I’m wandering into a minefield here. I think that, sometimes, you should work for free.
If you’re an independent creative, running a professional services firm, or growing a startup, working for free can be one of the best things you can do. It can make you better at your craft, it can unlock new opportunities, and it can be just straight-up a good time.
Before you say that not everybody can afford free work, that it comes from a place of privilege, that it then perpetuates other inequalities… you’re right. It’s a lot easier to skip out on a paycheck when you know it won’t result in losing your house and home.
But I’d encourage you to read on – this is not an argument in favor of unpaid internships, old boy’s clubs, or abusive employers. My argument is that free work can be empowering. In a world where you may not have a lot of other resources, where you’re fresh out of school or changing careers, your skill and your labor are the best chips you can play.
If you are trying to do something new, you should always be working on it. If you want to have a digital agency, you should be spending a lot of time building websites. Photographers should spend a lot of time shooting photos. Illustrators should spend a lot of time illustrating.
Each hour expires 60 minutes at a time. Rest and support tasks are vital, but after a certain point, you’re far better off using those fleeting hours to build your portfolio, skills, and network instead of noodling around on busy work (tweaking your logo for the 18th time, getting lost in Discord threads, or building out Zapier automations for processes that you’ve yet ever to need).
When building a company or career as an independent professional, you’re a business, not an employee. Businesses spend money to make and sell things, and then if they are good at what they do, they bring in more money than they spent. There’s a degree of risk in every business venture – that risk is that this equation won’t work out in your favor.
The secret to changing your mindset is that everybody already does free work. Sending proposals is unpaid labor. Applying for jobs is unpaid labor. Free work is not a giveaway. It’s your investment in R&D and PR, talent development and business development.
If you do it right, it’s also your chance to do what you really want to do with your time – and career.
Aaron James Draplin, one of my favorite designers and an overall cool dude, has an enlightening perspective on free work. In a number of interviews and talks, he’s said that the work that “bought me a burrito” is as important as the work that bought him a house. Here’s an excerpt from one of them:
The fun part about that is you work for your friends; you made something cool, you made them look a little bit bigger than they are… it’s a fucking portfolio piece, you know what I mean? Why is that a dirty word?
The stuff that I got paid a hundred grand… I don’t even think about that anymore. I think about when I’m working with my buddy and there’s no money involved because it came from the heart. It wasn’t soiled with emails, meetings, confusion, starting you, stopping you, breaking your fucking heart.
Don’t charge your friends. Their money is no good here. The only currency I’ll accept is a six-pack or a picked-up dinner check.
I’m friends with people because I like them, and I want to help them out. If their band needs a t-shirt or if they need a little website for their charity event, there’s no way in hell I’m taking their money. If they have or work for a business with a proper budget, then it’s a real project – but billing them for standard-issue friendship stuff is bleak.
Working with friends is your chance to be part of the cool things that they do. It’s your chance to be a collaborator or even co-conspirator. And with that role you have freedom. You have an opportunity to do weird, different things that no paying client is going to put up with.
This work is the reward. It’s the work you don’t have to do. It’s the work you get to do it.
Fortune 50 Globocorp doesn’t need your free work. Go get their money.
But your local animal shelter could really use a new logo. And if you’re looking to flesh out your branding portfolio, you should give them a ring. Doing work for those doing good can sharpen your skills while building your community. Think of it as a somewhat self-interested donation.
A word of warning: non-profits don’t deserve amateur work – so don’t pawn off your garbage on them. The work you do for these groups should be some of your best.
All of this is great, but you gotta make a living. As the well-worn retort to free work goes, you can’t pay your rent in “exposure.”
Free work can be both a reward and a key. If you do enough paid work where you are sitting on a few bucks, you’ve now bought your freedom to do the fun stuff I’ve mentioned above – you get to do it. But free work is also often the most accessible way to start the referral and reputation flywheel turning.
If you want to work in the music industry, then offer to photograph a few concerts for free. If you want to work with clean energy companies, then hit up a couple and design free landing pages for them. If you want to work with museums, then do a few copywriting audits on the house.
After you do that, turn around and build a portfolio on the back of that work. You went from a nobody with no connections to an industry specialist overnight. You’re now an expert, and you have connections that owe you a favor. That’s where the paid work begins.
Pick and choose your free work. This applies to friends, causes, and strategic clients. When you work without pay, you get to call more of the shots – don’t suffer through it, only do the stuff you enjoy, and that makes you better off. The point of free work is that it puts you in the drivers seat. It should be done on your terms.
Make sure you pass the “mafia test.” Here’s how actor Jason Alexander describes passing it:
John Gotti gets out of jail and he comes with his guys to your restaurant. They sit down and they order $20,000 worth of food and drink. One of his guys comes over at the end of the night and says, “We had a great time this evening, thank you very much, what do we owe you?”
What do you say? I said, I would say, “You know what, this is a very special evening for Mr. Gotti, I’m very honored that he chose my facility. It would be nice if you just want to take care of my people, that would be lovely. I can’t afford to do this all the time, but this is a special occasion, I’d like it to be my treat.”
In that test, if you told the mobster it was all on you, they’ll come back and take advantage of your generosity until you’re eaten out of business. If you charge them full price, they’ll come back and burn your place down.
But being respectful and taking care of your people, that leaves you in the best position. Being generous while maintaining professionalism is the key to coming out ahead – setting a clear schedule and scope and treating them the same as paid clients will ensure that that respect flows both ways.
Finally, don’t take yourself so seriously. I’ve found that the people most worried about maintaining strict codes of do’s and don’ts are usually more junior and less successful. The pros are a lot looser, and because of that, they tend to have a lot more fun (and ultimately make money). With experience, some of which you’ll get by doing free work, you’ll develop an innate sense of when it’s time to give and when it’s time to take.
(BTW: Shout out to my friend Peter Kang who posted about this topic on LinkedIn recently. He knows agency stuff better than maybe anybody, check him out.)