Free Work And Collaborations As A Freelancer

I was sitting down with a photographer friend the other day and the question came up about doing collaborations and free work.

When do you chose to do it?

Under what circumstances?

Then just today I was trying to convince another videographer to help film a spec project. We are filming some bands this weekend and need a few more shooters, especially ones who can pull off some aerial shots.

“Sounds fun, but dude I’m married, have a mortgage and I do this full time. So I can’t do it for free. Sorry man.”

I often have a similar response when people ask me to work for free. However, there are times when I jump at the chance to collaborate on a project, or do some spec work for a potential client. Here’s a few reasons why I sometimes chose yes, and probably more often than most freelancers:

1. It’s all about VALUE.

From the get-go, it’s all about value. Value can come in many forms – connections, dollars, gear, trade, etc. Earlier this summer I was asked to do some sound design for a project that had legs. The company that produced the spot had some success with other marketing videos on YouTube, doing 20+ million views, much of which was grown organically.

Of course, they *said* that it would be good for me, I’ll get work from it, etc. That rarely happens, and if someone offers that, it likely means they can’t pay you, which was the case here.

I told them this was a good 2 to 3 days of work, and that I could do it for as low as $1500. They still didn’t have that much money. I would normally turn down the project, but countered with these guys to see if there was something else we could do.

I knew of their previous success, and wondered if they do any consulting as far as teaching other companies about video marketing and strategy. Well, they had, and normally charge $3000 per day.


We did a straight trade. I did a few days of sound design, and they gave us a full day of consulting, which was a huge benefit to our company. We’ve since taken that information and created a new offering for our clients, which is already starting to make us more money than we ever would have made from getting paid for that one project.

One other example. Earlier this year we met a new company that was starting to increase their business model to become more of a full ad agency, creating content and then using their sizable network of bloggers, musicians, and you tubers to spread the word.

I wanted to get in with them, but they were still pretty early stage, seeking funding but not currently in a position to pay.

I still met with the CEO and offered to do any and all video that they needed done. If it was for one of their clients then we would invoice them, but if it was an in-house thing then we’d just do it for free, as long as they would cover any expenses.

We had the opportunity to go down to Los Angeles and film for a day in an historic recording studio with some legendary musicians. It was a great spot, and delivered something super valuable to the client. We had now forged a relationship that has allowed us to go back to them to help us find funding for some of our projects, and line up some more paid gigs through them.′

This all goes back to the concept of having one goal for your business. While I haven’t yet talked about it a ton on the blog, guys like Noah Kagan have preached this for years.

Noah was employee #30 at Facebook and #4 at Mint, and is known as one of the early and great “Growth Hackers”. One thing he said he learned a ton at Facebook from Mark Zuckerberg was having one goal. Here he is on Ramit Sethi’s Brain Trust:

So, if your one goal for yourself is “Profit”, you’re likely not going to do free work ever, because it doesn’t line up with what your goals are. However, if your goal is “Growth”, which is related to Profit just a little broader, you may see free work as a great way to grow your business.

2. Collaborating with others

So this photographer friend just had one of his projects blow up online – media coverage all over the place, hundreds of thousands of hits on Imgur, etc.

Photo by Trevor Christensen, part of his Nude Portraits series.


When you do something remarkable, people notice, and it often brings out a group of people who want to work with you now, and get some of that limelight.

This, to me, isn’t a bad thing. Especially your first time around. Once you’re a celebrity of sorts, I imagine these requests come in on a daily basis and good opportunities for collaboration are fewer and further between. But here’s how I look at offers to collaborate:

– What’s required of me?

If someone asks me to collaborate, I don’t just want to know what the project is, but what work is involved. If I’m contacting someone, for example, I typically will say “here’s the project, all I’d need you to do is show up and film for 2 hours, nothing more. If you want to do more, awesome, if not, I’ve got it covered.”

This gives them a very clear idea of what I’m asking of them. I don’t need them to promote the project to their X number of youtube subscribers, I don’t need them to do any post production, etc. Just show up and shoot.

– Who’s putting in the bulk of the work?

On the other hand, if you *do* need help with those sorts of things, and are trying to tap into their network and their resources, make sure that you are offering enough value to make it worth their while.

As mentioned, I want to know who is doing what. The last thing I want to do is get into a project and have the scope creep beyond what I had initially agreed upon. Those lines should be drawn early on to make it as easy as possible for both collaborators to say “Yes” and have a good experience.

– Keep any promises made

I am a huge fan of collaboration. One of the early videos I did for Devin Graham was some sound design on an action short that he had filmed for his YouTube channel. I offered to do it at a discounted price in order for him to feel a little more at ease spending money on sound design, which he hadn’t previously done, at least not to the extent of this video.

The trade was “I’ll discount it in exchange for a shoutout to our channel”. That one shoutout alone netted us over 1000 views and 100+ subscribers in just a few hours.

Other times, however, I’ve done work that promised a huge shoutout, placement above the fold in the YouTube description and more in order to film a video for free. At the time, the number of the artists subscribers was enough for me to basically donate about 4 hours of my time. However, once the video went up, I had to fight to get credit placed where we agreed it would be. It happened after the initial round of views, and we missed out on about 10,000 views that potentially could have seen a link to our youtube channel. I haven’t worked with this guy since, because I can’t trust that in a trade situation that I will receive what we agree upon.

– Give Value

Using value in another way, think about what you have to offer and what the other person is bringing to the table. In my ARTis_ series of videos, I’m bringing to the table a really great (hopefully) short documentary piece about the artist, their work, and their outlook on Art. What that gives them, again, hopefully, is some promotion, something they can share and help connect with their fans and audience. I have a technical skill that they don’t have to create something like this. That’s a big value offering.

Many technical people don’t look at collaborations because they don’t have a fan base or audience that matches the people that they dream of collaborating with. But the technical side of any collaboration is just as important as anything else. YouTube personalities generally don’t have tons of technical experience, so if you’re a talented DP, or Editor, or Motion Graphics artist, or Sound Editor, you’ve got a ton to offer someone looking to do something a little different video wise.

If you’re a songwriter looking to collaborate with another artist, what are your strengths and what are theirs? Maybe they don’t write great lyrics, or melodies, or chord progressions. You can offer your technical skill in this regard and end up with something greater than what either of you could offer on your own.

Then, even if both of you are equally matched on a technical stand point, you can find value in other areas. Both Lindsey Sterling and Pentatonix have large YouTube followings, and both create technically great music and videos. They could just keep doing it on their own and never collaborating, but both channels are known for collaborating with other artists, especially each other, in order to increase the reach of the video, tapping into two audiences and not just one.

If you’re a technical person, an editor, DP, artist, sound editor, musician, you should rarely do free or discounted work without some sort of trade involved. Your work is valuable and if the person “hiring” you can’t see that, they’re likely not a great person to collaborate with.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you do free work? When & Why? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Free Work And Collaborations As A Freelancer”

  1. Great read. I just watched an interview with Ramit on Chase Jarvis that blew me away and in it they discussed the value of free work. Ramit says that 90% of what he does is free, but that other 10% is priced at a premium. But teaches his students that if you do work for free there should be a value exchange either for referrals, testimonials, and creative freedom. I liked the examples you gave about shout outs and trading for a course. I’ve recently done that with Market Campus, I get to take the course in trade for my video services. Love what you’re doing and keep it up.

    • Yeah, those Chase Jarvis live interviews are a gold mine. Check out Tim Ferriss’ and Oren Klaff’s as well. And that’s a rad trade for market campus. How’s it going?


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