I see this all the time, young WordPress professionals who are trying to learn the ropes ask what can they do to build their business. Almost every response I read to this question contains the words free or pro bono. “Build a portfolio by doing free sites.” That is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
When I started out with my business, I went around my city looking for some nonprofits that I could possibly work with and do a free site to get my name out there. Like most young professionals, I thought this was the best way. After a week or so visiting websites and reaching out to potential pro bono clients, I found a perfect candidate. It was a small nonprofit that was in desperate need of a new website. What a better person to do the redesign than me? How could I lose? There were some very influential people on their board and if I did a great job I could pick up some real business!
After sitting down with the director of this nonprofit, we all agreed on what I was going to provide and that it was going to be a free service. I went home that evening and did a complete design. I was so sure that they would love it, I went ahead and coded the entire theme. I was up till 2 or 3 working on the initial design, then spent a couple more weeks tinkering and playing around to get those awesome features I knew they’d love. I then had my follow up meeting – the director loved it! I was so excited – this was it, I was about to launch my WordPress career and this was the starting point. The world was great.
About a week later, while I was making a few requested minor changes to design and adding some additional features, I get an email from the director. They informed me that one of their employees who was rather tech savvy put together a document of things they would like different. I open the document and was presented with a 27 page document of what they wanted the site to look like and a whole range of different features that were never discussed. I was floored. The design was nothing like what I had put together. I would have had to start from scratch to implement these changes, keeping in mind I had invested a lot of time into this project already.
At this point, I had to weigh my options. If I stand my ground on what I’ve done, they would surely understand and we could continue on. Or, I could implement this new design and waste a couple of weeks worth of work and put together something that wasn’t even my design. I chose the first option – I stood my ground. I explained as nicely as I could, that I had invested a lot of time in this project already, and that if I were to start over I would have to scrap everything I had already completed. I sent this via email. About a day later I received an email response stating that my services would no longer be needed. Yes, that’s right, I was fired from my first pro bono project.
I tried several more times after that and had some success with the projects but I never saw any business out of it. My portfolio grew by two sites but my time invested was well over 200 hours for the projects. That seems like a high number doesn’t it? Well it is. What I found with pro bono projects is that no one respects your time. Money is a funny thing; it sets an expectation for the client of the price they are paying. They can equate how much time you’re spending on the project and know if they ask for something extra, it will cost them more our of their own pockets. When you are doing work for free, your time is essentially worth nothing, They don’t care how many hours you put into reworking a design, because the cost is still the same for them.
You would have thought that I would had learned my lesson about free and discounted projects at this point but because I’m a big softy, every once in a while one will slip by me. And it never fails that when I do these projects that I am the one who ends up losing on the deal, even when it seems like a win-win. Without the money factor people will not value your time.
For professionals just starting out, never opt to do free projects. If you want to build your portfolio, create some fake business sites. Design some mock ups and use them as visual aids. Go find a business that you like and just for the sake of your portfolio, put a site together for them. You can build your portfolio nicely this way without having to be used as a doormat.
When you do find your first paying client, you will have a nice portfolio of sites that you designed but not necessarily published. It still details your work and that’s the point of the portfolio. If you feel so inclined, give your first client a bit of a break in price but don’t go overboard. Still, set the guidelines and terms in your contract. Be sure you have a contract!
There is one exception to this general rule however. When I gave a talk back in November at WordCamp Raleigh, we had a discussion after my presentation and one fellow (whose name I wish I could remember) made a great suggestion regarding pro bono work. He said that he would do pro bono work, but only for organizations that he felt a connection with or wanted to work with. He would write a contract and invoice for the project as he would up any other, but he would discount the invoice for the exact amount. This way, the client has a value to put to the project and there is a set contract that outlines the details of the project.
Once you have your portfolio and your business process down, the only thing you have to worry about now is finding clients to work with. And that, is a subject for another day.