Should you ever work for free? The power of saying no

exposure-1-600x368I came across a post on Medium about the 15 things you should do to be successful that your loser friends won’t do. I’ve seen a myriad of these posts, and after awhile none of them surprise me.

The very first post in the listicle immediately got my hackles up. It said “help without expecting anything in return.” Why did this get my hackles up? Isn’t that a good thing?

Of course it is, and it’s totally a good thing to be generous with your time. Within reason.

“Within reason” is the key phrase here. If you’re in a creative field, you know the fallacy in this statement. Because creative work often is undervalued, people have no problem asking you to work for free. While no one goes to a dentist and expects free work on a cavity (well, there’s always someone, but most wouldn’t), as any writer, photographer, musician, videographer, etc will tell you, they’re inundated by requests to work for free. Oatmeal has a great comic about this. 

But I think it’s important to point out that I’m not 100 percent against the statement made in this post. I think it’s a good thing to be generous with your advice or mentorship to those entering your field, and I think being generous helping out charities isn’t a bad idea too. And if you’re building up your portfolio, sometimes you have to do a few free projects. I would even argue that a particularly high-profile project might make sense to do pro bono for growing your brand or reach.

But that has to be balanced with not devaluing yourself. Because people can and will take advantage of creative types and expect things for free.

A great example comes from Antonio Centeno, the founder of Real Men, Real Style, who I interviewed recently. He did a shoe review on his channel for free, basically earning a pair of shoes. The video made the company a lot of money, and they quickly sent him more shoes to review. “I can’t pay my bills with a shoe,” Centeno thought at the time. So he sent them a bill and they paid it within an hour. Creative types can be afraid to charge, but we need to get over that. Dentists, car mechanics and bakers have no problem charging for their work. Why should we? (You can read all about the business advice I got from Antonio here.)

I do have examples that counter this. I helped a friend of mine’s band get set up with a high-profile downtown event. We had a discussion about the pay, since there wasn’t any. I advised him that it was up to him, but that he might consider this marketing, since he would be in front of a lot of people familiar with his music. His band ended up playing in front of one of the hottest clubs in town, and the owner saw them and booked them instantly. But even then, it was carefully selected free work. Essentially it was marketing, paid for through labor, not money.

And an example on the writing side of this is including one of my stories in an anthology. Even if I didn’t get paid for the anthology sales, the number of books I would sell because I was exposed to new readers would be worth more than the effort to write the story and include it for free. But that’s not “free” per se, but it’s earning a marketing value over a dollar amount value.

So that’s a consideration. But remember that people/companies will greatly over estimate  the value of such “exposure.” If you are doing work for a company that no one else will see, or maybe people will see but have no idea you did it, that’s of little marketing value. This is not work you will do for exposure. You should be paid for your time, unless this is a charity or helping out a family member/close friend.

To sum up, I’m not saying you should never work pro bono. If you’re helping out a great cause, a family member or a friend, or maybe a mentee you’ve taken under your wing or someone you’ve taken a special interest in and want to see succeed, by all means, be generous with your time and services. But beware the sharks who would take advantage of your creativity and effort for their own profits. It’s important to value your time, or no one else will.

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