and expenses each month. Then, I suggest communicating this rate up front—go ahead and put it on your website! This can help you weed out folks who are seeking free work and aren’t interested in paying you for your services.

Emily Gertenbach, Principal at (e.g.) creative content

2. Weed out prospects before getting on a call

Have some sort of questionnaire or process by which you can screen the prospects before they get on a call. Ask about their budget, requirements, and expectations in a form. This would ensure that you only get in touch with the good-quality prospects.

3. Do your paperwork

Before taking on any project, do your paperwork like making contracts and proposals. In the contract, define the scope and pricing clearly. There are a bunch of templates online that you can use as a base to make yours.

4. Learn to say no

If this prospect is a walking red flag and has unrealistic expectations for the project, then decline the project professionally. This prospect doesn’t align with your pricing or your business goals.

When Should You Discount Or Give Your Services For Free?

There are certain situations when giving discounts, working for less or free can help you diversify your portfolio.

  1. The client can provide something valuable – Most of the time, this means getting referral clients. Apart from this, they might help you network with other industry people, or they promote you on their social media which can increase your exposure.
  2. Working for nonprofits – Doing volunteer work for non-profit or similar organizations is a great way of building your portfolio

Speaking of giving discounts, here is what the pro freelancers say:

I offer to give free consultations to friends & family. I genuinely care about their business/project to flourish, why should I withhold a skill that would help them?

Obviously, there is an “it depends”. If my friend/family member has a successful business and there “is” money, I wouldn’t do it for free.

But if it is for someone just starting out or for a non-profit project, I’m happy to help.

If it is possible I try to learn something new with these projects. E.g. I helped someone with recipes, so I learned about recipe schema, which will now help me if I have a client from that space.

Also, I ask for reference.

Corina Buri, German speaking SEO Freelancer

Here is what Tasmin says,

Most freelancers will tell you to never work for less or free. Personally, there are some situations where I may flex on my rate or work for free. If, for example, I could see another significant and tangible benefit to doing the work or if I was working with a small non-profit or CIC client. There are times I have accepted lower fee work, such as workshop delivery, knowing that it will expose me to other businesses and bring in more work down the line — which it did.

Tasmin, Conversion Copywriter and Messaging Strategist at Fika Digital

And here is what Emily says:

If you’re brand new to your industry, or are trying to transition into a new type of work within your industry, I DO think it can be helpful to offer your services as a volunteer to a nonprofit. There are lots of small nonprofits doing great work, and they need help with website content, improving search visibility, social media management, and more. Typically, the bulk of the work at these nonprofits is done by volunteers. And in my experience, they won’t mind if you’re a bit green in your field—they’re happy to have you helping them figure things out. That said, don’t work a full time role as a volunteer. This is something I recommend doing for a few hours a week as a supplement to your paid work (or your hunt for paid work).

Emily Gertenbach, Principal at (e.g.) creative content

Final Words

Working for lower rates should be an option. It should not be mandatory to get clients. There are a few situations where this strategy will get you more exposure, and build a referral network, but realistically, not all clients are the same.

P.S. If you’re ever feeling stuck in getting answers to your “it depends” questions, then 1:1 SEO Coaching can help you. Learn how Raquel got clarity in her SEO processes with the coaching.

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