“Will you do sample work?” It’s a straightforward enough question. So what’s the big deal?
This question is one of the most contentious in the whole of the freelance industry. Every freelancer will get asked this at least once in their career. And every time, it sends shivers down the spine of even the most self-respecting freelance professional.
So what is sample work? Sample work, work on spec, pro bono, contests – call it what you want, it’s all the same. Whichever way you look at it, it’s all work done for free. Freelancers are asked to produce some or all of the project for free, upfront without payment. There’s sometimes the promise of payment if it all goes well. But more often than not, this never materialises.
But, clients still continue to ask for sample work, even though this practice is loathed by freelancers everywhere. And it’s easy to see why. Especially if the client is new to working with freelancers. They’re nervous about working with a new freelancer. They don’t understand the process. They’re worried they won’t get what they want. Working with a new freelancer can be daunting. So, it seems logical to ask for work upfront before they pay for it. After all, you can test drive a new car before you buy it, right? So, what’s the harm?
The harm is that the car can easily be sold to another customer if you don’t like it. The work the freelancer created is specific to you, and can’t ever be used again. It’s now useless, and you just cost them their time and money.
Every good freelancer everywhere already has work that you can test drive. It’s called a portfolio. A freelancer’s portfolio is full of work they’ve already completed for other clients. You should decide whether you want to hire them based on the work in their portfolio. Their portfolio will give you a good idea of what they’re capable of and the kind of work they can produce.
Think about it, doing sample work for clients is a huge risk for freelancers. What happens if the client
2doesn’t like it and won’t pay? The freelancer has wasted hours/days/weeks of their time. They’ve lost money. They’ve created a piece of work that can’t be used by anyone else because it’s specific to the client.
Not only that, there’s no guarantee they’re going to get paid, even if the client does like the work. What’s to stop the client from just taking the work and using it anyway without paying up? This happens more often than you think and makes freelancers fearful of clients that ask for this.
So why is sample work bad for the client?
So, by now you’re probably getting the idea that freelancers don’t like to be asked to do sample work. But not only is it bad for the freelancer, it’s also bad for you, the client. ‘Getting work for free, with no strings attached – what could be bad about that?’ you may well ask. A lot, it turns out.
Ever heard the phrase, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is? That definitely applies to any sample work you receive from a freelancer. You want an awesome, bespoke, handmade project and this professional freelancer is just going to do it for free before you even pay them a penny? Really? Were you born yesterday?
This brings to mind another overused phrase to bear in mind – you get what you pay for. There are plenty of freelancers out there who will do sample work. But it’s not going to be good. Why would a professional who has bills to pay and mouths to feed spend precious time honing away at a project they might not even get paid for? Answer: They won’t.
More often than not your sample work won’t be a true reflection of what your freelancer is capable of. There’s such a high risk involved in undertaking it, so they’ll want to spend minimal time on it. This means you’ll get rushed, sloppy work. You’ll take one look at it and say ‘no thanks’, which is a waste of time for both you and the freelancer.
Even worse, there’s a high chance any sample work you receive for free is plagiarised. Freelancers who do lots of sample work churn out stuff that’s copied, unoriginal and unprofessional. It could be a sample that they send to hundreds of clients. So don’t be surprised when you see your ‘original’ company logo cropping up all over the place. Or, they could have just outright ripped off the work from someone else. Which could put you in a dangerous position and liable for copyright infringement.
It’s true that in the past asking for sample work used to be commonplace for freelancers. But too many clients made off without payment, so this practice broke down. These days, if you ask for sample work, the freelancer will assume you’re after something for free. They’ll turn you down because they assume you don’t value their skills. You could damage a lot of potential relationships with talented freelancers this way.
It’s natural to feel nervous about working with a new freelancer. But there are ways to overcome this without asking for sample work. View their portfolio. Discuss your requirements with your freelancer. If you can’t meet up face to face, have a Skype chat. If you’re still concerned, use milestone payments. This means you ask them to complete a small part of your project. If you don’t like what they’ve done so far, pay them for their time and move on.
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