On working for free

Recently, this comment was left on my job posting for a book designer:

You know what they say, Mr. Berkun – you pay peanuts; you get monkeys. If you want someone to spend the time required to design a book and then not get paid with anything other that good wishes, you’re on the wrong track. Would you do consulting for free if a company said they would give you freedom and publicity alone?

There is nothing disrespectful about asking people to work for free if you are doing something interesting. Here are my arguments:

  1. There are kinds of compensation other than cash.  Sometimes those other rewards are harder to obtain than cash. If you were a guitarist and could play a gig with U2, without pay, would you do it? I’m sure you would. I’m not Bono in 100 different ways, but you get the point. If you think I’m a bozo, I wouldn’t want you working for me simply because I’m paying the most.
  2. Yes, I work for free when the rewards are worth it.  Many artists do. If  you see someone on a television news show, I guarantee you, they are not being paid to be there. Why? The opportunities of that “work” have value above and beyond financial compensation. I do webcasts online, for free, quite often.
  3. If I could work with someone I admired, on a fun and challenging project, I’d certainly consider doing it for free. Especially if the project was unlikely to reap financial rewards for anyone involved (such as, say, an experimental self published book).
  4. Hell. This blog you are reading is “free”. No one pays me to do this. So why bother? Because it has rewards I can’t obtain any other way.  I’m a writer by trade, yet I’ve written 1000+ posts here. Arguably 70% or more of the words I will ever write I will not be paid for.
  5. Specific to this designer role, I don’t want to hire someone who is motivated for this project solely for financial reasons. I did mention I’d like to find a way to pay them, but can’t promise.  Primarily I want to hire someone who a) digs my work and wants to collaborate, or b) who is motivated by the opportunity to design something amazing and recognizes the unique opportunity here – since in the publishing world, designers rarely get that kind of seniority on a book with an established author.

The zero-tolerance argument against working for “free” is a bad argument, as zero-tolerance arguments always are. It discounts non-financial compensation, puts no value on how interesting or exciting a project can be, and ignores the huge number of successful people in hundreds of fields who willingly choose to work on projects without pay.

So fine, you can call me a monkey. I like monkeys. But at least in this case I’m a monkey who is practicing what I’m preaching.

[Update: the design job description was updated to include guaranteed pay]

30 Responses to “On working for free”

  1. Noah Iliinsky

    I’m totally with you on this one, Scott. While I totally understand the arguments against working for free in *most cases*, there absolutely are situations where it’s a fantastic choice because the benefits are not measured in dollars sent by the publisher.

    Case in point, none of our contributors to Beautiful Visualization (myself included) received any author royalties for contributing to the book, yet we all happily spent time and effort on it. It remains one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve had, at a variety of levels (including financial).

  2. Nancy King

    It’s learning how to judge whether bozos are involved or evaluating what you’ll learn or the connections you gain. That surprisingly doesn’t come naturally to many.

  3. Baron

    I agree with you. But I didn’t think you were asking the designer to work for free. Compensation, and the power to make things happen is more than money. (Whuffie comes to mind.)

    In particular, the direction for the design of the book is an innovative one, one that could set precedent. The compensation from the design would come from the amount of precedent it set.

    Though I understand that book publishing is often not as lucrative as one might imagine, I saw you as implying that you were open to some type of equity concept in the book in addition to the non-monetary compensation.

    I can understand the designer’s point of view. They are often asked to work for free. They have to be vigilant in order to be paid at all, and often must be downright strident in order to be paid a fair price.

    On the surface this looks similar to many other requests to work for free, but I see a difference here.

    This is a shoe-string project. In the greater world such projects are rarely successful, but I think you have a great chance to pull this off.

  4. Vivek Gupta

    I agree with you, Scott. Some of the best and satisfying tasks we have done are ‘free’ or pro-bono.

    Your arguments are excellent examples of ‘Critical Thinking’, which I am trying hard to learn for several years now, helped by useful articles and software by Prof. Tim Van Gelder (http://timvangelder.com/)

    Mother Teresa, once said, “…Small work with great love…”, which translates for me into doing our best, irrespective of any external motivation. The internal passion to putting our best into whatever we pursue is a great motivator, and provides a satisfied, peaceful sleep at night.

    After 14 years in industry, for last 10 years I am a teacher. In general, people feel that teachers get paid less and hence they are perennially in short supply. But, with more money thrown in, you may end up getting mercenaries, instead of passionate and enthusiasm-driven individuals…

    If money becomes the ONLY motivator for some work, it may become merely a mechanical transaction, and not a relationship for life.

  5. Tisha White

    Instead of looking at it as being asked to work for free, consider it more as an internship. You may not be paid much but the experience and the credit would be worth it. If I had a portfolio of work and a little more experience in this area I would apply for the position in a heartbeat because I believe Scott does great work and his ideas should be spread far and wide.

  6. Scott Berkun

    I should have mentioned: I of course understand if someone can’t work for free because they are trying to make ends meet. Of course you can’t work for free if you can’t pay your bills or have other challenges in your life. I totally understand. But that means this particular project is not for you, and you should say no.

    But that’s different from taking the position that it’s always wrong to ask people to work for free, or to take on a free assignment.

  7. Alberto Escarlate

    Have you considered sharing the profits from the book sales with the designer? I’m curious if you write the book for financial reward or for the same benefits you are suggesting that the designer should take the job.

    1. Scott Berkun


      I’d like to do something but not sure how to make it work. I’m not a publisher – factoring quarterly royalties requires ongoing accounting, forever that I don’t know how to do.

      It’s more conceivable to offer some kind of bonus at a certain point of sales, likely at the point where I recoup all of the expenses for the book, which I’d be funding entirely myself. If the book does well enough to break even (which the majority of books never do) I’d like to see everyone get something.

      But as I said in the job post – this is highly speculative. I don’t want people taking the job primarily for revenue, bonus or other reasons.

  8. Fuzzy the Bunny

    It seems that we’ve touched a nerve here.

    I’ve heard all these arguments a million times. The experience! The experience! did I mention the experience? Experience is only as good as the future job it will help you land.

    Then again, with this type of economic model, who would bother offering paid jobs? We can all eat radishes and lawn clippings while we engage in the enlightening and heady process of helping someone else to make money. The scary thing is that I’m sure there are many takers for your offer, all people who don’t lack money but do lack experience. What do they do with their time??

    As for your odd remark about writing a blog for free… that’s your choice, unless you in fact farm it out to unpaid hacks.

  9. Scott Berkun

    Fuzzy wrote:

    > Then again, with this type of economic model,
    > who would bother offering paid jobs?

    This is not an economic model, it’s a job :) I am not saying designers should not be paid. I have paid many designers to do many things.

    However, some designers dream about having real power on an interesting project – that’s who I’m looking to hire. Everyone who complains about the pay is self-selecting themselves not to be someone I’d likely want to hire anyway for this particular project.

    > As for your odd remark about writing a blog for free…
    > that’s your choice

    Exactly. And for all the people who have applied so far, it’s their choice too.

  10. Pawel Brodzinski

    That just reminds me: how much Wikipedia pays contributors for their work? They don’t? Really? Well, they must have serious problems with getting anyone to help them with work on content. No wonder why Microsoft Encarta (which pays folks for their job) kicks Wikipedia butt.

    Oh, wrong example…

    I do a lot of things not asking about money in exchange. It doesn’t matter if it is non-profit event (like community conference) or I’m helping some people in business matching (which they expect to earn money from). That probably has a serious impact on my skills to the point where I can be considered a monkey. Ops, I shouldn’t have taken those roles I guess.

    And by the way: have you seen my peanuts?

  11. Baldur Bjarnason

    I have to disagree with your argument here.

    I’m not disagreeing with the idea that there are good reasons out there for working for free, there are. I do it all the time myself under various circumstances, even to the degree where the more financially minded of my friends tell me I’m being really stupid (e.g. turning down a paid job because I’m working on an interesting unpaid job).

    I figure, if the project’s worthwhile, why not?

    With that in mind I’d like to explain why your rationale here is largely self-serving from the perspective of somebody who believes in doing work for free when he can.

    What you leave out of your arguments is that for most people, designers, creatives, writers, unpaid is fine as long as everybody’s in the same boat: personal projects, art, research, etc.

    You are a writer with a record and it’s reasonable for an outsider to assume that a book you self-publish will earn you money. You’re not doing this as a non-profit project, you’re not donating the proceeds to charity. You expect to profit from the project financially.

    Pay a flat fee, with a promise of looking into bonuses if everything goes well, and all the counter-arguments go away.

    When you’re doing an art project, something creative, something personal, something that looks like a financial long shot, you’ll find that the ‘work for free’ argument works quite well.

    But when you’re pitching an unpaid job that is vital to the success of a for-profit project, that’s self-serving and, I hate to say this, more than a little bit sleazy.

    Especially since the responsibilities of the designer in your project are numerous and time-consuming.

  12. Jace

    I basically agree with Baldur here. You’re asking someone to put in a lot of work on an an experimental project, yet accept a disproportionately low (as in zero) share of any possible rewards, which are — let’s face it — likely. A more reasonable approach would be to offer a share in the project. Maybe you’re doing the writing and also putting up the money, so you get 50%… the editor could get 30% and the designer 20%. Or something.

    This reminds me a bit of the “Ultimatum Game”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game. An offer that’s too low is rejected because it’s viewed as a slight.

  13. Phil Simon

    Good post, Scott. This is a really thorny issue for me. I agree with the “if it’s worth it, then do it for free argument.” There are others, though (and I’m not putting you in this group by any means) who don’t understand this. I could go off on a huge rant here but will spare you.

    It’s an individual choice and, as we speak, I am about to leave for a video shoot for AT&T. I’m doing it for free because I believe that it will benefit me. The squeeze is worth the juice. However, for others (think Malcolm Gladwell), it’s not.

    OK…off the soapbox.

  14. Sark

    If you pay peanuts, wouldn’t you get elephants?

  15. Sam Greenfield

    Scott, I know you, so I also know that you would not screw someone over. However, most people do not know you and have no reason to trust you. This is why we have contracts. If you make money on the book, you can give people the assurance that you will split the profits via a contract.

    There is precedent for this kind of work. Union actors are not allowed to work for free without a waiver from their union. In addition, every performance comes with a contract. The general gist of the contract states that while all costs must be paid off first, the first people to take any money away from the production would be the union actors.

    In essence, the only one who should work for “free” on this project should be you. The first people you should pay are the ones who risked their time on your project. Faith that your project is awesome and fun does not put bread on the table. Nor is it a guarantee that the project will be professionally exciting or valuable.

    By creating a contractual agreement between you and a designer, it makes it clear what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.

    Here’s another way to think about it: if the project goes stunningly well and then there is a massive difference of opinion, who owns the contractual rights to the collaborative work? Is it work for hire? Does the designer have a shared copyright; can they prevent *you* from publishing?

    We might want to think about new ways to share information, but we still live in the here-and-now. While there are some creative ways to share information in a non-traditional way, e.g. creative commons, we still need to think about how to create in our current environment. You might even want to consider talking to a lawyer. You may even be able to get them to work pro-bono. :-)

  16. Bruce Heilbrunn

    Never ever ever work for free. Once companies learn they can get someone for free you will displace a paid employee. Never work for free; the conpany doesn’t.

  17. Bruce Heilbrunn

    Never ever ever work for free. Once companies learn they can get someone for free you will displace a paid employee. Never work for free; the company doesn’t. Let me add to this. It is the height of gall to even ask anyone to work on a for profit project to work for free. Even student interns get course credit.

  18. Joe Clark

    Your self-serving arguments having been publicly destroyed, the choice of whether to press on regardless remains yours. The problem is your reputation stands to be permanently tainted, as does that of any poor sap who does free work for a well-remunerated author.

  19. Larissa

    I think it’s easy to work for “free” when it’s a self-serving project. As an individual you have the most to gain. The designer in this case, does have something to gain – but not as much value.

    The issue I have with the “work for free” argument – is that most of the time, it’s not worth it. And I believe it sets a bad precedence assuming that design work is not worth pay.

    If the wrong company uses this argument – points it out and says “See, Scott says you should work for free…” It can snowball into an unfair balance for the designer.

    As designers, we already have a hard time being respected for our work because some people think it’s just “pushing pixels” – so I strongly disagree with the idea of working for free. If you do it for one person, then everyone will expect you to work for free.

    I think it comes down to respect. Would a house-keeper clean a house for a celebrity for free in exchange for the recognition? I think not.

  20. Adam Trachtenberg

    Dear Scott —

    I bet people believe you make 10x the money on a book then you do. If only they knew that nobody would ever write books like yours just for the money. :)

    Heck, I calculated that, despite writing PHP Cookbook (not Harry Potter, but a relatively popular programming book), on an hourly basis, I’d have made more money by working at McDonald’s.

    On the other hand, nobody ever tells me that the hamburger I served them was “more useful to them in their job than their entire undergraduate CS education,” as I heard last week at a conference. Which is part of the non-financial benefits you speak of, and why you choose to share your knowledge.

  21. Jessie Mac

    Working for unpaid ‘experience’ is something creative people tend to be confronted with more than other professions.

    As an actor, painter, designer, photographer, director, cameraman etc, often when you’re starting out and you need to build a portfolio of work to ‘show off’ your talent and you don’t have the capital to produce your own project, jumping on to someone else’s (who is putting up the costs but you work for free for a credit/showreel etc) may be beneficial to you.

    However, if you’re already getting paid work in that profession, working for free doesn’t make sense unless the project brings other benefits such as marketing exposure, networking possibilities or potential future paid work etc. In the end it’s up to you to decide if those benefits make the unpaid work worth it.

  22. Elisabeth Bucci

    Chris Anderson’s most excellent book “Free”, which I listened to (wait for it…) for free (it’s on iTunes as a free podcast), really opened my eyes to the power of Free as a marketing strategy. That’s right, Free can help you make more money if you’re smart about it.

    And, yes, the book addresses all of the arguments presented in these comments.

    It also opened my eyes to the possibilities that, under certain circumstances, I would work for free. I now have those circumstances outlined in a personal growth strategy.

    Interesting discussion here: paradigms questioned are always a scary thing…

  23. Gaby

    I see no reason why the expression ‘working for free’ is semantically correct.

    There is no working for free, you just defer the reward.

    A ‘deferring the reward’ decision proves you like (are curious about) the domain but there is no possibility to do a similar work for a direct reward – or you want to give something back – or somebody is monetizing on your vanity, in this case you should get the intellectual instruments to stop making people think you’re an wild ass depressed donkey.



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