I recently did some spec work on a multimedia project.  It wasn’t a little bit of work.  In total I probably have about 120 to 180 hours in.  At the time of this writing there is a better than average chance I won’t get paid for the work.  I knew that was a possibility of course.   I also knew that if I don’t get paid I’ll get some negative feedback from my wife, which most married men will tell you, never results in a pleasant evening.  This isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this.   In another aligned endeavor, I have been doing unpaid DJ and outdoor movie event gigs for a while.   Where the commitment with the multimedia project was all about creation, the DJ and other event gigs really cost me more in equipment than they do in time and effort, although they do require a tremendous amount of both.  I’ve never really thought about why I do this sort of stuff until the multimedia project fell apart after it was completed. I won’t deny I was a bit disheartened.  There was a fair amount of money involved in the project, or I should say, I hoped would be involved with the project.  Upon reflection I realized there were some things I would do differently but my actions would be mostly the same.  I definitely would have still put in the hours even knowing it was probably going to be unpaid. I realized it was the same for all my other endeavors I don’t get a check for and that there were some common threads among them all. 

Even before I start I want to get a couple of things out of the way.   As they say in meetings I have some “housekeeping to go over”  The first thing is about money.  I like money, and when I say I like money, what I mean is that I like the security that money brings.  I have several friends and family members who are very motivated by money.  They get their high by having the most expensive watch, the nicest car or the biggest boat.  They love being surrounded by things that represent their financial wins.  That’s not what I think about when I say I like money.  I like knowing that if the transmission falls out of the car, I have enough to fix it, or in a worse case scenario, buy a modest new car with cash.  My motivation isn’t to have the nicest house, it’s to have a relatively nice house that’s paid for.   Why do I share this?  It is because of the natural outcome of this thinking.  It aligns more to a financially defensive strategy.  I think about how much I can save. I rarely think about how much I can earn or what I can do to earn more.  This means, when I see something that piques my curiosity, I’m not thinking about how much money it’ll get me, I’m thinking about how I can get a deal on it or pull it off (if it’s an activity vs. a physical object).     

The second thing is the fine line between volunteering and working for free.  Volunteering, at least in my mind, is the thing many people do because of the greater good involved in it.  Running the local little league, working in a community garden, and entertaining folks in hospitals or assisted living facilities as well as countless other opportunities to give your time are common ways to work for free.  There is a ton of work involved in these activities and often they involve long hours and little in the way of recognition.   Alternatively something like developing and producing a video commercial for a local business is not something people usually do for free.   It’s this second type of free work, the things that people don’t usually do for free, which involves a high level of knowledge. These are the things I’m really talking about in this article when I muse about working for free.  

Going back to the threads that connect everything I work on that I should or could get paid for but don’t,   I think the first and most important motivation for me across all of my endeavors is curiosity and a desire to learn.   For me it’s usually related to electronics, but it might as well be camping.  It’s all about learning a new  topic I’m unfamiliar with or figuring out how to do something I haven’t done yet.  It’s how I started my podcast, it’s how I wrote the book, and it’s how I got into doing kid’s dance parties as an ammiture disk jockey.  I saw something that looked interesting, started reading up on it, I asked questions, and the next thing you know there is an entire DJ light and sound setup in my living room.  

The second thread across all my ‘work for free or relatively free’ projects is that they tend to be some form of creative outlet.  Most people can be creative at work, but there are always restrictions.  When you are doing something of your own accord without getting paid, usually any restrictions are limited.  People tend to get what they pay for.    

The third thread that seems to cross all my projects is that I’m doing it for others, I’m helping them with their goals using newly learned skills.  Like most people I do feel a sense of gratification when I get to help others out.   So these are my motivations and justifications. It’s where I derive benefit from working for little or no pay on big projects. Distilling them down, I realized that although they are personal to me, there are some benefits that really apply to anyone.  

Working without getting paid is great if your want to figure something out by spending time to learn it versus spending big money.  Yes, we can all go to school or buy a course on Udemy, but there is nothing like hands-on learning.   Technically, as an instructor, I have to admit that the combination of many different modalities seems to work best but that’s semantics and it doesn’t take away from the benefits  of ‘on the job’ training.  Also, we can’t forget that if you are learning ‘on the job’ without getting paid, you’ll usually find someone who will take you up on it.   People love to get free work out of others, it’s why interns exist.  You could think of working for free on your own passion project as a self created internship. 

It helps motivate you, because if your doing something for someone, then there usually is a deadline or some sort of incentive to not leave your friend hanging.   We generally like to keep our word. If we are doing something for ourselves, it often never gets done i.e. clean the garage, read that novel, etc…  When we do things for others, we tend not to let the project sit unfinished forever.  If you think about it, when you commit to building something in your friends back yard or you plan to build something in your own backyard, what has a better chance of getting built?  Not only do we get it done, there is usually some internal motivation to do a good job when you are working for someone else, no matter if it’s paid or unpaid.  Most people I know would be willing to cut corners in their own lives, but would not cut corners when doing something for another person. 

There is a snowball effect as well.  What I mean by that is there is the chance that eventually the skills you learn turn into paying gigs, and maybe, over time, highly paid gigs.  Ultimately, if you are doing something, whatever it is, and you get good at it, people will see the results of your efforts.  Eventually someone is going to want to offer you money to do it for them.  Some of my DJ gigs are now paid and I’m expanding that side hustle.   It doesn’t matter if it’s a service or a project.  

The opportunities may not come from that exact skill or project.   Others who may not need the service, may still need some aligned skill or resource you developed with your project.  The best example I can use is that I had someone who attended my dance party DJ gig, and approached me wanting to rent my UV lights so they could have a glow in the dark yoga session.   That was one of many different opportunities that came my way from people witnessing what I could do.  In short, it creates opportunities because you are seen as a go-getter or someone with skills.  It puts you in ‘the club’ of people who do that, or know how to do that sort of thing.   In case you were wondering, I bartered the lights and got my wife a couple of free tickets to the event they were used at.

Sometimes, if the work aligns to a creation, that creation can get repurposed.  My example for this one goes back to some promotional stuff we had a vendor put together at my old job.  It was a really cool theme/concept with all the related assets that we could use in our collateral and other outreach materials.  Unfortunately the boss didn’t like it.  It was creative and colorful and she was comicly conservative minded with anything related to a public document.   Months later I found out they repurposed it and sold it to another vendor.  To a lesser extent I’ve done this with my writing.  Some of my blog posts have become parts of the book I tried to write.   The point is when there is something new, that something new can always be used in different ways and at different times.  

I’ve been talking about regular life and side gigs but that doesn’t mean you can’t do work without getting paid for your regular job.  Many of the same benefits I’ve already cited apply, but there is one huge pitfall you have to avoid.  If you do ‘over and above’ free work for your employer, they may continue to feel entitled to your efforts.  As an example, if you are an ammiture photographer you may offer to do the headshots of everyone in the office so you can practice or justify buying a new camera lense or light fixture.  Even if you are explicitly clear that it’s a one time thing if you aren’t getting paid, you may still get requests to work for free when “budgets are tight” or from a co-worker friend who may need an updated professional photo.  Then your stuck.  The pressure to keep the boss happy may trump your desire to not work for free anymore.  So my advice on this one is to proceed with tremendous caution.  The safer route is to never do anything additional unless you are getting paid for it when it comes to your regular gig.  

I have had several coworkers over the years who have maintained the “If they don’t pay me, I’m not doing the work!” attitude.  What I have found is that often the bosses respect that as much or more than the person who’s willing to go the extra mile.  All of a sudden the budget may get opened up a bit allowing for a one time payment.  This is especially true in the private sector.  For business people, they respect business transactions.  Also they need to get the job done first, the money is secondary unless it’s overly restrictive.  

So I’ve talked about all the good in working for free, at least if it’s targeted and has an existential benefit.  But what are the negatives?  Aside from the employer scenero already covered, there is another one.  You can easily overload yourself.  Remember the rule of 2.5.   I’ve done this one too many times in my life, so maybe it’s just an issue relating to my own personality.  Regardless, more stuff to do is just that, it’s more stuff to do.  Even if you love the things you are doing and learning, time is finite.  The extra efforts create pressure in other areas of your life.  This pressure can be accelerated as you start to attract more engagement with your free efforts.   One DJ gig turned into two, and then into four, and then the next thing you know I was doing one every other month.  It becomes exhausting.  Also, unfortunately, If you’ve started to do the work without getting paid, it can be very difficult to transition to asking for money.  I’m still trying to figure that transition out.  I think I have a plan, but at the rate I’m going I’m still a year or two away from it.   

So what’s the final verdict on working for free?  If you love it, or maybe the idea of learning it, if you would do without getting paid, then I say do it.   Work your butt off, learn all you can, and think of it as an intense hobby.  My only real advice is to be cautious.  Don’t become a permanent free vendor for everyone else.  Also, it’s probably not a bad idea to think about if you want to eventually charge money for what you are doing, and if so, figure out exactly what level of proficiency you need to be at to comfortably charge.  That’s where I’m at.   I’ve got a few more things to buy, and one more skill to learn, and then I won’t mind charging for my services, and not just charging, I may actively promote them.  If you do wind up working on developing a skill by working for free and you get to the point where you also would feel comfortable charging, then that’s something to be lauded.  It’s something to celebrate.  And on that note, if you are celebrating, I know a DJ you can hire.  He used to be free, but I think he may charge now.  

Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips: www.paypal.me/pelusopresents https://venmo.com/pelusopresents

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