Should you ever work for free? The short answer is yes. Working for free is actually an outstanding strategy that I’ve heard of often leading to success. There are several caveats, however:
- You’re doing so on a trial basis and you make this clear up front
- The employer agrees to whatever you’re “trading” for this free work
- You’re truly getting a chance to prove your value
- The employer can actually afford to hire you after your trial period
- You have a plan to add significant value during this trial period
Now one last caveat before we get into a bunch of examples. Doing work for free isn’t legal under any employment law I’ve seen. I’m not a lawyer or authority on this subject so do not take this as any sort of employment or legal advice. However, the way you should think of this is as an extended interview, job shadowing, or mentorship program. Any of these should be your attitude, your “mentor’s” attitude, and the extent of the formal documentation of this arrangement. Once you convert to doing real work, you’re opening up a legal can of worms that is best to be avoided.
Ok so with these caveats aside, how can this arrangement benefit you? Basically you’re getting close exposure to a target client or employer and giving yourself an opportunity to impress them. In an interview, you’d do the same thing. However, instead of some loose questions about your background and skills, you’re showing them first hand how you’d perform on the job and bring them value.
To illustrate this working effectively, let’s explore some examples..
1 – The assessment or proposal. One way you can benefit from a free work arrangement is to request access to their company so you can use your expertise to show them where they can improve. So let’s say you’re an IT expert. You might ask them to show you their processes, systems, etc. You figure out all the ways you can help them through a technology centric solution. Without that inside access, you might not know what to propose. So although you might be spending many unpaid hours doing this assessment, it ends up having purpose once you gain the business intelligence to propose your unique solutions (and finally get paid).
2 – Exposure to experts. What would you say if Mark Cuban offered you a one month unpaid internship? People are offering him equity in their company for access to his expertise and connections. So naturally, I think most people would do well to take that opportunity. Not everyone is Mark Cuban but there are some really helpful people that you can learn a lot from. Think about it one other way. You pay a lot of money to take courses from experts. You pay to watch top speakers. So why not give up your time to learn directly from talented people. Getting close to such people is difficult, as they have limited time and it takes a lot to bring them value. One such way is to give them your time. And who knows, you might impress them enough that they want to pay for it later.
3 – When you lack experience. I see this question among graduates all the time. Their resume has no experience and they wonder how they can get some. Ideally, you get a job or do some freelance gigs. But if you still can’t get experience the traditional way, another option is through volunteering your time. It would be hard to turn down someone with a strong desire to learn and grow. So you really can’t complain about lacking experience. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.
4 – When it’s your dream job. Everyone has a dream job. Some are a lot harder to get than others. However, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to achieve this dream? Like all the other options, ideally you become qualified enough that you don’t need to work for free. However, if times goes on and this is the only way to get that opportunity, you should consider it.
5 – When the potential reward comes later. Imagine you hear about the next big thing. It’s a company that you think will someday have tons of value. You share their vision and want to be part of it. However, that company isn’t making money yet and simply can’t afford to pay you. Perhaps it’s worth working for free in exchange for equity. If nothing comes of it, consider it an educational experience. However, if something does, you’ve positioned yourself as an owner and in line for a much bigger payoff. In the startup world, working for equity certainly has its merits.
Now ideally you don’t have to work for free. This should always be a last resort option. Perhaps even a discounted rate is worth the investment for one of these reasons. But the reasoning is always the same. You are so confident that this is an opportunity for you and if only you could get one chance, you’d show them your value.
That’s the key to making this work. Adding the value. As a business owner, I’d definitely give someone a chance but if they ever become a time or money burden, the free work is no longer free for me. You should be able to come in and add value quickly. And if you are making the business owner money (more than they would pay you), they’d be foolish not to hire you.
Everyone that’s ever been successful has been given an opportunity at some stage. For some it was easy… they just got hired per normal process. However, for many, they wouldn’t take no for an answer and added value before they were paid. It’s a great way to achieve career success… in full-time jobs, freelance gigs, business partnerships, or any other arrangement.
So would you work for free? It depends on your individual situation and we can’t give a blanket suggestion. But it’s definitely worth considering as an investment that eventually pays off.