Should you work for free?

should you work for free

Should you work for free?

The one thing that really gets to me about the craft industry is how often we are asked to work for free.  Big companies approach you to write posts for their blog – for free – because it’ll be ‘great exposure for you’.   People who want you to attend their events – for free- because ‘it’s a day out for you!’  Event organisers asking you to speak or teach at their events – for free – because it’s a ‘good opportunity’ for you.

It amazes me how much we are expected to give up our time, and expertise for nothing.  I’ve found the longer I’ve been established (running a successful business for 5 years plus writing a number 1 book) the ‘for free’ has changed a little.  Now on most occasions I’m offered expenses, but still no money for my time on most occasions.  I was chatting to someone about it yesterday and I think that a lot of people making these offers genuinely don’t realise what they are asking of people, and what the cost is to the person being asked so I wanted to break it down below and then will discuss if it is ever worth working for free.

In a period of 1 week recently I was offered 5 events, 3 to speak at as a guest speaker, 1 to run a seminar or workshop at and the 5th to attend and blog about.  So below is what it would mean for me if I said yes to all those offers.  I want to point out I'm not saying it can never be worthwhile to work for free, there are of course occasions where working for free can lead to paid work or other benefits.  I've blogged more on that subject - and how to decide whether it is worth working for free - over on the Sew Mama Sew Blog.

In this post I want to go more into specifics of the events I was offered, and what it would cost me to say yes to them:


Offer one

For the 3 guest speaker gigs I was offered expenses, hotel and train fare which would come to £100-£200 for each event – probably around £500 total cost to them (they are all run by the same large multinational company). 

I will spend at least a day travelling for each event, often more (for one event it would require 15hrs train travel and another around 13 hours), I’d spend a day writing my speech in advance and practising it to my ever suffering husband!  I would then also spend the day at each event, delivering my speech and then answer questions after and chatting to the guests beforehand.   So for the 3 events in total I’m doing 7-8 days work in exchange for no money plus somehow making up that time on my own business.


Offer two

The second event is a large show, held in the opposite side of the country from me.  7 hours train travel need each way, plus a hotel for 2 nights so I can spend 1 day at the show and 2 days travelling.  The train fare alone would cost me around £120, 2 nights in a hotel at least the same if not more – so around £250+ costs for me, plus 3 days that I wouldn’t be working on my business.  In addition I was asked to run a seminar or workshop, so again that is at least another day preparation, writing a speech, preparing slide shows and handouts etc. 

For that event I was offered no payment, and no expenses.  So 4 days lost work and £250 in expenses, for ‘exposure’.

Offer three

The last offer I had was to attend an event that a sewing retailer was holding, and blog about it in exchange.  This one my expenses would be covered so it wouldn’t cost me anything, but again it was quite far away so I’d lose 2-3 days work with the travelling and the day at the event.  No advance preparation needed for this one on the plus side.

 should you work for free?

Now to the people making these offers they are thinking something along the lines of ‘we’re offering her a day out, a chance to network, and an opportunity to do public speaking and plug her book or business whilst doing so’.  Plus for some of them covering my travel costs so I don’t have to pay out anything.

However, if I say yes to all 3 offers above I would lose 14 days work, that is half a month which I wouldn’t be earning.  Although these events were spread over 3 months that is still a lot of time to take away from my own business, and given that I already work 7 days a week I have no opportunity to catch that back up again. 

I would also be paying out £250 of my own money on top of the lost income (which would be around £800 - £1,000).  So it would cost me well over £1,000 to do these events.  It’s not even a case of working for free, it is a case of losing £1,000 to do the work.  Of course that’s not even counting the food, there may be some food provided at the event itself but the several days spent travelling to and fro I’d be buying my own meals.


So would it be worth doing these events?

The obvious question to ask is what would I get in exchange?  What would the ‘exposure’ mean to me and is it worth the potential lost income and the investment of my time.


The first 2 offers would give me a chance to promote my book, it’s hard to estimate how many people would buy the book as a result.  However, I’d be reaching around 300 people in total during my speeches and seminar.  If I generously assumed that 25% would be so impressed they’d rush out and buy my book I’d be looking at selling 75 copies.  My royalties fluctuate a little depending on where the book is purchased and what they paid the publisher for a book but based upon previous sales I’m averaging 55p a book.  I don’t sell my book direct.

So 75 x 55p = £41.25 potential income for me in book royalties (paid in 2016 so not immediate income).

Craft a creative business book Fiona Pull
My book

Potential new business

There are 2 potential streams of income from these events for me other than book royalties.  Either a person I meet at the event might join the Sewing Directory (£85 a year), advertise on The Sewing Directory (£275 a year – although adverts are currently sold out so this would only be potential future income if they are happy to wait) or they may book me for marketing or SEO training at £40 an hour.

Again I can’t say for sure what I would get from each event but based upon past events I tend to pick up 1 new customer at each event.  Generally that customer will spend around £100 - £150 with me within a year.   So assuming I picked up 1 customer per event I could be looking at around £625 increased revenue in the year following as a result.  However do bear in mind that isn’t just money for nothing, I still have to do the work they are paying me for, so I don’t earn that just by attending the event.  The days at spent at the event, travelling to the event and preparing for the event are still lost income but any new customers mean future work and future income.

But assuming I got a new customer at each event, and sold 75 books as a result I’d be looking at £666.25 in increased revenue in the next year, but around an extra 30 hours or so work to earn that income.

The other potential benefit is that it could lead to being offered more public speaking events in the future (have I mentioned how much public speaking terrifies me?)  Again the majority of those will just cover costs, not time.   Out of the last 10 events I’ve been offered only one of them has offered to pay me for my time as well as my expenses – of course I said yes to that one!

So even if you don’t count the extra work I have to do for those customers after the event and just weighed up what it would cost me v what I could potentially earn from those events I’m still looking at a minimum of a £400 loss.

In those circumstances I have to say no and turn down all 5 events.  I don’t want to lose £400 for a lot of work, travel and stress (I always panic before public speaking and stress about it for several weeks in advance).  Also I already have more than enough work and am not actively seeking new business.  If I was then I may place more imortance on the fact that I could pick up new customers whilst at the events.


Do you ever work for free?

On some occasions it can still be worth working for free.  I was tempted to say yes to one of the above events because it was in a part of the country I wanted to visit.  I could have gotten there for free with them covering my expenses.  However I would have had to pay for an extra night in a hotel to have a day exploring, and I would be exhausted after the event and all the travel so I decided it wouldn’t really be quality time exploring the new location.  I’d be better off making a trip there at my own cost in the future and enjoying the time.

I have said yes to an expenses only event later this year because it was in a location I wanted to visit, I will have time before the event to explore (I won’t have to pay for an extra night there to look around) and it’s organised by a friend so I’m glad of the chance to see her again and be able to help her out.  

Also when it’s another small business running the event I do bear in mind the fact they have less money available to pay speakers.  Often smaller businesses compensate for the fact they can’t offer much money by promoting you as much as they can around the event or helping you out in another way. 

I have said yes to expenses only events in the past to help friends out, or because I wanted to go to the event and it otherwise would cost me to attend.  If I would have gone to the event anyway, paying for my own train fare and hotel then teaching a seminar and getting my costs covered in exchange is a worthwhile swap for me.

With blog posts or magazine features written for free for other people if I think I will get enough traffic, exposure, or new business from it to justify the time spent writing it I will do it for free.  Sometimes you don’t know until you’ve tried it once, but then if it doesn’t pay off I know not to do it again.  Unlike events it’s less of a gamble for me at it takes up much less of my time.


Weigh it Up

Everything should be carefully weighed up.  It’s tempting to get excited by the offer and not fully think through what it actually means for you cost v benefit wise.  Equally it’s not always wise to just say no to everything somethings do pay off.  

I have a family to support and need to earn an income, I don’t just do this as a hobby or for fun, or to get free trips around the country.  I have to look at everything I do workwise and ask is this the most productive way to spend my time?   That is what I suggest anyone would do who is asked to do something for free.

Weighing up business opportunities

It’s not an automatic no as sometimes it can be worth your while to work for free.  I recently wrote a free double page feature for a magazine which took me 2-3 hours to write, but sold hundreds of copies of my book and took my book back to number 1 in the charts.  That was well worth the time it took.

I did a show last year for expenses only but picked up a customer who has now spent over £1000 with me and will probably continue to spend with me over the next few years.  So again that was worth the time and effort I invested.

However, I do find the majority of events in particular are not worthwhile when doing them for free.  The advance preparation, the travel time and costs, the day of the event itself it’s all time and money that could be spent on building up my own business rather than someone else’s.  If it’s something that takes much less time, say a local event, a quick blog post or an easy to write magazine feature then I’m more likely to be tempted.  It only needs to generate a small benefit to be worth the time and energy I invest. 

Given the 5 events I was offered recently I would have needed to not only have all my costs covered but also to be paid £200 per event just to be close to breaking even.  To make a profit and make it more worth my while it would have needed to have paid me £400 per event plus expenses.

I realise that that is expensive to an event organiser, but not being paid is expensive to me.  I guess the organiser’s need to make the same calculations as I do, and if they think that speaker or teacher will bring their business enough benefit to cover the cost then approach them and offer to pay them for their time.  If not find someone who is worth paying a decent rate for their time.

Further Reading

Pop over to Sew Mama Sew and read my post about working for free on there.

There’s some interesting posts here about working for free and the value of your work

I’d also recommend reading this post by Prior Attire

Plus this very cool flow chart will help you make your mind up, read what they say about ‘did they promise you exposure’