Compensation goes far beyond the money received by an employee from an employer. The question doesn’t stop with what is my salary or wage? It also asks, is it fair and livable? Does it reflect my value and reveal my worth?

Considering the depth of these questions, it’s no wonder why “working for free” is controversial and highly debated. Our compensation has the potential to affect how we see ourselves, impact how we feel when we look in the mirror.

Unfortunately, free labor is a tool that many of life’s parasites leverage. For personal gain at the expense of others. Also, to teach a “lesson.” Somehow believing that the next generation must learn hard work and develop passion the same way they did — working for free. 

Likewise, many have leveraged free labor as the foundation of their empire. As a freelance copywriter/ UX writer, during a time where companies feel entitled to my skillset for free or little pay. I saw it fitting to share my perspective on working for free. But before getting into my opinion, I want first to distinguish the two different types. 

Working For Free - Learning from Guru

“The purist’s form of education is participation and observation.” — Isaiah Thomas

The first type of free work includes serving as the understudy to a guru in your profession — working as an apprentice or intern. 

The theory behind this practice is that by exchanging your time on the front end, you will gain knowledge and save time on the back end. The knowledge you acquire by working for the industry expert is expected to accelerate your process. Allowing you to accomplish professional goals in 1 year that would take an average person 2 or 3 years. 

Many successful business professionals from a variety of industries, fashion to real estate, started their career providing free labor to an expert. I know a handle full of investors that don’t even allow “free work.” Instead, they charge thousands of dollars to study under them. 

Ironically, the practice of paying an educational institution for a degree or attending a weekend seminar is widely accepted. However, working for free is frowned upon even if it has the potential to accelerate your career. 

As Isaiah Thomas mentioned, participation is half of the education process. The benefits of working for free is participation. Going through an actual real estate wholesale transaction is very different from watching someone else do it online. It’s similar to how you can watch Steph Curry shoot 3’s all day, but developing a shot like Curry requires more than studying; it also requires practice. 

Moreover, don’t underestimate the importance of participation and the power of seeing it up close. Knowing the steps and doing the steps are different. And the only way to bridge the gap is through participation. 


Working For Free - Providing a Service 

The second type of working for free includes providing a service to a business, which may consist of building a website, running social media campaigns, writing blogs, or creating landing pages. 

In the first type of free labor, you exchange time for knowledge. However, here you’re providing a service that the client can not perform due to a constraint like time or experience. 

Regardless of your proficiency level, you know enough to provide value to the client. Through this value creation, the client is able to meet some primary business objectives, whether it be to sell a product or enhance brand presence. 

No, I’m not a fan of companies asking for free work from creatives. I believe in receiving compensation for the value you create. However, if working for free is how you get your practice. Why not? 

Oddly, we’ve accepted doing assignments for grades with the hope that 4-years later it will materialize into a job. However, working for free with the desire that you’ll evolve into charging full price for your work is culturally absurd. 

I think college has either created an entitled spirit or led us to believe that companies would hire us and pay us a competitive salary without any track record of participation. Simply because of our higher level of observation. 

Nonetheless, before I share my perspective on working for free, it’s essential first to highlight some of the reasons I refused to work for free. 


Why I’m Not Working For Free?

Validation

I worked as an unpaid intern in the fall of my sophomore year, then landed a paid internship that summer. Hired at a $20/hr rate, after the first paycheck hit, I retired from free labor. Saying, “I’m valuable. I know my worth, and I refuse to let anyone discount me. No More working for free!” 

Transitioning into full-time post-grad, I realized the lack of a business perspective in my prior disposition. The Director I worked under, exposed me to the in’s and out’s of the client service business. One of my many responsibilities was client billing/ overseeing the budget, and that, in particular, opened my eyes.

I saw us knowingly take on projects with little to no profit margin because of the name and prestige of the company. I watched us discount our rates for new clients hoping that by building a relationship/ getting our foot in the door, we’d get more work in the future. I personally performed work outside of the initial scope knowing that the firm would receive zero compensation for our efforts.

During those two years, I learned two valuable lessons. 

  1. The largest companies in the client service business leverage the free tactic.
  2.  I should never base my self worth as a person on my compensation as a professional. 

I was unwilling to do free work because I thought it toke away from my value as a person until I realized that it’s my responsibility to validate myself. Now I see free as no more than a business strategy and/or a commitment to being phenomenal. 

Desperation

If a lack of self-validation wasn’t the reason for my unwillingness to work for free, it was desperation. Since last September, real estate has been my primary source of income. When I decided to make the switch from real estate to copywriting, I lost that source of revenue and became entirely dependent on copywriting to generate income.  

Desperate to make things work. I did some projects too cheaply and lost some long term projects/ relationships trying to charge full price. Desperation is never the right place to make decisions. 

It’s difficult to think clearly while in a state of desperation. Also, people tend to take advantage of desperate people. It’s why so many artists sign bad deals and why folks like Master P are anomalies. Most people can’t turn down a million-dollar deal, with only $500 in their pocket and go back to the projects. 

Reflecting on my client service experience, I realize that the security of a paycheck allowed partners to be strategic with their approach to building a book of business. Yes, they had annual revenue goals to meet, but only after a couple of years of failing to meet your targets are their real consequences. Whereas, my ability to pay my bills for the month depended on me making enough money from my clients. 

For this reason, I’m currently considering entering back into the workforce to get a stable 9-5 while continuing to work part-time as a copywriter. 

How to assess if you should do free work? 

When deciding whether or not to do free work, I’d assess the quantitative and qualitative benefits. The project should meet one of the three quantitative tests and/ or pass the qualitative analysis. 

Expand Portfolio /Skillset ( Quantitative) - The project is beyond the scope of the work you typically do. For example, most of my copywriting experience is around blogging and web copy. Not having any video copy experience, I recently missed out on a lucrative contract with an established firm. Now I’m actively seeking opportunities to do video copy. So if I come across a gig and it’s a good fit but it just so happens to be free, I’ll still consider taking it. 

Expand Your Network ( Quantitative) - The project is with other creatives you want to work with. For example, let’s say a client asks me to do web-copy in collaboration with Chris Do, who is a dope designer. The opportunity to work with Chris would not only enhance my skill set but also add me to his network. Moreover, maybe being on his shortlist of copywriters is more valuable than the money the client should pay me for my services. 

Other means of compensation ( Quantitative) - It’s essential to determine what different forms of compensation work for you. For example, if the person has a large social media audience that includes your target market, and they’re willing to tag you in all of the work you do, it might be worth it. Think about it? If you wanted to use Facebook or Instagram advertising to reach that audience, how much would it cost you? Won’t this person posting your work add a level of credibility that a typical ad doesn’t inherently have? 

Intuition (Qualitative) - Develop your intuition. The second sense that tells you when to work for free. Keep in mind, it’s always best to start with the quantitative analysis first because you don’t want your passion affecting your ability to reason. However, sometimes, the numbers won’t add up, but your intuition will say, “Do it!”. Please note, our intuition takes time to develop. Recognize that through your development process, it may lead you astray. A final reminder, it’s ok to work for free if you want to. It’s not a crime. 


Things to keep in mind when working for free

Time - Don’t spend all your time on free work if you have playing clients. You can give both the same effort, but you are not required to give free the same amount of time. 

Do it on your terms - Set the terms of the engagement. Don’t allow your desire to help cause you to budge on the terms. Also, avoid being passive. Remember, you have the right to walk away if the client tries to bully you into working outside of the established terms. 

Exposure doesn’t pay bills - Don’t get so consumed with your passion and desire to help people that you forget compensation. Not all exposure has a monetary value attached to it. 

Remember, you decided to do it for free! - One of the challenges of free work is maintaining the same energy/ excitement throughout the process. I often have to remind myself, “Nathan you chose to do it for free.” Somehow I associated free with perfect. I expect the project to go smoothly because I’m doing it for free. But like any engagement, there will be hiccups along the way. Lastly, as a reminder, don’t give people less quality because it’s free. Honor your craft and respect your legacy.


Be Phenomenal or Be Forgotten

Prioritizing is part of being a professional. We all must decide what’s important. The most common decision is one’s career vs. family. 

For those who say they value family, upholding that commitment may require a complete lifestyle change — switching from private sector consulting to the public sector consulting, so you’re not traveling M-F. For others, it may only require saying no to the company party to attend your daughter’s recital. 

Choosing family over your career doesn’t mean that your career isn’t important to you. Instead, it’s not as important as your family. Similarly, when operating in your gift, you must decide what’s a priority, money, or being phenomenal.

With phenomenal aspirations comes the cost of obtaining more education (participation and observation) than your peers. Unfortunately, whether you are a graphic designer, writer, or motivation speaker, you’re not always going to be able to receive education for free. You may be able to leverage Youtube University to observe for free, but typically participation will cost you whether it be your time or money. 

When we consider individuals who represent the connection between practice and being phenomenal, Kobe Bryant comes to mind. Considering Kobe throughout the course of his 20 NBA season, it’s likely that he practiced for free more than he was compensated to practice. 

Players only receive compensation for attending team practices. They’re not obligated to do anything outside of what the team request of them. However, Kobe’s love for the game and desire to be a master at his craft led him to conduct additional practices, whether it was him in the gym by himself or him hiring trainers to help him with his game.   

In the short term, Kobe wasn’t getting paid for his individual practices. However, in the long run, by becoming one of the best players in the league, he earned championship rings, endorsements, 20 years in the league, and much more.

Being the best requires practice regardless of your industry. Practice you will most likely not get paid for. Nonetheless, what you ultimately have to decide is what’s more important, money or being the best? All the while keeping in mind that once you become the best, you’ll reap the financial benefits of being the best.