When to Work for Free

When to Work for Free
Dustin Lien
May 25, 2014

Value can come in a lot of different forms, most of which lead back to making money. I’ve written previously about how your time is valuable, and it is, but there are times when it’s ok to work for no money.

I see ads on Craigslist all the time for projects that say something along the lines of,

“We don’t have a lot of money as we are a startup, but this is a great opportunity for a college student or new graduate to gain REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE! Compensation: none.

I’ll be the first to tell you this is crap. Even if you are a college student, your time is still worth something, and real world experience with a company that doesn’t value your skills is not something. If you’re going to work for free in a scenario like this, at least do it for a nonprofit organization who is going to appreciate it.

You absolutely can get great value by offering free work if you use it to leverage value back to you in return.

Here are 3 scenarios when working for free can pay off:

1. You’re low on cash, and can barter with another company or person to accomplish something for your business.

Make sure if you do this that you still write up a contract for both parties to sign. I’ve ended up doing all of my promised work and receiving only about a third from the other guys before they closed down. Work in monetary compensation if the services aren’t provided on either end. This will protect you in the case of a flaky bartering situation.

2. It will help you reach a new audience.

An example of this would be guest writing on someone else’s blog, just to reach their audience and possibly capture new followers for your own blog. No matter what it is, make sure the audience you are promised is big enough and targeted enough to be worth your time.

3. You really believe in the project, and have been offered a percentage of the sales.

Be very very very careful with this one. It can screw you faster than a carpenter. When I first started my creative agency, I took a project offering 6% of the company’s apparel sales for designing their logo. I used a really bad contract that didn’t protect me, and we ended up designing a logo for a company that closed down shortly after, making no sales.

When doing free work, make sure it can provide value to you in some way, so it’s not really for free, just not for immediate monetary gain. Always use well-thought-out contracts that protect your time in the case of a flaky person, and choose who you work for very carefully. Protect yourself, protect your time, and work for value.