Is Working For Free Ever A Good Idea?

Sometimes "it's good for your portfolio" doesn't cut it, Seth Godin says.

"If you're busy doing free work because it's a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work," Seth Godin exhorts, "stop."

A guru of self improvement, career management, and all points in between, Godin outlines the decision-making between working for free and holding out to get paid—important food for thought in a user-generated economy.

But first, we need to define terms.

What makes work "work"?

"Work is what you do as a professional, when you make a promise that involves rigor and labor (physical and emotional) and risk," he says, noting the requirements of showing up on time and creating value on demand. In this way, cooking for your friends isn't work, he says; being a sous chef on a Saturday night most certainly is.

Still, the boundaries get blurry. Lots of websites (including this one) publish unpaid, user-generated content, a la the Huffington Post. Similarly, you won't get paid to talk to Terri Gross on NPR, but that can still qualify as valuable work, so long you can "turn that platform into positive change, into increased trust, into something that moves you forward."

To illustrate this, Godin reflects on his own career as a speaker: going gratis for a TED Talk fit because of the quality of the audience, while SXSW didn't make sense, what with the Austin festival's overtaxed attention spans.

The key "free factors"

As Godin describes, the Should I do this for free? decision hinges on a threshold of accomplishment. If you're up-and-coming, do the gig and build your audience. If you have the audience, abstain—and save yourself the trouble.

But how do you draw that distinction? Godin offers a handful of discretionary points to consider, including these:

  • Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?
  • Do I care about their mission? Can they afford to do this professionally?
  • Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?
  • What's the risk to me, my internal monologue, and my reputation if I do this work?
If enough of those boxes are checked, free might make sense.

What have you done for free that made sense—and what have you done that didn't? Tell us about it in the comments.

Should you work for free?

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Fred Scharmen]

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  • Moriah

    My past experiences doing FREElance design work for several non-profits have always gone poorly. If it doesn't cost them something, they don't value my time or the work, and everyone ends up frustrated.

  • Max Zornada

    Working for free is called slavery and is illegal in most parts of the word. The only country in the world where people are engaged by organisations that can certainly afford to pay them to work for free under the guise of "internships" is the US. All developed countries in the world typically have labour laws that makes this illegal. Maybe thats where the term "Free enterprise" comes from.
    Working for anyone for free just takes up your time, time that could be better spent looking for a real job that pays.

  • James McBennett

    I did an unpaid internship and it made complete sense to do so. While others got paid work to do photocopying, I was unpaid but worked on landmark projects with a decent level of responsability. It was by far my favourite job that I've ever done, and by far the one I learnt the most. The office couldn't really afford to pay me or the other interns and had gone backrupt multiple times, but was consistently ranked as one of the best young designers in the world.

    I feel most professions that favour unpaid internships are engrossed with bad management and bad business decisions, but they have a great public image attracting those that can afford it. Creative profession without doubt fall within this category as does any new startup.

    For me, the moaning about unpaid internships shows a lack of understanding of how organisations work. If you moan at bad business management, the source of the problem, which in turn would mean unpaid internships would happen less frequently, then we might get somewhere.

    Hello Health, which is a great company that helps doctors manage their business better has a produced a great idea for the health industry and a funny video to go with it.

    Many firms go through the early years unpaid and flip to the other side when they figure out what they are doing later on. We shouldn't knock this practice, but figure out what could change to a better system. I think design needs a Hello Design.

  • InnoDojo

    When I first started in the IT industry, at the time of the .com bubble burst, I basically worked for close to nothing.  Looking back on it, there's nothing I would change.  I learned alot and it helped me get my foot in the door.  However, now, I would rarely do work for free. I've had friends ask for little favors.  If it's a few hrs and isolated work, then sure I'll do it.  Besides that, if its long projects or they keep asking for favors, I'm going to start charging as those favors add up.  Lets say you have a friend that repairs cars or does alterations.  Do you ask them to do it for free?  I know, I wouldn't. That's their livelihood. Depending on the situation, I may do a discount, but thats case by case. Everyone needs help when they're beginning, but there needs to be boundaries.

  • Leconte Lee

    Tell me about it. I've done a total of six internships (some for college credit, some that are not) I must say, internship experiences are invaluable and should be a necessity when in college. When I was in New York City for six months hoping to find a job, found an internship instead. Sure, it was good experience, but it was also labor-intensive, took a toll on me physically and emotionally. At the end of the day, it didn't pay the bills. Do your internships in college, there's a reason why you pay for a college education. 

  • Caren

     With an economy that is driven by lots of free labor-- ahem, _internships_... I'm curious to read others feedback!