Working for Free

Is it ever okay to work for free?

Truth is I really want to say, “NO, it isn’t okay,” and leave it at that…but it hardly tells the whole story, does it? In this article, I’m talking about the times when either you do not charge at all for your labour (and we all know how I feel about that) or the times you do something for no money and it might even COST you in time or money to do it. You really should have a proper Family and Friends Discount Policy, but even if you do, you will probably still get asked to do things for free.

A few examples might be – making a wedding cake for your brother in lieu of a present, giving a presentation to a group of people in your target market, creating a tutorial in a magazine, providing a cake for a photo shoot, doing some demonstrations at an event, making products for a charity event, giving a testimonial for a product, participating in a webinar, promoting someone else’s product….etc. You get the idea. We get asked to do stuff for free in this industry all the time (often by other cake people), and then we complain when our customers want us to work for free, too. What the what?! How does that work exactly?

As I see it, there are only ever TWO instances where you should be willing to work for free:

1. LOVE. When I say ‘love,’ I mean that you love it or them enough not to feel resentful that you spent your precious time or money on this project. If you find yourself MORE than happy to do this free thing, because it’s for someone you love dearly or for a cause/project/product you really love and want to support  – then go ahead and do it.  I would still put some rules around it, though – because you want to agree to something for love but then you don’t want to be taken advantage of and then be running around in Resentment Land. I’m not saying you LIKE this product or this person a lot, I’m saying that you really and truly love love love love LOVE it or them. Enough that you don’t really think of it as doing it for free in the first place, because you probably would have done it ANYWAY.

I’ll give you an example. My first formal cake decorating class was a Wilton Level One butter cream class. I met a woman in that class named Grace, and she and I got along really well. I jokingly said to her that if she ever got married, I’d make her a kick-ass wedding cake (which was rich considering I only just learned how to pipe with a star tip, and she was already working as a pastry chef.) About a year later, totally randomly, I ended up working for Grace at a patisserie and she taught me a hell of a lot about the pastry arts. She became my friend and mentored me and even though I left that job, we remained in touch. Fast forward 10 years, and Grace was getting married – and by then, I had a successful, busy cake shop and I literally hadn’t made a free cake in maybe 5-6 years.

She got her free cake. All 5 tiers of it, delivered to the ends of the earth, with a whole bunch of different flavours and work which was WELL outside of my comfort zone. I did it for the love, entirely for the love – and I have zero regrets or resentment about it.

So. If you’re doing it for free, you had best be loving the hell out of that person, OR if it’s a product or service or event you’re helping out with … love the heck out of those too. Ask yourself two questions, “Am I going to get irritated about this if it starts to suck up too much of my time or money? Is there something I would rather be doing, or which will serve me better?” If the answer is NO and NO, then go right ahead and do it. Guilt free.

The second reason you should do something for free: you are 100% satisfied with the ROI.  ROI stands for “return on investment” and basically that means you are getting OUT of it the same if not MORE than you put IN to it. Unless there is something in it for you which you are totally SATISFIED will meet or exceed your OWN INVESTMENT in it, just don’t do it.

If you’re being asked to demo at an event at your expense but it’s not really going to do much for you in the way of either sales or profile raising – don’t do it. If you’re being asked to create a cake for a magazine, but their readership is not your ideal clientele – don’t do it. If you’ve been asked to write a tutorial for a magazine, but you would really rather not share that skill because you can teach it elsewhere for money – don’t do it.  Magazines, online schools, cake events, should have a budget for talent (because they make money from advertising and ticket sales) so why then do you need to work for them for free? I’m sorry, but if a magazine can’t afford to pay you, but they take money from advertisers …something is wrong with that business model. They would not HAVE a magazine to sell ads in unless it had good quality content, and that content is what you are creating for free for them. So let me get this straight, you create brilliant content so they can sell ad space, and then they keep all the money and you see none? Someone explain to me how that’s fair? Why on earth would you spend time and money to improve someone else’s business when you could be spending time or money on improving your own business?

I hear a lot of cake makers tell me that they do things for free just because if they don’t, someone else will.  I can’t even wrap my head around that one. So someone else is going to pimp themselves out for free, and you should do it just to keep them from doing it. Ummmm….okay. Right. Wait. WHAT?

If nobody else will say it, I will: All of us out there agreeing to do stuff for free (with no decent return) are hurting the industry as a whole. We want to be taken seriously as artists, we want to be paid appropriately for our time and skill, and yet over and over and over we’re working for free. It makes no sense to me. WE are the ones killing ourselves here, not the magazines or the events who ask us to do it. WE are the ones saying “Yes, I’ll do that for free,” when we should be saying, “I’d love to do that for you, here’s what I charge for it or what I’d like in return.” It makes me crazy that we all get so frustrated with clients not paying what we’re worth and yet within the industry, among our peers, we either don’t ask for our worth or we do it for free because we are afraid someone else will come along who will. How is this different to undercharging, exactly? The reasons for doing it seem to be the same.

We created this culture. It’s time to change it.

Before you all jump up and down at me, let me explain what a “decent return” is. When it comes to money, only you can decide what you’re needing to make in order to make that activity worth it. You need to work out what you would charge for these kinds of activities and that’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors. Of course, there are instances where the return to you is not in dollars at all. Perhaps you’re really wanting to grow a global audience and the opportunity you’ve been given is to do a video tutorial (for free) which is going to be seen by millions of people, and the video will link back to your business and social media pages (worth it).  Perhaps you have a product of some kind (a book, pdf tutorials, a physical product like a tool of some kind) and you’ve been asked to demonstrate it at a cake event (for free), where you can then sell a whole lot of product (worth it).  Perhaps you’ve got a big event coming up and you’ve been asked to teach a workshop (for free), and the audience are all in the target market of people who are likely to attend your event (worth it).

Basically, you’ve got to be really satisfied that the ROI is WORTH the time and money it’s going to cost you to do this thing. We all know that nothing is actually free. There is always a cost to you somewhere along the line.  There sure as hell needs to be a BENEFIT to you along the line, and that benefit has got to be the same if not more than what it’s costing you.

Here’s another example: suppose you’ve been asked to teach a class (for free) on a Saturday morning at a cake event, which is normally when you would be doing deliveries for your paying clients and doing wedding cake consultations. Honestly? Unless the people attending that class are a) new students for you to whom you can sell other classes, b) an entirely new market segment of people you’re wanting to get in front of, or c) it fits some sort of ‘dream’ element (“I’ve always wanted to…”) then it’s plain and simple not worth you doing it. Why? Because the entire thing is going to come at a cost. Someone else is going to have to do the deliveries (for money), and even if that’s your husband (who works for free for you), that’s still costing you in family time. Saturdays are also a big day for wedding appointments. Can you afford to take that Saturday off to work for free for someone else, when instead you might be booking in some new orders for yourself AND paying for the deliveries to get done? If so, go ahead. If not, say no or tell them what you charge for Saturday teaching.

I’ve also heard the, “but I’ll get lots of exposure!” reason for doing work for free as well. This one is a lot harder to quantify but a lot easier to work out if you’re willing to do it. Go back and think about the other people who did this thing last time. Six months later, can they really say if it built their brand up or not? Did that event, article or video really catapult them into the stratosphere of fame? Here’s an idea – contact them and nicely ask.  “I’m thinking about doing this event and I know you did it last time, did you find it was worth it? Did you really get as much exposure as they’ve promised me?” (Marketing tip: I also do this for advertising. I contact OTHER advertisers who are already doing it and ask them if they think it’s worth it.)

Anyone who has ever done a celebrity cake for free knows this feeling ALL too well – that the exposure that comes out of it after the fact is entirely reliant on YOU telling everyone that you made that cake. The article in People magazine isn’t about your cake, it’s about that celebrity wedding…so while your cake might appear in the pictures, chances are there is no mention of your business name or a link to it. The same principle is true of almost every ‘you’ll get sooo much exposure!’ opportunity you’re presented with. The exposure you get out of it and how long it lasts is about how much work you do to ensure you get it. What I’m saying is, the promise of ‘exposure’ almost never delivers – and you can often generate your OWN exposure in a whole lot of ways that won’t take up quite as much time, money or effort.

I’m going to be straight up and tell you that I’ve never heard of the value of promised ‘exposure’ actually paying off for anyone. I’ve heard of lots of people doing things for exposure, but nearly nobody is actually satisfied with the exposure they got versus what they were promised. “Exposure” is marketing speak for, “Let me bully you into believing that you should be GRATEFUL that I’m asking you to work for free, because someone else will do it if you won’t.” They’re playing on your FOMO (fear of missing out.)

I can hear you asking, “But what about for fun, Michelle? Can’t I just do something because it’s fun?” Yes, of course, you could choose to work for free for fun, but I’m pretty sure in that case it’s not actually work. My idea of fun doesn’t help someone else make money, nor does it keep me from making money in my own business, and usually fun is something I do other than cake. So if I’m going to do something cake-related which is “just for fun”, I’ll look for opportunities to make that fun work for me. I want to try out a new technique for fun? I might turn it into a business blog post, or make a dummy cake I can then use on my website. I want to create a tutorial for fun? I’ll take plenty of pics so I’ve got stuff to put on Instagram.  I want to do demos because I love talking in front of an audience? I’ll invite my best customers to come along and watch a class for free, as a way of thanking them for their support. There are lots and lots of ways you can have fun doing these kinds of things and yet still have a business mindset so you’re not losing out.  I never said don’t have fun with what you do I’m telling you that if you’re wanting to build a sustainable business, you’ve got to be thinking of your time as worth something. Here’s the harsh bit: this isn’t a blog about just having fun. It’s a blog about having fun AND making a decent living. It’s the people having fun but not thinking about making a living who are burning out really fast and who are living in Resentment Land. I don’t want to be one of those people and I’m pretty sure you don’t, either.

We need to change the culture of this industry. We cannot keep asking our clients to value us if we are not willing to value each other. 

So… do I think it’s ever okay to work for free? Only if it’s for a hell of a lot of love, or a hell of a lot of return. How much love and how much or what the return is made of is entirely up to you, but it’s got to be one or the other. No such thing as a free lunch OR a free cake.

(Or a free demo.)

9 comments on “Working for Free

  1. I’m just learning to decorate cookies with Royal icing. I took an online class through Craftsy, taught by Anne Yorks, and I fell in love with this new “hobby”. I am not new to baking cookies. For over 20 years, during the holidays, I bake for friends and family for a month straight and give my cookies away. My son recently got married and I baked roughly 1200 cookies for his dessert reception – for free. Since I’m new to decorating cookies and am baking in my own kitchen, is it even right to charge for cookies at this point? Does your book discuss when a hobby turns into a business? Thank you!

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      You’re “in business” as soon as you accept payment of any kind for your cookies. Plenty of businesses are run from home kitchens – but I strongly suggest you check out the cottage food laws for your area to see what paperwork (if any) is required to be licenced. 🙂 The book talks about turning a hobby into a business and has a chapter on home based business.


  2. Love this article! Excellent advice! I have two comments:
    1. I took a class from a local evening wear designer who said he was so sick of women asking for free gowns and telling him that they would give him “exposure.” His response was, “Honey, people DIE of exposure.” He did NOT work for free.
    2. When I used to do custom dressmaking, my friends were always asking me to sew them things for free. It was so annoying. I settled on this response: “Sure, I can sew that for you. How about this: I’ll keep track of how many hours it takes me, and you can spend the same number of hours cooking/cleaning my house for me. Deal?” Not ever one single taker. Ever.

  3. Having only just recently discovered this website, I find every article informative and thought provoking. My is ‘no’ such a hard word for many of us to say.


    There, I’ve said it. 🙂 I feel much better.

    1. Welcome to BoB Lynn! I’m so glad you’re finding things here of use and relevance to you. You’re so right, saying ‘No’ – especially for women – is really hard to do! I’m still working on it a bit myself. 🙂 – Michelle

  4. Good point, well said. I really wish I’d read this before I agreed to make a 60th birthday cake for my husband’s uncle, as a ‘present’ which will mean working on Boxing Day and the day after! Why do we do it to ourselves!!!!

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