Pro Bono, free, unpaid, for-credit, whatever you call it, the bottom line is you’re not making money. Working for free can sometimes feel like a necessary evil if you want to gain access to coveted adult-life and the sought after jobs you studied so hard for four (or more) years in college to get, especially in high-demand, creative fields.
Taking an unpaid job can be a blow to the ego (and the wallet), so why do we do them? To get experience, obviously. But working for free is a fine balancing act, the key being that it must be mutually beneficial to both parties. As soon as the scale tips, you either need to get money or get the hell out of there. As someone who’s worked for free multiple times in my life and turned each of my unpaid jobs into paid ones, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
My first foray into working for free was as a freelance graphic designer. One of my professors in college connected me with a local business owner who needed some logo work done and was looking for a student (aka someone who would work for free). I made several logos for her over the course of two years, and eventually started getting paid. In this case I was fortunate enough that my boss decided she wanted to start paying me. If only it was always this easy, but even still as a young 19-year-old student, the premise of getting paid for creative work felt like a dream come true until the reality of having to set my own rates hit me.
I had no idea how much to charge or how to charge for that matter. Per hour, per project? I don’t remember what I eventually settled on, but it most likely wasn’t high enough. The transition from working for free to charging an indeterminate amount seemed incredibly daunting. I knew the quality of my work wasn’t increasing significantly between that very first logo I created and the first one I got paid for. If it was worth nothing before, how could I say definitively and confidently that it was worth something now? Working for free can delude you into believing that your work isn’t of value, but you have to know your value and believe in it even when you’re just starting out.
1. Do your research before setting your rates, and be confident in your work from the start.
After college, I thought I would surely find a well-paying job to start soon after graduating, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As my final year of school came to a close, classmates in high-demand fields were offered jobs left and right, but nothing was coming my way. I had plans to move to the Bay Area, so naturally being the startup hub that it is, I found an early-stage founder who was willing to let me run the company’s marketing and social media.
We had a video call before I made the cross-country move, and everything seemed good to go. Shortly after arriving in California, I set out for my first (and last) day of “work” at a coffee shop downtown. As I made my way upstairs to the grouping of community tables they so often claimed as their office, I imagined how great this experience would be, only to find out that the company was even more early-stage than I thought. The product wasn’t even ready for market, and I would be expected to comb through the company’s database performing manual data entry. I felt deceived and confused that there was no talk of marketing or social media that first day.
After giving it some thought, I realized that there would be no point working for free doing something I wasn’t passionate about. That may seem obvious, but at the time when it seemed like that was the only opportunity available, deciding to leave before I had even started was a tough call to make.
2. Don’t be afraid to turn down an opportunity if the situation is not mutually beneficial.
At this point, I was in a new city with nothing but time (and dwindling finances), so I started my search again from scratch. Of course I hoped for a paying job, but yet again another start up was the first to respond, asking me to come in for an interview. Feeling a little jaded, but still
hopeful, I showed up ready to impress and immediately found out upon arriving that I already had the job if I wanted it. Turns out you don’t really have to interview when there’s no money on the table, or maybe it’s just a weird start up thing. Either way, I was in.
This time felt different because unlike the coffee shop office of the last startup, this one was in a co-working space. It felt like a step up in legitimacy. We talked about the company’s blog and what they were doing on social media right from the start. Although there wasn’t much teaching, and it was more figuring it out as I went, I actually learned a lot at this job. I worked there for six months, and in hindsight I really value the opportunity it gave me to try new strategies, fail, succeed, and learn along the way.
Some of the things I learned at this job I even took to my first real paying one. I only worked part-time so I could still focus my efforts on finding a full-time job, but after several months of searching with no luck, I was at the end of my monetary rope. I spent days dreading the conversation I knew I needed to have about my compensation, but I did something I never thought I would be able to do. I let the founder know that I would either need to start getting paid or I was quitting. Standing up for myself in this way was a pivotal moment that taught me the most valuable lesson of all. If you ask for what you want, you might actually get it. His willingness to pay me was obviously what I was hoping for, but the swiftness with which he agreed struck me as odd. I questioned why he hadn’t offered it to me earlier, thus ending the naive mindset of thinking that people will give you what you want (and oftentimes what is fair) without you advocating for yourself.
3. Always ask for what you want, and you might just get it.
Working for free can sometimes feel like a bad relationship as you pour your time and passion into something that doesn’t love you back, but hopefully if you stick to your instincts and be your own best advocate, you’ll benefit by learning about a whole new industry and maybe even grow a little as a person.