‘Our writers work for free but you get a lot of exposure with us’.
‘ I can’t pay you but I’ll tell all my friends about you’.
If you are a business owner or a freelance writer like myself you have probably heard one or more of these statements pop out of someone’s mouth.
Last I checked one of the big reasons to be in business is to make money. Free work doesn’t keep a roof over your head. But, are there exceptions to the rule? At what point should you work for free? Is the risk worth the reward?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch
If you choose to work for no monetary compensation you need to be getting something else out of the deal. Experience or legitimate exposure is what you need in return. You need to make sure you can guarantee those things. It’s your business we are talking about here.
When it comes to working for exposure and experience it can be very risky (and rewarding if it works). You don’t want to get burned. Working for free could be a waste of your time. Your time is a valuable and precious commodity. You want to dispense it wisely. You risk devaluing your work by giving it away for free.
The last thing you want is to struggle to get those sweet paying gigs because clients view you as cheap labor. It is a risk you take working for free and you need to be careful. However, there are some ways you can reduce that risk.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Do a little research and see how other successful people in your situation got their start. If they interned for company X and it skyrocketed their career it may do the same for you. If they published an article for free for a specific publication and they went viral it may do the same for you. Make sure your research is current. Sometimes, when companies are sold the circumstances around that success change.
You shouldn’t work for free! except….
There are a few exceptions when working for free can be used effectively to take your career to the next level. Sometimes, recent college graduates are offered full-time employment after their internship (a little more about that later). However, you still need to be strategic. You need to pick the right opportunities that fit your long-term career goals. Whether you are working for free or not.
If you are simply a coffee runner for a no-name business you’re not going to get anywhere. The point of an internship is to gain valuable experience. Even if your compensation is not money you need to get something out of it. You need to have a successful strategy in place. If you choose to work for free don’t do it for long. Just long enough to get the credentials to land paying jobs or clients.
When done properly, internships or ‘exposure’ work can put you in contact with some big names. If that’s not happening you need to find another opportunity. The experience and exposure must be legitimate. There are many that aren’t or that used to be and no longer are.
An unpaid ‘opportunity’ should lead to bigger opportunities. Otherwise, you are wasting your time. It is a risk and it shouldn’t be a regular thing for you. If you choose to work for free, once you have experience stop or you will hurt your career or business.
When working for free is a bad idea
Who contacted who?
If doing free work with a company is actually beneficial everyone will be itching to get in. ‘Big names’ don’t need to be cold contacting people for these free ‘opportunities’. If you receive an email for such an ‘opportunity’ trash it. If you see a job advertisement for one, move along.
You have bills to pay
Exposure doesn’t pay the rent or keep the lights on. Do I need to say more?
It may hurt your career
When the National Association of Colleges and Employers polled seniors to see how many were offered jobs after their unpaid internships the results were not good. Only 37% of seniors who did unpaid internships were offered jobs.
But, it makes sense. It’s hard to ask for such a substantial raise. Going from zero to an actual living wage is a pretty big pay jump. Internships are a learning period obviously but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a valuable member of the team. If they valued your contributions they would have paid you from the get-go. Instead, they dangled a carrot in front of your nose during the internship. You deserve more than that.
Oh, wait! it gets better. 63.1% of seniors who did paid internships had at least one job offer in hand at the end.
On top of that, the job offers for those who did unpaid internships were less than those who did paid internships. Nothing puts salt in the wound quite like that.
Money talks. If the company values your contributions they will pay you. If they don’t they won’t.
My final thought
Frankly, I think you determine your worth. If you give your work away for free you are saying to clients ‘ my work isn’t worth any money’. I wrote about pay negotiation here a while back. It’s important to know your value. I get that working for exposure worked for some but the risks outweigh the rewards.
Personally, I wouldn’t do it
Just in case it isn’t totally obvious I don’t think you should work for free. But, I wanted to look at both sides of the coin.
Even though the work for exposure has worked for some I wouldn’t do it. I think it devalues your service and ultimately your career. Why shouldn’t someone pay for your time and experience? Once, you start down the road of working for free it can be that much more difficult to get out of it. If someone thinks you can provide value to them they will pay you plain and simple. If a company needs content or whatever service you are offering so bad why aren’t they paying you a premium? The plumber doesn’t work for exposure. So, why should you?