The Pros and Dangerous Cons of Working for Free

by / ⠀Startup Advice / February 4, 2013

As a writer I have built a colorful portfolio that admittedly, makes me beam with pride.  Articles, blogs, editorial features – all pages that include my name on them.  What the majority of them didn’t include – was a paycheck.

I would guess that more than half of my current portfolio is filled with unpaid work.  I’d also guess that, that same portfolio is 100% of the reason why I now have my current paid, full time writing gig.   All’s well that ends well, right?  Sure, that’s my attitude now; but if you would have said that to the girl who once wrote an entire 15 page section of a magazine in under a week only to then pay for a copy of it, she’d slap you.

There is no denying the importance of expanding your repertoire and exposure.  Working for free can connect you to companies and people you may not have gotten in touch with other wise.  It can catapult your career by affording you the opportunity to showcase how determined and serious you are about being a success.  It can also suck…here’s how to avoid the latter.

Find the value

Especially in cases of an internship, your dreams of being asked to contribute can quickly be crushed when instead you are asked to make some coffee.  My first internship out of college posed the same type of threat.  However, while working as a stand-in secretary I did learn the fundamentals of professional etiquette.  I’ll never forget my mentor reminding me that when transferring calls saying “one moment please” sounded a lot better than my “hang on for a sec”.  There was a big difference; I was fresh out of college, and I needed to learn.

However, you might have noted that I referred to this person as my “mentor”, this is because while I did help with filing and answering phones, I also got the opportunity to headline my own projects.  Not all day, but definitely every day my mentor took me outside from behind the desk, included me in meetings, plans, and took the time to explain why she did the things she did.

The job ending up being a career path that I didn’t go down, but the lessons I learned there still help me today.  Most importantly, I learned how to measure the value of a potential mentor.  The point:  When someone offers you an internship take the time to detail your duties before you say yes.  Find value in the tedious tasks, but also demand the learning opportunities that will make your donated time worth wild.

Promising the world is not enough

For the professionals who aren’t so wet behind the ears, working as an unpaid staff member can be a real ego killer.  This is especially true when the initial promises that this type of exposure will make you ‘irresistible to other employers’ and ‘buzz worthy within the industry’ do not pan out.  Professional promises are whispers in the wind, they don’t mean anything.  Think about how bad you’ll feel if your justification for working for zip ends up being a lackluster undertaking that nobody feels the need to apologize for.

When prompted to contribute your talents, negotiate some nonmonetary rewards first.  Letters of recommendation, featuring your website on theirs, mentioning your services on their social media – there are plenty of economical ways people can pay you back.  The point:  Not everyone can pay you, but they certainly cannot compensate with unsecure promises.  Before starting anything, figure out what it is you want in return, and get the agreement down on paper.

When Headaches Outweigh Headway

A lot of the time the reason a company cannot pay you is because they are in their startup phase.  For anyone who aspires to be an entrepreneur, immersing yourself into a startup environment is undoubtedly a great way to learn.  However, in many cases these startups are dealing with your profession (writer, event planner, web designer) for the first time.  They are not exactly sure how you do what you do; they just know they need you to do it.

As someone who has been there, it’s a great thing to feel needed even if someone can’t reciprocate the thanks with payment.  That being said, dealing with people who don’t know what it really takes to create the finished product can open you up to ridiculous demands and delusions of grandeur.

If this happens to you, it is completely your fault.  You are the only person looking out for your best interest and it is your responsibility to verbalize your needs.  As a writer I need contact information for the people you want me to interview, a clear deadline for when the work needs to be completed and the promise of not being micromanaged.  Remember that no one is a mind reader.  The point: Save yourself the frustration and speak up before you start.  Detail what you will need to make things work and give your employer a chance to decide if they can deliver.

People Take Advantage

Chances are you will be fantastic at what you do and employers will thank their lucky stars that not only did you walk into their lives, but you continue to churn out quality work for free.  As a result, you may notice your workload start to expand because “you’re so good at it” and “you never seem to mind”.  Before you know it you’re engulfed in the responsibilities of a full time employee without the bi-weekly paycheck.

For this reason be wary about signing up for a prolonged unpaid experience.  If it ends up not working out, quitting too soon will reap you of all the referential benefits.  There are exceptions to this rule, for example you might sign on for a specific project that is going to take “x” amount of time and they only want someone who can see it all the way through; that’s fine.  The point: sign up on a project to project basis.  If someone needs to keep you extendedly on call, they can pay for it.  If they cannot afford to pay you, they have to afford you the flexibility of committing to just see how things go.

What experiences have you had working for free?

Kelly Gregorio writes about topics that affect entrepreneurs while working at Advantage Capital Funds, a small businesses loan provider.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.