Working hard for the money (or lack thereof)

Posted: September 6, 2012 in Ramblings
Tags: , ,

Fantastic infographic created by Jessica Hichesee the full image at

Working can be fun, frivolous, frustrating… all sorts of F-words come to mind when contemplating “work” and what it means to me; but “free” is not usually one of them.

As an aspiring blogger, i’ve worked both low-paid and no-paid jobs… hell, mainly no-paid jobs. So, here’s my thoughts on working for free: frankly, I don’t recommend it. Unless you are doing it entirely for yourself, it only ends in tears – well, in my experience anyway.

If you’re studying, starting a new business, have little or no experience, changing careers, young, old, or just aren’t an assertive person, odds are you’re in danger of falling into this unpaid work trap at some point. And since I fall into most of the aforementioned categories, I found myself facing the unpaid work dilemma recently.

Basically, i’d been involved in an unpaid project for a few months, and suddenly I just didn’t have the time for it anymore. Being unpaid also meant I had little inclination to continue working on the project. The problem is that the people I was doing the work for expected me to continue working. For free. Indefinitely.

So, I turned to Google (like I always do when i’m facing some huge life crisis) and came across this great blog post by Danny Greer about unpaid work: As he says, “working for free degrades your value”. Those words slapped me across the face.

The biggest problem with working on a project for free is that you not only undervalue yourself, but you allow others to undervalue your work as well.

By working for free, you’re thinking, “They’ll see how dedicated I am!” “I’ll have a chance to showcase my best work to people who have great connections!!” “This could kickstart the career of my creative dreams !!1!1!” Well hold off on the exclamation points, because at the end of the day it could also lead people to think that your work is only worth what you charge, i.e. NOTHING.

Even worse, it can leave you feeling stressed out, burnt out, and lacking self-esteem – if people think your work is worthless, then you may start to feel rather worthless too. It’s a pity party all round.

How many people have suffered through the shittiest, shit-kicking intern positions, buoyed only by the carrot-on-the-stick promise of a job – only to be shunted out the door after 6 months to make desk space for the next sucker intern? How many photographers, copywriters, web and graphic designers, bloggers and artists have busted their balls over some amazing work for someone else, only to be told at the end of the project “well I can’t afford to pay you, but i’ll let you use it for your portfolio”? Gee thanks. I created it so I can do that anyway, asshole.

Working for free is seen as something many people have to do to get a foot in the door of their chosen industry. Unpaid work can be a gateway to a new career, but it can also be a gateway to hell. So what can you do to avoid it being a bad experience?


Let the client (or employer) know exactly how much work you’re willing to do for free, and for how long. And then stick to those limits. Mercilessly.

We’ve all heard the saying “give an inch, take a mile”, and sadly it’s not just a cartographic hyperbole.  As soon as you allow your limits to be flexible – they will be flexed. So set limits, and make sure you clearly communicate them before you begin unpaid work.


Once you have set those limits, get it in writing. This can be a contract, via email, text message, whatever – but you need something to refer back to in case there is a dispute. You want irrefutable proof of an agreement to mitigate any problems that may arise in the future.

This is especially useful in circumstances where you’ve been working for free for awhile, and have decided that it’s time to either get paid, or move on. Having that textual agreement makes it easier to smooth things over when you tell the client that you’ve done all the free work you’re comfortable doing.


You did the right thing and got it in writing, which means they agreed to it. You can be diplomatic and good-humoured, but unfortunately you can’t be too nice about it. If you’re too nice about it, then it’s likely this will be used against you – whether it’s stringing you along with empty promises, or just ignoring you outright, you have to be able to be assertive.

Remember, as the unpaid worker, you’re more likely to get the short end of the stick here – the client will have a pretty good idea about what work will be done. You, on the other hand, have a vague, ‘possibly, maybe’ concept of what the reward or outcome may be – at best it will be paid work, and lots of it, and at worst it will be wasted time and effort.


You want to ensure that intellectual property rights and usage are clearly defined before you start the project: there should be clear agreement regarding what both you and the client can do with any material that is created in the course of the project, and how it can be used once the project is finished (i.e. does it remain your intellectual property, or theirs?). You should also be clear about how they will credit your work if it is used at a later date.

You may also want to ask if you can you use them as a reference. And this is where the way in which the project ends comes in to play. Time and budget constraints can lead to unpaid projects being significantly lower quality than paid projects for obvious reasons – but if the client felt that your work was substandard (which it may reasonably have been compared to the quality of paid work), are they are going to badmouth you in a reference to prospective clients? Then it’s possible you may not want to reference the free work at all… and how good is that going to look on your portfolio?


When all else fails, get Zen. Because some people will never be satisfied, and will always demand more than you can ever give. This part is particularly important if working for friends and family – it’s best to adopt a ‘lesson learnt and move on’ attitude. The fact is, even though you worked for free, and put alot of effort in, some people will still think you owe them something. For free.


I know this all sounds so simple; i’m reading it myself thinking ‘damn, why didn’t I do that…’  But it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of something new, and then get carried away by the work, only to be left with strained personal or professional relationships and shattered dreams when things don’t work out as planned. I should also point out that I still believe in doing work for free – for exposure, for charity, and for friends and family. But I have learnt that you have to set limits and be clear about how much work you are (or aren’t) willing to do for free. Otherwise, you risk being taken advantage of.

Finally, i’m sure this seems like a no-brainer to seasoned freelancers, but for those starting out in the field, it’s easy to get caught up in things and not realise these problems until they unfold.  All these things bear careful consideration, and can be easily overlooked in  the early stage of working for free, particularly if you’re new to the game.


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