Business In Archviz

By Simon Oudiette

When should you work for free?

Time for one of my weird article about peripheral archviz. The type of article nobody cares about, and regrets it later :)
For this one I wanted to touch on a funny topic that comes very often in discussion with beginner freelancers and let's call them "daring clients" : should you work for free? 
While the short answer is "no", there are a couple of nuances that I want to touch on in this article (nothing is always black or white), and I also basically want to explain thoroughly why the typical arguments you hear from the client is complete nonsense and should be a big red flag for you. 
This piece might end up being a bit lengthy, but we're talking about money, and money does matter if you want to run a successful business... so let's take a closer look!
If you want a shorter version, you can check out the video format of this article.

What is working for free, exactly?

to prepare this video I litterally read dozens and dozens of articles about why you should or shouldn't work for free and the thing that struck me is that most of the time, people are not even talking about the same thing (it's actually a staple of debates and clickbaiting these days). 
So for this article, what I mean by working for free is that you're a freelancer, you have no other revenue outside of your freelancing gig, and you are charging absolutely nothing for a job that you'll do from A to Z. 
I'm not talking about someone doing extra work while getting the same salary, I'm not talking about someone doing extra images at no extra cost, I'm talking about someone working hours for literally zero pay. Zero euro, zero dollar, whatever your currency is

(Un)necessary disclaimer

I personally have nothing against people working for free, people do whatever the hell they want with their time. If you feel like you should work for free and are not getting ripped off while doing it, go at it and have fun
I'm writing this piece to help people understand that there are actually very few occasions where it does make sense to work for free and where you actually have just been a victim of a client that was better at doing business than you are. 
Of course there will be counter examples to everything I will say in this article, and I genuinely wish you're all counter examples, but for each one of the counter example there will be hundreds of examples justifying what I'm saying and you can't base your business entirely on luck, can you? 
With that being said, what I want to do now is to basically address the main arguments that clients use to justify why you should work for free, and sort of explain why this doesn't make sense and is just typical sales talk 101.

I've retained the 5 main ones that I gathered over time (from personal experience or articles I read), please if you have others in mind feel free to put them in the comments, so that we can dissect them too!

"It's just for the first one and we'll hire you in the future" or "there will be more to come". 

It's not directly related to this very situation, but there was a fun survey done in the US recently. It showed that people doing internship for free were less likely to get hired than people doing internship for money. And even more interestingly, people doing internship for free that did get hired were getting less paid that people that were doing paid internship. 
If you work for free for a first gig, here is basically the reality of the situation:
  • you're signaling you don't value your work because you're too young. 
  • you're also signaling, on a broader scale, that beginners in the industry are likely to work for free
so for your client this means that once they are done getting free work from you, they can just go to the next guy that will happily work for free.
Because the reality of this type of client is that they are not driven by the value you bring, but by the price you cost. And in their mind there's nothing better than not paying for a service, meaning even someone slightly less experienced than you not charging anything will be more valuable for them than you starting to charge something with a little bit more of experience. 
So there most probably won't be more to come... if you start charging for it. 

"You'll expand your network!"

Here it is basically the difference between networking positively and networking negatively. 
If you know that you're not likely to get money out of a client because they will just jump from freelancer to freelancer, why would you want to expand your network with other clients that are most likely with the same mindset and will just have the same strategy? 
Also, it seems to me it's a far better investment to network with clients that pay, even if there are fewer. Few contracts that pay is still better than more contracts that don't pay.

"You're gaining experience"

While for sure you can only gain professional experience by working in a professional environment, you can also only gain professional experience by actually acting like a professional. 
Professionals charge for their work at the value they deem fair. Professionals have to pay expenses. You basically can't become a professional if you're making the most basic mistake of working for free. 
If you want to gain experience and expertise in your field, you need to charge based on what your current experience is and the value you're bringing. Maybe it's low, but it certainly is not zero. 
If you really think you're lacking experience to the point of not charging anything, then just go work inhouse for an architecture firm or an archviz firm and you'll get plenty of experience against a normal salary and you can start your own thing later. Everybody has their own rhyhtm. I personally learnt a lot when I was working in an architecture firm even though it was just for a year. 

"You're gaining exposure"

This one is pretty funny and here are some reasons why it doesn't make sense at all. 
  • First, it's never been this easy to get decent exposure with all the social medias, ease of building good websites, free SEO courses, etc, it's pretty doable to get decent traffic on your page and potential good clients. 
  • Second, if your client is such a "big player" with big exposure, how the hell do they not have money to spare for their marketing by paying for good visuals? I mean, if a client came to me with an argument like that I would straightforwardly ask that question "if you're that good, how come you're so broke?"
  • Third, you can't quantify exposure that precisely, and can't really know if the boost in exposure came from that very gig, and if it actually created any sales down the road. Also know that this is quite common for firms, especially the ones that don't pay, to not even credit the artist. 
  • Fourth, you can't qualify exposure. Maybe your image will be seen by thousands of people. But who are these people? Are they your right audience? Is there any potential clients in there? If you have a wide exposure to 10-15 year olds there won't be any potential clients for you in there. It's paradoxically more interesting to get a small exposure to the right people, than a huge exposure to the wrong audience. As a freelancer you're more likely to drive most of your revenue from a recurrent small pool of clients than a very large one. 
  • Last but not least, you can't cash on exposure. Here your client is literally just playing with your ego and your potential affinity for fame. It's fine, but this won't pay the bills. So be careful to not fall for that trick. 

"You're getting more value than me in this" or "I'm trying to help you"

I kept the best for last and this one will require me to do a little digression on the topic of value and transaction. 

So economics 101 :
Carl Menger, Austrian economist and founder of the Austrian School of economics showed two things in how transaction works in his subjective theory of value :
  • 1. Value is subjective

    The value of an object or service is not inherent to the object or service itself, nor to the amount of work, but to the perception that the potential buyers and sellers have of it. This perception is of course influenced by two major factors : time and space. 

    Two little examples : 

    If you're thirsty in the middle of the desert with no oasis in sight, water will have a higher value than if you're strolling in the middle of a city center with shops at every corner where you can get water. 

    If you're an archviz person, it seems more reasonable and likely that you'll spend a shitload of money on your computer, more than a person using their workstation for more basic tasks. Even though GPU's were super expensive for a while, I still needed to buy a new one because the perceived value I had of it was higher than the price to pay. Gamers were thinking differently, because they don't make money with their graphic cards. 
  • 2. A free transaction between two people only occur if both parties are getting more value out of what they are getting than what they are giving away.

    This is pretty basic but sometimes people tend to forget it. 
    If what I have is more valuable than what I want to get, then why would I exchange it? 

    If we take the simple example of a bakery, a baker is more interested in having money than bread at the end of the day. And if I go to the bakery, it's because I'm more interested in having bread than money at the end of my day. So we're both getting value out of it. If the baker wants bread rather than money, then he wouldn't sell the bread. And if I wanted money more than bread, then I wouldn't go to the bakery in the first place. 
So, when your client is saying they're getting less value than you are, then it basically means they are stupid enough to go to the bakery even though they dont want bread, and then they tell the baker "you should give me the bread for free because I don't need it, and you're for sure gonna benefit from this transaction more than I am!".

Creating value for your client

When it comes to value, there's basically two broad levels to create it for a client :
  • Beginner level : save time to your client

    Client can do it themselves, but would rather spend their time on something else because their time is more valuable than the money they need to pay you. 

  • Expert level : save time, and provide extra value by doing something your client can't even do in their own dream

    Clients actively seek your knowledge to solve their issues, are willing to spend a lot of money because they know it maximizes their chance of reaching their goals, and their goals is way more valuable than the money they are giving you. And the more value the goal has (like winning a competition), generally the more they are willing to pay for something. 
All this to say that even if you're a beginner, if you feel like you're at least good and autonomous enough to save time to your client, you're already providing value to them because they can just pay you and focus on higher value tasks on their side, now that they have time to do so. 
That's all for the little objections, I want to touch on two main further consequences that I think stem easily from working for free.

Further consequences

Going out on a limb, but I think you simply can't get good clients by working for free. Why is that? 
  • You signal you're cheap
  • You signal you don't value your time
  • You signal you have zero expertise
  • You signal you have no other work that is more interesting, and no paying clients you'd rather spend your time on
  • You also signal that probably none of the software licenses you're using will be legit if you're not working with opensource softwares
  • Worst of all, you're working with a client that agrees with all that. 
  • Meaning you'll only get referals to similar clients. 

On a macro scale, you're sending the signal that other people are probably willing to work for free. 
Keep in mind that in pricing it is easy to have high price and lower them, it is much more complicated to increase them. Especially if you're starting from zero. Why would a client pay for a service now, if it was free the last time? 

So should I never work for free?

Three hours later we're back to the original question, thank you Simon!
A book about pricing mindset I really like is the win without pitching manifesto by Blair Enns, and I especially like the chapter on charity. 
Some insightful excerpts so that you can get the gist :
"In our enterprise there will be no loss leaders. As experts, we will not discount with new clients today for the opportunity to make money tomorrow. We will save the use of discounts for our best and longest serving clients at times when they need our support."
"We will treat charity as charity and not confuse it with business development."
"Every one of our for-profit engagements will bring us profit. Our carefully selected pro bono clients will bring us nothing but fulfillment. We will leave to our competition those clients that would neither bring us profit nor merit our charity."

So yes, y
ou can work for free, if :
  • It's for charity (with no underlying prospective intent)
  • You can afford it
All in all, as I said in the beginning, it's all up to you. I'm just giving guidelines here on why in 99% of the time the reason you're working for free is probably wrong and it's just a salesman that managed to persuade you. 
The main problem I see with this is that this will terribly hinder your ability to grow your business and start to be recognized as an actual professional with a pool of real honest clients. 
Just remember that basically your work is worth paying for. I'm not saying that as some naive pep talk but :
  • If a client comes to you, it means that they see value in your work. If they didn't they wouldn't come to see you in the first place.
  • Even if you're only starting, your value is not 0. It can be pretty low, but it can't be zero.
So find out what you're worth, and dedicate your time to the right clients, not the ones that don't respect and aknowledge your value. 
Hope this helps, feel free to comment about your experience on the matter, whether positive or negative. 
For more peripheral articles you can subscribe to my newsletter. I'm no know-it-all, but in it I share openly my journey as a freelancer and it seems to be helpful for the readers so far, you might benefit from it too ;)
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Only noticed your comment now Anastasiya, but thanks for the kind word, glad you enjoyed the article!

Fantastic Article and great Work!

About this article

A lengthy piece of reading regarding pricing, why working for free is bad 99% of the time, some economics 101 on the subjectivity of value, and why you should start charging for your services. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding of how transaction works and how you can better sell yourself.

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About the author

Simon Oudiette

Founder at Horoma

placeSofia, BG