Working for “free”

I have been thinking about writing an actual post about this for quite a while because I really needed to feel like I am clear about the subject. I also wanted to see if whatever action I took had an actual result. The trigger for writing it right now was a very interesting offer I got recently, which was borderline, so I actually had to think about it for a while. I won’t divulge it but I will share the thinking process.

To break it down quickly, I will be talking about when, how and why I worked and still working for free, what are or have been the benefits and if there is any value in working for exposure.

I have two main principles when I chose to work for free:

  1. I always make the choice when to work for free. That means mostly that I only work for free if it is my initiative. This doesn’t mean that if I am asked to work for free I won’t do it out of principle. It means that if I chose to work for free, it will be in my terms.
  2. I work for free with non-profit organizations and/or for a specific cause that I really believe in. Rule 1 applies first though, it has to be in my terms. I might chose to work for a company, but only if I somehow have absolute proof that the company serves higher purpose than profit.

The idea is that in my mind there is very specific border between providing a service for a cost and contributing to the common good. The border is never fuzzy for me, but my personal reasons can be misleading.

One example is being asked to work for a company for the sake of exposure and marketing. The idea would be that if the service you are provided is something that a recognized company deemed worthy, then you can use that in your own marketing. If you are associated with the big guys, then you will score high.

The interesting fact is that at a quick look, it does make sense. Being endorsed by a big brother will raise a bit your status and expose you to a possible market.
Unfortunately that is only half of the story. Taking advantage of that market further on still requires marketing principles which you have already abandoned when you chose to work for free to get exposure. Because once you took that step, you already sent the wrong message – “Dangle the possibility of carrot in front of me and I will mindlessly move ahead!”. There is no way for you to quantify the result of this marketing thus you cannot know if you would get any benefit out of it, in most of the cases anyway.

On top of that, a typical company is in it for the profit. This means that wherever you are contracted for, it is meant to make them money, a part of which you are entitled to get. Unless of course they also chose to work for free in which case you might be doing the right thing…

But how about exceptions?!

Once of the most problematic decisions I had to take was to work for free for a company that was doing something I really believed in. That means that in my mind the outcome of the company actions is much more valuable for the common good than the actual profit they are making. They’ve also thrown in the exposure thing ;). I had to think quite a bit if it’s worth giving up the money in exchange for doing good. And damn, it was hard because the whole idea was falling in between my own principles.

In the end, the only way I was able to chose was to evaluate my trust relation with the company. And being put in the situation of not knowing certain details for sure, and also taking in account my “gut”, I said no. The “rational” reason was that I didn’t had the trust that I could do the job in my terms which means that I said no out of principle.

The point is that in the end no rules of principles should be followed “by the book”. Most of the situations can be easily ruled in or out based on principles because they fall in a certain recognisable pattern. But when a special case occurs often times you need to go a bit more “human” and make a decision based on more subjective reasoning, using trust and gut.

So, what are the results?

I have worked for free quite a bit. And I loved every single part of doing that. I worked for organisations, friends or even people a I never knew before. The biggest benefit of all was that instead of creating just a business relationship, I’ve actually built friendships that I am really proud of. I gained so much more in return than just money. I got back value and trust.

It is very interesting to see how the run for money is changing the nature of our social behaviour to the point where we forget how we are built as humans. “Don’t get personal in business” is like saying “don’t be a human, abandon yourself, be the company, not the man!”. It is bullshit, really. You NEED to get personal or else you just don’t give a damn about the world around you and you don’t understand the others which makes you untrustworthy.

Now, you might say that, wait a minute, you will not be able to ask for money from friends in the future, right? Well, why not? I mean, by definition, trust is the base of any healthy business relationship. Thus it makes perfect sense to first build trust and then do business together. This idea that you should never do business with friends and relatives is just a typical stereotype. It should never be used as a principle.


…but remember

Don’t die of exposure!