Entrepreneurs

The hair stylist shocked by Trump family request shows why you should (almost) never work for free

A model gets hair and makeup at Monique Lhuillier.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
A model gets hair and makeup at Monique Lhuillier.

A hair stylist just had to tell members of the Trump family that no, they would not be getting free services for Inauguration Day.

Tricia Kelly says Trump's ex-wife Marla Maples and daughter Tiffany approached her to help them get made up for PEOTUS' January 20th inauguration pro bono, in exchange for "the exposure." The Washington Post reports that a "stunned" Kelly turned them down, telling Maples and Trump she "works for a fee. Not for free."

While many professionals do volunteer to dress or style celebrities for glamorous events, others find even the request that they work without getting paid offensive. And many other professionals wrestle with the question.

So when is it appropriate to offer your services for free? The answer is actually quite simple: When you, the vendor, feel that it's worth it for you and your business.

When I built a business as a freelance photographer in college, I started out by offering photo sessions to friends and family for no money. That way, I figured, I could gain experience and create a portfolio.

One of the first free sessions I did was for a friend of a friend's family, and I was very informal about what I was willing to do for free. I told them, "No problem! I'll come over around 2:00 pm! We'll go 'til whenever!" Because I was so lax, I ended up giving a family a four-hour photo shoot with outfit changes and location changes and accommodating diva-like behavior from one of the parents.

I needed to set limits, but it was hard in the moment to step back and say, "Uh, excuse me, remember you're not paying for this?" After all, I wanted these people to recommend me to their friends.

Wedding photographer
Kevin Walker | Getty Images

That's when I figured out that even though I wasn't making money, I could still make the rules. In fact, I had to, for everyone's sake. Here are some guidelines for how to make working for free work for you.

1. Make agreements in advance

Contracts — even if the client isn't paying you — are necessary.

Just because there's no money on the table doesn't mean you don't have to have clear communication with your clients. In fact, the opposite is true. If you're not being paid, you have to be explicit about the limits of what you're willing to do.

After that first unpleasant experience, I made sure to be very specific about what exactly I was giving away when I worked for free, and equally specific about what I wasn't.

And clients respected my boundaries because I made sure we understood each other going in.

2. Find ways to turn non-paying clients into paying ones

I scheduled photo sessions in 45 minute time slots, and I promised three edited photos per free session within seven days. I also detailed out what it would cost someone to get more than what the free session offered, such as more edited photos or a longer session. Some of my non-paying clients opted in for more, and I started making money.

Adding options gave me leverage.

"If you're not being paid, you have to be explicit about the limits of what you're willing to do."

3. Know what's in it for you

I made sure the clients understood I would retain the rights for these photos. After signing a release, a client getting a free session knew that the photos I took could be used in any material I wanted to create in order to advertise my services. Often, paying clients, especially brides and grooms, choose to opt-out of letting the photographer retain rights. And that's fine, because they've paid you more than enough money to make that choice!

But when you're giving your services away for free, you're in charge. If you're not careful and communicative about what you're giving away vs. what you are not, you run the risk of being taken advantage of.

4. Make sure it's temporary

For the first six months, I worked mostly for free, but I did it on my own terms. After about a year, I had established myself and felt comfortable charging for my services.

If I were starting a new business, I might work for free again. But this time I would do it right.