It’s a tough life when you first start out running your online business. As a new Virtual Assistant it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of “noise” across the internet. You are in a situation where people don’t know you, you have little connections and little experience (in the online world). So, it seems like a natural idea to offer to work for free. However, many times this doesn’t exactly go to plan. So let’s look at what working for free can do for you, shall we?

How to Approach Working for Free Pin

Working for free has gotten an increasingly bad reputation, however, I still believe it’s an ideal way for you to make some connections, help people and get your name out there. There is only one tiny problem – it usually doesn’t happen the way you think it should.

Here is what the reality often looks like. You offer to work for someone for free, the person seems very excited and eternally grateful and then they never speak to you again – ever. And you’re disappointed as you offered your services for a free trial and the person obviously just wanted to abuse your offer. Or maybe your offer to work for free goes completely ignored. You put it out there and you hear crickets. This leaves you wondering if you should even continue to try to make this work if people don’t even want you for free.

Ok, hold the “I’m not good enough” thoughts now. There is a good chance you have just been approaching the idea of working for free, from the wrong viewpoint.

The Debate on whether you should or shouldn’t work for free in the first place

Let’s get this out the way to start with, as it’s always a hot topic and may surely bring some negativity my way. I personally believe that working for free is perfectly fine, if it brings the results you want to see. It’s a means to an end, right? [You may at this point totally disagree with me and say you should NEVER be cheap and give yourself up for free and that’s ok too. We just agree to disagree.] 

However, I do firmly believe that working for free has to be done under very specific and controlled circumstances and you should not let people use and abuse you and your talent and services forever, so let’s look at what often goes wrong when people offer their services up for free.

How Not to approach working for free

Many times we approach the idea of working for free (or a reduced rate) from the wrong mindset. We believe that we are not good enough to be charging the full price, or we believe that because we don’t have any experience, we’re not worthy of paid work. This mindset then slowly creeps into our conversations with people, resulting in less favourable outcomes for you. Then you are slowly moving towards a place of frustration and desperation which in turn again makes it into the language that you use when you communicate – This is not a good place to be in, to start offering to work for free. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

I also noticed that we often approach the actual task of finding the people to help in exchange for a testimonial (see what I did here?) in a way that is not going to bring the results we’re hoping for. There is no point to head to a random place online and shout at the top of your voice: “I WILL WORK FOR FREE, I WILL DO ANYTHING TO GET CLIENTS”. If you combine generic messages like this with your current tone of voice (straight from your current mindset) the message often reads similar to this: With your desperation tone of voice on, this now reads: I am so desperate and cannot get clients that I will just work for free; With your I’m-not-good-enough voice on, this now reads: I have no clue what I’m doing so I’m offering myself for free in the hope that you will teach me how to do my job. 

As an entrepreneur, do you think either of these subliminal messages actually appeal to you? Would you like to take someone on that has no clue what they’re doing and sound like you will need to spend hours training them? Or may be they will break something you’ve worked hard to put together? It’s too much of a risk for an entrepreneur to take – even if your work is free.

So, when you’re putting a post like that out there, one of two things usually happens:

  1. You get offers from the wrong kinda person, they are not your ideal client, cannot afford to hire you and will just use your free offer and then be on their way to hit up the next person for free labour.
  2. You hear crickets as a response.

If this has been happening to you, then I would recommend that you assess the mindset from which you approached the idea of working for free and THEN you look back on HOW you approached the task of finding the right person to work with. What was your communication like, how would that have sounded to another person that doesn’t know you and your business?

Now I hear your questions already. You think you know where you went wrong, now it’s time to talk about how to make it right.

How to approach working for free

When you are looking to work for free you should employ the same standards you will use when you are taking on paying clients. There should be no difference to your processes and procedures as well as your standards. Their should also be no difference to the client in how they’re treated and the kind of service they can expect.

I hope by this point you have done some work around your services and your ideal client. They will not be perfect yet and they will evolve over time, but they will start to emerge at this point. So before you even begin to think about offering your work to someone else, you need to be clear on the following: your strengths and weaknesses (we all have them and it’s normal, you need to know what they are), your knowledge and areas of interest, who is your ideal client that NEEDS those services AND has money to pay you as well, where do you find them online.

When you are looking for someone to work with in exchange for a testimonial you want to make sure that these people are your ideal clients. So if you’re looking to work with creative entrepreneurs, then you should not be doing work for free for an attorney. The work will be different, their attitude will be different and the testimonial will be useless. It’s simply a waste of your time.

So the more specific you can be about your ideal client, the better.

Now where do you find those people online? Ideally this is something you have already worked on and you are aware of the social networks your ideal client uses, which Facebook groups they’re in and when and how they usually interact.

It’s time to connect your knowledge of your ideal client and their social media habits with your daily actions. Take time out every day, to interact with your ideal clients in those places online. I don’t mean selling them stuff or telling them about what you do. It’s about commenting on their posts, answering their questions, being interested in their work and building a genuine relationship.

This will help you to identify possible people to work with and make personal connections. Now, how is this going to lead to free work and paid work down the line?

Those people you have been connecting with, will remember you. They will remember your name, your profile pic, and learn things about you – including that you are a nice person and you care. Now it’s time to use that to your advantage and make your offer to put yourself out there.

Option 1: Approach the person directly

The first thing you can do is simply approach the people you have been admiring and interacting with directly, with a really simple message along the lines of this:

Hello NAME,

I’ve been following you online for a little while and really like your SOME RECENT WORK YOU LIKED. I have recently started out as a VA and I specialise in WHATEVER YOU SPECIALISE IN. I was wondering if you could do with any help in this area of your business. 

I would love to offer my help to you in exchange for a testimonial on my website (of course, only if you’re happy). If you have a small project in mind, I’d be thrilled to hear from you so we could discuss what’s involved in more detail. If you don’t then I’d love to just keep in touch.

See? When you’re sending a message like this to a person you have previously connected with, how do you think your chances of that person saying YES will be affected? Compare this to the I WILL DO ANYTHING FOR FREE scenario? And do you see what I did in that message? I didn’t mention the word FREE once. There is no need to. I also didn’t set any specific boundaries either. I want that person to just say yes to talking to me. Once we’re on a call, I’d love to hear about their project and deepen our personal connection. If the project is too large for you to do for free, then you can say so on the call and explain that you could get x, y and z done which would already hugely help the client and if they like your work and like you to finish it, then they could ask you to and your rates would be this much.

Option 2: Post in your close-knit Mastermind

If you are in a small Mastermind Group with fellow entrepreneurs and you have made close relationships with quite a few of them and they are your ideal clients, then you could post a message in your forum or Facebook Group along these lines:

Hi, as you are aware I’ve recently started out as a VA, which is exciting. I’m looking to help 2-3 entrepreneurs that MEET XX criteria with a small project around XXXX interest area. If you think you have an exciting idea on something I could support you with, feel free to DM me so we can arrange a chat.

Both of these options leave you 100% in control. If someone gets in touch that’s NOT your ideal client, you thank them, tell them you’re honoured they’d consider working with you, but you don’t feel they’re a good fit.

You are now approaching the idea of working for free from a completely different angle. You are showing your ideal clients that you are clear on your business, your offering and who you work with. You are showing them that you know your strengths by being specific about the type of work you’re happy to do AND you’re showing them that you are a genuine person that acts from a place of wanting to GIVE rather than a place of desperation and need.

With this, working for free becomes a stepping stone to paid work and it’s a true win-win for you and your new client. Don’t forget to ask for their testimonial (incl. picture and website link) and don’t forget to ask them to come back again or refer any other people to you if they’re happy with your work.

Right, that’s it from me on the idea of completing work for free. I’d love to know what you thought about this, so comment on the post to share your experiences (even if you don’t agree with working for free) or share your thoughts in my free Facebook Group for Virtual Assistants (link below)

Additional Resources

If you are unsure about your ideal client, then I’d go back to basics and think about your vision for your life and business to start with. I have written a post specifically about this topic which you can read here.

If you’re a brand new VA, then take a look at my course to help you establish a solid foundation for your business: The VA Accelerator.

If you’re interested in creating your next 90-day plan, then you can book yourself onto my free Goal-setting Workshop here. I’d love to see you.

Are you nowhere near fully booked, but you just don't have any time?

No, that doesn't mean that you need to hire an assistant right away, what it probably means is that your tools and systems need a little TLC. If you're currently keeping all of your business tasks in your head, don't have any documented processes and can't automate because your tools just won't work together, then we should talk.

Together we can save you hours of precious time every week by streamlining and documenting your processes, reviewing your business tools to make sure they work FOR you and then implementing all of those changes.

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