“People Die From Exposure!” Why You Should Never Work For Free (Except When…)

Never Work For Free

Something funny happens when you’re a creative worker who’s starting off in your career: People ask you to work for free.

If you’re a professional mover, house cleaner, or handyperson, strangers won’t ask you to work for free frequently. But if you’re a photographer, writer, designer, coder, or musician, strangers will try to get you to free pretty damn often.

That works great, except we have pesky things to pay for in the real world like rent and bills. That means you need to get paid for your work.

Why You Should Never Work For Free: “People Die From Exposure”

The old cliche about working for free as a creative is that you’re offered “exposure” instead of pay. That is, by writing your article or recording your jingle for free, you’re exposing your work to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t know about you.

There’s one big problem with that: Exposure doesn’t pay your expenses and making connections to a wider audience only has secondary benefits. You want primary benefits like financial compensation, and that’s not happening.

Wil Wheaton wrote a great explanation last year of why he wouldn’t write for the Huffington Post for free, and I can’t say it any better than he does:

Basically, it boils down to this: Your potential client thinks your work is good enough to include in their final project. However, they don’t want to pay you for the product you’re providing.

And, as the equally cliched reply to “exposure” goes, “People die from exposure.”

Why You Should Never Work For Free: Creative Work = Power Imbalance

Meanwhile, there’s a problem for many creatives in the early part of their career: There are a lot of people who do what you do, and it’s hard to stand out for the crowd.

Even if you’ve put together a kickass portfolio on your industry’s platform of choice, it’s hard to stand out. Your work on GitHub, Behance, Instagram, or Medium might be amazing, but advertising yourself as a self-employed creative professional is hard.

And, yes, “self-employed creative professional” sounds incredibly pretentious. But it’s also a category that many, many, many people reading this article fall into.

Your lack of name recognition and lack of leverage in the industry where you work means that potential clients feel comfortable asking you to work without compensation.

That’s usually a bad idea.

Why You Shouldn’t Work For Free

If you’re established in your career or have a solid portfolio, there’s absolutely no reason to work for free in most circumstances.

The sad news is that there’s a wide range of businesses who build their entire business models around paying the people who contribute to them as little as possible. This could be a publication that doesn’t compensate contributors, a startup expecting engineers to offer early-stage unpaid work, or a concert promoter who wants musicians to pay for free.

There’s one simple problem though: The time and effort you spend creating work for someone who isn’t paying you normally doesn’t justify working for free.

Except for…

Why You Should Never Work For Free: When You Should Work For Free

When you’re first getting started in your career, things are tougher. In those first years when you want people to know who you are, there are harder choices to make.

In those cases, contributing unpaid work might be worth considering as long as you know these two things:

  1. The workload doesn’t take time away from your paid work.
  2. There are clear and obvious benefits to the work you do for free, and your work is clearly credited by the client.
  3. You’re comfortable with your client making lots of money off your work, and you making none.

If you’re in the second year of your journalism career, contributing to the Huffington Post would make sense–you’d be gaining access to a much larger audience than you would with your personal blog.

If you’re an artist or photographer approached by a large corporation or ad agency to have your work fea:tured in an Instagram campaign without pay, the connections you might make with people seeing your work could make it worth it. But make sure you’re clearly credited–otherwise, your client is just making money off the product you spent a long time working on.

If you’re in the middle of your career, working for free or a nominal fee can make sense under certain circumstances. Many trade shows don’t pay speakers, for instance. Companies don’t directly make money from their employees writing on LinkedIn, Quora, or Medium, but derive secondary benefits from attracting customers or new employees with those posts. And academics or authors might write newspaper op-eds to share their views with a wider audience even if the New York Times op-ed page pays “peanuts.”

Why You Should Never Work For FreeW: eighing The Pluses And Minuses

As these things often do, it comes down to the risk you can stomach and the potential upsides to unpaid work.

Make sure you are making enough money from your work to live on: That’s first and foremost. After that, you can afford a bit of unpaid work… but just make sure you’re making money from your work wherever you can. Otherwise, someone else will be making money from your work while you aren’t… and that doesn’t sound too fair.