Spec work - doing work for free for clients so they can ‘test drive’ before they buy is frowned upon. As Zeldman so eloquently put it:
Spec = asking the world to have sex with you and promising dinner date to one lucky winner.
And it’s true. If you consider yourself a professional, you should never give away your services for free. However - who says the only payment is money.
I practice what I like to call reverse spec work. Where I do a small project for a client for free, but only when I initiate it.
This is how it works. I find a company who I have had some experience with. I like their product and I would love to have a business relationship with them. I shoot them an email along the lines of - ‘hey, I love your product - I do web development for your industry - can I help you out with a small project that will help your business in some way’.
I usually give some simple examples too. But I always suggest something that is doable in about 8 hours and whenever possible - will look good in my portfolio.
This gives me the chance to develop a relationship with the client - I get to find out about their business and what makes them tick. I make sure I do a killer job on a small side project for them and when they need something more, guess who they come to.
The worst outcome is that they take the freebie and it never goes further - you have something additional to put in your portfolio (you did suggest something interesting and execute it well right).
Often times though this ‘spec work’ leads to future projects because your new client can see the value that you are able to bring to their company and trusts you because they have worked with you and know that you can deliver the goods.
So, if you’re looking to get yourself established, or want to try a new technique on real project - go ahead and reach out to someone you feel could benefit from your services and do them something great - for free!