Two coffees Photo by Tania Miron on UnsplashTania Miron on Unsplash
I have seen a worrying trend of pieces from people cropping up advising people not to work for free but often without offering advice on how to approach this other than flat out saying no. While generally that’s fine advice, having such a carte blanc policy is disadvantaging only one person - you - so you need rules.
The issue I have with working for free, or asking others to, is the lack of parity that assumes and the relationship that it creates. The argument isn’t around if you get paid or not it’s what you do get. If that thing (or collection of things) is more/as valuable or as money, a decision needs to be made by the person being asked whether to accept but they have the power and no-one feels like a tyrant.
Rule 1) Play the long game.
There’s nothing more addictive than a monthly paycheque and times can get tight but money isn’t everything. You can’t live on favours alone but they can we worth their weight in gold. Equally, a referral might just become your biggest client or opportunity. I have seen it happen many times and it’s only up to you to collect and remember them.
Rule 2) Speaking needs negotiation.
Speaking is where working for ‘free’ often comes into play and as a conference organiser, author, nerd and general big mouth I have done more than my fair share of free gigs. Some were totally free, some were favours, others bought an amount of books, others were because the right people were in the room. If you want to make it as a speaker, get an agency otherwise be smart and start negotiating until they offer to pay you or it feels natural. Very few people make it overnight. While no gig is ever free thinking of it as marketing yourself can help. Equally, being reimbursed or having travel paid for you can lessen the immediate cost. Top tip, agree the booking person will personally introduce you to at least five people (and prepare for each ‘meeting’) and you’ll see how much they really want you.
Rule 3) Accept whatever coffees are requested on your own terms.
The same goes for coffees. There’s a growing feeling that having your brain picked or going for a coffee is a bad thing. If you go on a bad coffee that’s your fault and no-one else's. If someone asks you for help it’s as much your opportunity as theirs. I can’t count the times I have heard that I was booked for a gig or was referred into a company because of a coffee I had or someone asked to ‘pick my brain’ years prior. The trick here is to organise it, set boundaries and make it work into your schedule. Just because someone asks for a coffee doesn’t mean they get one in the next three days or that you go to them. Equally, it’s fine to drink a coffee together on the end of the phone. I don’t ask for referral fees if I connect people to jobs but if I did I would be richer than I am today because of the coffees I have had not in spite of them.
It’s easy to get disillusioned about working for free but these rules have played a huge role for me and others into making it sting a little bit less or even being more valuable than money. The key is to evaluate and negotiate more; the compromise is where greatness and the extra value can be found.