Should You Ever Work For Free?

Should You Ever Work For Free?
Carly Jacobs

I kind of hate this topic. For a variety of reasons but mainly because the answer is extremely contradictory. Should you ever work for free? No… but also yes. The thing that annoys me the most about this is the elite who are successful in their industry always tell people lower than them on the food chain to not work for free. Forbes publish an article like this every few months.

The message is loud and clear. Don’t work for free you big chump!

Cool. So how are people supposed to know you’re good at a thing, if you need experience in that thing in order for someone to pay you to do that thing?

No one is going to hire a writer if they’ve never seen their work published anywhere and if you can’t get someone to pay you to publish your work, you don’t really have much choice but to do it for free. But if you do that, then Forbes will think you’re chump and you’ll have no money. That’s a pretty shit combination.

If you’re considering working for free (which is perfectly fine under very specific circumstances), here are a few things to think about…

work for free

1. If a brand can afford a magazine advert, they can afford to pay you

This is a very blog specific piece of advice but you’d be surprised how many companies have offered me free products in exchange for coverage and ‘not been able to pay’ for the advertisement because they ‘don’t have the budget’. I’ve politely declined and then a week later seen a late night TVC and a billboard on the way to the airport for the same product. If an indie designer says they don’t have the budget, that’s probably true. If a big multinational says they don’t have the budget, what they mean is that they don’t want to spend their budget on you. This applies to all kinds of work. Content creation, design, branding. If Nicole Kidman is on their ad, they have enough money to pay you properly.

2. Work for yourself for free and be an excellent employee

I will always work for myself for free. If I’m going to build my portfolio, I’m going to own it. My platforms are Smaggle, Crochet Coach, Straight & Curly, Sweet Teen Club. I would never work that hard for free for someone else. I’ve worked on these things for free for years. In fact I’ve worked on Smaggle for ten years. No one could afford to pay me for the amount of time, dedication and sweat I’ve put into that. The same thing applies to Crochet Coach. It’s worth it because it’s all for me.

work for free

3. Collaborate 

I like to judge a project based on who is getting paid. If no one is getting paid and you really want to do it, go for it. Contributing to street art, volunteering for festivals, doing community theatre, publishing a free zine about something you’re passionate about. All this stuff is amazing and is worthy of your time and attention. Just don’t do that kind of stuff for free for big companies that can afford to pay you but choose not to. So Straight & Curly is a perfect example of a collaboration – Kelly and I own it and no one benefits from it but us. We don’t get paid but it’s a great profile building product and plus, we love it. Collaboration is great just make sure you’re actually in a collaboration and that no one is benefiting from the arrangement more than anyone else.

4. Exposure doesn’t pay the rent  

I can say this with a shit load of experience behind me – exposure doesn’t pay the rent. Also exposure is kind of useless. I’ve been on TV several times, I’ve been featured on huge instagram accounts, I’ve been in magazines several times every year for the last decade. Kelly and I were in the paper a few weeks ago and yes we got some new listeners but are we Oprah yet? No. Good exposure is organic and if someone is offering it as a payment, it’s likely whatever exposure they give you isn’t going to do much. The best exposure I’ve ever had is when someone likes my stuff and genuinely wants to share it. Not when a brand shares my blog post with their 200k fake followers on Facebook.

work for free

5. If you still really want to do a job for free ask yourself these questions  

What’s your dollar per hour?

Is it going to distract from your other income earning projects?

Take the time it’s going to take and multiply it by your hourly rate. Is it worth it?

Is there someone out there who would pay you to do this?

Is the exposure worth it? Hint: probably not.  

Bonus tip – Avoid competitions like those logo graphic design competitions, they drive me bonkers. It’s just a way for a brand to get a lot of cheap logo options and exploit up and coming artists looking for a break. Same goes with blogging competitions that require entrants to blog about the brand that sponsored the competition. Anything that requires you to create something for free and share it with branded hashtags is a no-no. Colouring-in competition style contests are fine because they’re open to everyone and the final product isn’t going to be used for financial gain for the company. Logo competitions are bad because they exploit artists and get them to do amazing work usually for a ‘prize’ of around $500 which is basically a very easy way to get a logo without having to pay for it.

This week on Straight & Curly, Kelly and I are talking about working for free and how and when you should do it.

Have you ever had to work for free? Where do you draw the line?

P.S Also you should totally sign up for my newsletter. It’s full of cool stuff.
P.P.S Don’t forget Crochet Coach has a free trial offer period at the moment so make sure you sign up!

9 Comments

  1. Missy D 5 years ago

    Great post. I worked for ‘free’ early in my career when I had little/no experience. I had the training from uni, but then straight out of uni went travelling for two years. So when I came back it was hard to get a job in my field because of my lack of experience.

    For about a year and a half maybe two years I worked full-time in a support role and then did a lot of volunteer/free stuff on the side – writing in community radio, for NGOs, street press, book reviews – wherever I could build a portfolio. When it came time to apply for a paid job in my field they actually hired me because of my zeal to build a portfolio off my own back.

    Would I do free writing work now I’m senior in my field? Probably not. I know what work goes into producing content and nobody else would go to work and not get paid, so why should writers?

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 5 years ago

      I agree I think there’s a bit of an expiry date when it comes to free work. I wouldn’t write for free for anyone anymore. I collab, but I don’t work for free.

  2. Lizzie Fourman 5 years ago

    I think you should work for free if the return on that investment is there. I’m a freelance writer in the literary niche and I just took on a free guest posting gig because I knew I could add these posts to my portfolio. That was why I took on the work in the first place. I will admit that I am happy to write blog posts for my own blog for free because I enjoy what I write. I won’t haggle on my prices, though, when I’m talking with prospective clients. I know what I’m worth at the end of the day, even if prospects may not know it.

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 5 years ago

      If it’s high quality experience and can be used for a portfolio, that’s totally fine! I’ve done heaps of that myself. That’s how I can say I wrote for Vogue! 🙂

  3. I get so many “offers” to work for brands on the blog in return for sharing my post on their socials or that the campaign doesn’t have budget and they are just asking for a post on my perfect night in or similar that I have an auto-response to the blog email. SO irritating.

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 5 years ago

      Story of my life, I get about 20 pitches a day. It’s so irritating.

  4. Simone Emery 5 years ago

    Such a great post. Keeping the fences up to stop burn out relies on having a good foundation of what you will or won’t do for free. Great tips!

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 5 years ago

      Definitely! I struggle with that a lot – more with collars than free work but I hate letting people down.

  5. Kathryn OHalloran 5 years ago

    One of the shittiest work for free things I’ve seen was one of the big glossy mags (Cleo, Cosmo, one of them) running an erotic writing contest. The prize – being published in their magazine. Nothing else. Surely they can afford to throw a few bucks at writers.

    I did a professional writing and editing TAFE course and we were asked to contribute to the course magazine. i asked what we’d be paid and was told exposure. I thought it was disgusting that in a course with ‘professional’ in the name encouraged students to work for nothing.

    if a project is raising money for a charity I support then I’m happy to work for free but otherwise, nope.

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