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…
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.
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.
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.