How to double your freelance rates by working for free

I’m going to talk about value, the value you provide vs the value clients provide to you.  Most great freelancers start out working for free and with good reason.

The smart freelancer established long ago that by detaching herself from the hourly rate paradigm she could charge as little, or as much as she wanted and use view “cost” as a measure of value to either the client or to her portfolio.

Value works both ways

At the lofty heights of the spectrum, freelancers are coveted for the value they provide to their clients.  Real decisions are made to invest in content, design or development in return for real, demonstrable payback by way of financial gain or reputation improvements.

The funny thing is though at the lower end, when you’re starting out the reverse can be true.

When I went to market with Brandshank (one of the freelance ventures I grew to be self-sustaining businesses) I had a problem, nobody knew who I was.  6 months later I had a client roster featuring number 1 artists and globally renowned record labels.

Sure, I was a pretty good designer but still I didn’t have the portfolio to back up any claims to my audiance.  So I went through the exact steps below to double my rates within 2 months and 17 days.   The process went something like this.

Understand specificity

Something I only picked up on my second time around freelancing, one of my key failures from before.  Your marketing, your message, your product is much easier to define when you are really specific about who your audience is.

So in this instance I was targeting web design for the music industry.  A quite specific sector at that, unsigned bands and established dance music artists.

I have lots more to say on specificity and will put this together in a more definitive post on the subject soon, but for now you should look to get super-specific about who your customer actually is.

Get inside their head, what are their:

  • Desires
  • Beliefs
  • Fears

What makes them tick?  How old are they?  What did they have for dinner last night?  Okay so maybe the last one went too far but you get the idea.

Define your hitlist

So this is the fun bit, you should be able to look into the market you’ve just outlined for prospective A list clients who meet these criteria:

  • Have credibility in your market
  • Are in need of your service (poor content, poor design, patchy website functionality)
    • This is actually easier than you might think, especially in design, some big names have pretty poor web presences.
  • Have a good social reach
  • Are approachable
    • This is key, you don’t want to be trying to write for Jennifer Lopez just yet, make sure you’re never more than 1 person away from your prospect.   For example going through a single manager or PA is normally okay, the message gets there.  Direct is better, PR agencies that represent the [person] are a no-go.

Develop your list, obviously each would have nuances of DBF (desires, beliefs, fears) dependent on how far up the food chain they are, so note down what their big wins might be.

You’re trying to build your ideal roster of clients here, your dream team that will set you on the path for dominating your specific market.  In the case of writing you’re trying to build your list of “as featured in” so cater this to that end-goal.

Pick 5 from your hitlist, then move to the next step.

Takeaway:  Sky is the limit (so long as the criteria are met), provided you are good at what you do your lack of reputation should not be a barrier.

Pro tip:  Look for shortcuts, keep an ear out on social media channels for pain points your dream roster are feeling, they’ll make it known that “damn this [thing] sucks, takes me forever to do [something]”.  This is your golden ticket to the front of the line, look out for it.  This technique landed me an $8,000 UI design gig without my having a prior UI portfolio!

Go to work

Okay so now you’ve got carte blanche.  Sure, you’ve not been given a brief but if you know this market well enough you’ll understand what makes them tick and be able to pre-emptively build a solution which fits that need.

So if you’re a designer make them a kick-ass design that’ll help them convert better and get more leads/fans

If you’re a writer develop them a piece of epic content that’d help them cement their reputation in this space

If you’re a developer create a simple WordPress plugin that allows them to see what their sweet spot in is, in terms of optimum words on in a blog for optimum engagement based on their site data.

Forget for a second that you’re working for free here but don’t let your other client obligations slip, consider this a promotional activity.  Speed of execution is not the deciding factor here, a solid, well thought out approach is.  Quality matters, so keep your current clients happy while going down this route.

The backwards sales pitch

Here is where it gets interesting, you want to present what you’ve completed in such a way that it appears a no-brainer for your prospect to use in some way.

Any salesmen reading, look away…. now.

“You’re providing the solution first, working backwards from there to agree a fee of zero”

Wow, all that work for nothing?   Well not quite, more on that later.

You should approach your prospect in a mature, sensitive way that matches their personal preferences.  This normally manifests itself as email but more recently Facebook or Dribbble for designers has worked well.  Here’s a backwards sales pitch you can swipe right now (via email)

Subject:   An idea/feedback for [prospect-name] [your-skill] enhancement/improvement

An idea for Ownerd web design
Feedback on Ownerd content and improvements
Ideas for Ownerd site functionality enhancements

Dissected:  There is no mention of an offer here, you’re providing ideas/feedback for enhancement which tends to get both thumbs up as an indirect sales approach (especially when there is no “sale” to be made after this.)

The subject is the most important element here, but within the body content you should address:

  • A particular pain point this prospect might have (Tip:  Think beating out competitors)
  • That this is in no way a pitch, only a contribution from a fan with ideas
  • That a reply is optional, you’d be just pleased they consumed it
    • This is killer, arguing against the primary purpose of your contact is a surefire way to ensure you do get a response.
  • Cover that for now this is between you and them, but that you would like to add it to your portfolio / social channels if they chose not to take the idea on.
  • Here’s a quick example:

    Hey Liam,

    Love what you’re doing on Ownerd, just wanted to touch base and give you some feedback on a point you raised in a recent post by you on the speed of your list growth.

    I have tons of experience in designing for conversion [content writing for conversion, plugin development etc] and just put some thought into a quick design change [big content idea, dev improvement idea] which I thought I’d share.

    This approach has no ulterior motive just wanted to return the favour of you providing your expertise to me, by at least giving you something that I’ve learned from my 5 years’ experience in design.

    I also note that you’re in a bit of a head-to-head battle with and this is something they’re just not doing either.

    Anyway, appreciate your time in getting this far, I’ve compiled the ideas here:


    If I don’t hear back from you that’s cool, appreciate you’re busy.  For now I’ve kept this work between me and you and you have my permission to use it, with no cost.   But just let me know that you’ve done that so I can jump for joy on my social channels.

    Alternatively I can chat through with you how this might pan out if you wanted me to develop on this idea a little further.

    My Skype is XYZ or hit reply.

    Speak Soon!



    Get feedback

    Of the 5 you approach on the hitlist you’ll probably get a response of some description from at least 3, probably 4.    From there you’ll likely receive a couple of “thanks this is awesome but no thanks” then you’ll get that one, who is prepared to take on your idea.

    Disclaimer:  This is not a method to cold-approach prospects without actually having the goods to show them,  your idea needs to be rock solid and you need to be able to show them what you have produced.

    So here is how to develop the responses:

    Thanks but no thanks

    With this group, you should proceed to request their permission to circulate the work on social and portfolio channels.   You’ll almost certainly get a positive response to this.

    You can leverage this big name within your portfolio (clearly mark it as ideas not paid work) to justify your work down the line.

    I’ll take it

    From here you should either propose a no-brainer fee for your work or offer your time for free in return for some reciprocation, whether that is introductions, free advice or collaboration.

    I personally prefer something in the middle.  Get them into the habit of paying something but make it of little significance to them.

    You can shout about this on your portfolio then as proof of your work, which serves the final piece of the jigsaw in the next section.

    The final piece

    So here’s the final piece, you should now have 3 examples of dream team work to compliment the rest of your portfolio.

    This is where it comes together.  Now that you’re inside your prospects heads you should be leveraging strategic advertising to get seen by these people.

    Put your premium work up front and center in your portfolio, then check out platforms like BuySellAds to find relevant industry sites where the larger majority of your audience would hang out.

    Note, going forward you’ll be looking to serve B list prospects, using the A list references as a body of proof.   The clicks you’ll get from these will be highly targeted, and will be wowed by the quality of your work and the calibre of your clients.

    Not only this you can begin to proactively touch base with the remainder of your hitlist with the strong portfolio you’ve built up.

    You’ve made very little up to this point by way of fees, but this whole process can be done in a month.

    At the end of which you’ll start to receive new clicks and visitors who understand your core, specific message, who trust what you are saying (due to your A list association) and who want to actually buy from you.

    Now the only thing left to do is double your rates.

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    • jack

      Good post. You can tell it’s from a background of experience. As a freelancer myself I can agree with the majority of your points here.

      • Liam Veitch

        Thanks Jack, hope you can put the points into use!

    • Luchia Bloomfield

      Hey Liam, this is a great post – definitely going to go ahead and find clients that can really use my skills and approach them. Thanks, will be sharing this on twitter!