I’m starting to see a worrying trend with free work, especially in the US: It’s become “obvious”, as if expecting money would be crazy. This is sustained by a couple of so-called realities:
- Many people are able and willing to do your job. If your expectations are too high, you don’t even compete because there are thousands out there that can do the work for free.
- You have to prove your worth. Hiring is very risky and expensive, so free work is a practice employers have to do to lower that risk before committing to someone who may not be a good fit.
- Money is tight. The business doesn’t have enough resources to pay a salary.
- Technology can do it cheaper/faster/better.
These realities may be true in some cases, but not as many as you would think. I know it’s not true for many businesses where free work is still the only kind of work coming aboard. Some of my responses to the points above:
- There’s a terrible assumption that qualified candidates are all in some sort of bag where a recruiter can just grab someone who’s a fit and put him/her to work. It overlooks the fact that the competence, skills, chemistry and values required for each job are not easy to define, find and persuade to join.
- When there’s money, it’s easier to get accountability and dedication. People don’t fuck around with their salary as much as they do with everything else that you can offer.
- Paying shows you are serious about your commitment as an employer. It will make people trust you and commit to you as well. For example, Josh Kaufman was serious about paying me as soon as possible, and acted accordingly. That meant a lot to me, and I stuck with him for a long time because of that gesture (among many other things, of course).
- Another wrong assumption: money is a good way to filter motivation. I’ve done great work for free, and unmotivated work for money. It’s not a good way to measure someone, because the context of a job is composed by many other things that can also increase/decrease output.
- Money is rarely that tight. If you really think that you’re in a position to get help, it’s because you’re creating enough value that you know you can create even more with some assistance. There’s no need to start with a full-time salary, but some cash signals a lot and you can probably afford it.
- The work technology can do better/cheaper/faster is the work no one grows much by doing. This type of work, and the work people are willing to do for free are pretty disconnected. Expecting technology to fill this void is a delusion.
- It’s an opportunity to stand out as an employer: Be the one who pays!
Here’s my theory: The free work mindset has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in the US. Everyone says candidates have to accept it, and so they accept it. Everyone says employers can/should ask for it, and so they ask for it. And in many cases, both sides get hurt by it. I believe that this trend will only encourage qualified people to take their talents elsewhere (a trend that has already started, with Latin America and East Asia as good examples), and the US needs those talents now more than ever.
I told my father, a fairly conservative Argentinian, about a small project that I accepted to do almost for free for someone in the US, because I believe in the project and the people involved. His response was interesting: “Seems like the US has taken money our of the equation…” He has a point: Every project or position that I’ve been offered in Australia, China and Argentina in recent times involved payment from day one. I no longer believe this is an economical circumstance, but a cultural one. The economy in Argentina hasn’t been in a great shape for a long time now, but people still expect and offer money in most professional agreements.
Let me be clear: This is not an all-or-nothing stance. Free work makes sense in many cases, especially the ones where learning and/or connecting are the main goal. We should analyze each case in isolation. But it’s the tendency to assume free work what worries me. There’s a limit to how much risk someone can take, especially at a young age (and in debt in many cases). And free work is one heck of a risk, since it demands time and focus for no tangible results. Don’t young people in the US have it hard enough as it is?
In fact, the idea of “learning as payment” is widely overrated, IMO. I’ve done free work for some people in exchange of “learning” which didn’t teach me shit. It was just a waste of time, except for knowing to accept less free work in the future.
Look, I don’t mind doing free work under the right circumstances, but I’m in the privileged situation where I can do free work if I want! My finances are good enough that I can devote some hours to work without being remunerated. But that’s not the general situation, and it’s not a good idea to assume otherwise.
Personally, I’ve decided to slowly move away from free work, whatever the conditions. At a practical level this means moving away from a lot of work in the US, so I can explore other markets. I’m doing this because:
- I want to do amazing work, and I need the best motivators (money included) for me to perform at my highest level. I have many ideas that would create tons of value for society, and I need funds for that.
- It’s a stance against the ubiquity of the “free work” agreements in the US. I know I won’t be the only one in the near future to look abroad for paying opportunities, which leads me to the third reason…
- I’ve learned enough from the good and bad things of free work in the US. I now feel I can create meaningful change in other parts of the world where I’m needed more.