Should freelancers work for free?

Designer Roy Barber and developer Mike Subelsky have found that working for free can be an excellent way for pros to get inspiration and a breadth of experience

The web community is great at sharing knowledge, but there's nothing like actual face to face collaboration for learning interesting new work processes and techniques. Designer Roy Barber has embarked on a project whereby he spends every Friday freelancing for free at a different agency, which, he says, gives him the chance to work with some of the smartest people in the industry. In return, the agency gets an extra pair of hands for the day and he writes up the experience and his learnings on his blog.

Barber told us that he got the idea for his project when he took on a work experience student: "I realised what a great benefit it was for him to work with me – he learnt about how to manage as a freelancer, which is something he wouldn't have got from a large company. He inspired me to do the same but in reverse: there are things that I can learn from larger agencies that I would never experience as a freelancer."

Some top agencies have extended invitations to Barber: "The response and support have been overwhelming. I'm booked up for the first 11 weeks so far and will be visiting Clearleft with Andy Budd, Headscape with Paul Boag, Stuff and Nonsense with Andy Clarke and Jigowatt, to name a few. Now I want to get in contact with some of the nice web and branding agencies in London, as well as some funded startups."

Build it and they will come

While Barber is looking to learn from others, developer Mike Subelsky believes that there's much to be learnt during the process of working on problems, even if you're alone: "Last December I visited Gabe Weinberg, a hacker and angel investor in Pennsylvania, who suggested I get started building interesting projects so I could learn from them. I've also been reading a lot of books such as Where Good Ideas Come From and Little Bets, which suggest that the best way to get good ideas is to start working on a hard problem."

Subelsky co-founded email streamliner and now wants to start a new business. In order to find some problems to work on he is offering to build software for someone, hoping that the process of doing so will give him some new ideas. "I thought offering to build something for free would attract the most amount of interesting ideas for simple projects I could start, which would provide further inspiration."

The response so far has been good: "I've received about twenty interesting ideas. I'm really excited about one idea in particular that comes from someone experiencing real aggravation, which a web and mobile app could totally solve."

You can monitor the progress of these projects at, and

What do you think? Is working for free a good way to boost your career? Share your thoughts in the comments.