Is Working For Free Ever A Good Idea?

Sometimes “it’s good for your portfolio” doesn’t cut it, Seth Godin says.

Is Working For Free Ever A Good Idea?

“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]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.