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Table Of Contents  The Online Freelancing Guide
 >  Finding and Evaluating Online Freelancing Projects
      >  Specific Online Freelancing Project Warning Signs

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Low Budget Projects with Promises of Future Work
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Requests or Demands for Free Work Samples
(Page 1 of 2)

You will frequently encounter clients who request, or even demand, free work samples in their project listings. They will usually say right in the description either that they will give preference to proposals that contain work samples, or that they won’t consider any bids without them at all.

Work samples are a very controversial topic: you won’t find anyone without an opinion on the subject, and they span a surprisingly wide gamut. There are legitimate clients who feel that they are perfectly within their rights to ask for samples, and freelancers who believe it should similarly be their option to offer them, even if the client doesn’t ask. And there are clients and contractors who think that free samples are unethical and should never be requested or offered under any circumstances. And of course, lots of folks between these extremes. Added to the mix is a variety of different policies on freelancing sites: some allow or even encourage free samples, some are neutral on the matter, while on others it’s a violation of the terms of service to ask for or provide them.

The reason for this situation is an inherent conflict between the legitimate value that samples serve, and the ease with which they can be abused.

The Promise and Problem of Free Samples

Honest clients like samples for the same reason that many of us do when we are shopping: they let you see what you are getting before making a commitment. And honest freelancers offer samples to clients for the same reason that stores provide them to shoppers: to reassure them of the quality of a product, and entice purchases.

Many clients are new to online freelancing and really worry about the quality of what they’ll be getting. They believe that samples will help them reduce the risk they are taking by hiring someone they “just met on the Internet”. And this makes sense: a sample shows both that the freelancer understands what you want, and that he or she is capable of delivering.

The problem comes in when you consider the difference between a physical product and an intangible one. If I go into a grocery store and taste a free sample of a new type of cookie, I can either choose to buy a box of the cookies or not. If I don’t make a purchase, the store is only out the cookie I ate. The value of that cookie quickly fades, and the fact that I ate that one cookie is not likely to have much of an impact on my cookie-buying frequency in the future.

That’s very much not what happens with most freelancing projects. Most of these have deliverables that are not physical products, and in many cases, the free sample can be used by the client even if he or she doesn’t hire the person who provided it. This opens up the possibility of abuse by clients who ask for free samples with no intention of ever hiring anyone.

The problem is especially serious when it comes to deliverables that are really ideas or concepts, not specific work products. One could argue that a writer submitting one page of a prospective 300-page novel isn’t really giving the client much of an opportunity for abuse. But how would you give a sample of a novel’s overall outline without running the risk of it just being taken? Similarly, consider a designer being hired to create a logo, or a marketing professional asked to craft a slogan. There is really no way to provide a “sample” of this sort of work without essentially giving it away. The client may not be able to legally use the sample, but are you prepared for a lawsuit if it happens? And even if the work isn’t stolen outright, the client can easily take the idea and adapt it without paying the freelancer anything.

How do you differentiate between clients who are just looking for reassurance and those who are trying to get work for free? Well, you really can’t, and that’s the problem. Sure, you can judge to some extent by other indications the client provides you of his or her trustwor­thiness, but these are far from foolproof. Also think about a situation like this: a client asks for samples, you provide one, and the client hires someone else. You discover later that the person who was hired implemented an idea very similar to the one you provided the client. Does that mean the client ripped you off, or could it just be that the other freelancer submitted a similar sample? Again, you really don’t know.


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