The True Cost Of Working For Free (+ Working Alternatives)

The past week Wil Wheaton put out a solid statement that corporations don´t want to hear and artists or bloggers are afraid to mention:


You can read more about the story matter on his blog and here.

Basically I find it great when this happens and it is awesome when it happens to someone who is able to walk away from such a situation of being asked to publish something for free.

But how does that work out for someone that does not have 3 million followers on twitter and a career in the movie industry to back up?

What does it cost me? What are the true costs you mention?
The cost of working for free is defined in generell by your self esteem. Unfortunately we life in a capitalistic world and if you have to get a feeling for values on your own. You have to find out what to charge in an hour, a day or a year and that process will never end for a freelancer.

Interesting fact: Most successful people don´t calculate their value by hourly rates but by yearly income. Think about that for a minute!

The first thing to get clear about is: why are you doing what you do?
If you are a freelancer and only do paid work you don´t have to worry. If you are a freelancer and write a blog besides as a hobby (as I do), things get interesting.

Especially in the beginning of your creative career you are confronted with a lot inquiries about working for free or working for exposure. And it is vital to know that this is not uncommon practice. You know when you are becoming good at something when no one asks you to work for free anymore - or if you can afford to say no. It is as simple as that.

I´ve thought about that matter and came up with some ideas that I believe can work, at least they worked for me. And I´m also in a position to walk away from such suspicious offers.
OK, here is a list of advice with some simple ideas to get you started:

  1. Accept the offer but at your own terms.
    That means for example: You accept to publish at the Huff Post for free, but reserve the rights to call that act whatever it means to you. In the best case you can use that in your CV, profiles anywhere. And don´t just brag about being published by HP, go bold and write that you have a column or make up anything else that puts you in a favorable position.
    Would you feel bad about that? Think twice. They don´t care and so do the most other corporations. You can call your "job" or "agreement" whatever you want, you could even call it a consulting or management position, because that´s what it is, you were consulted to manage that the magazine had something they can publish to make profit. THAT puts you in a situation that you can turn into your own favor.
  2. Help others to help themselves
    That applies not to a company but most often to friends and family. And this is where the drama often begins; A cousin asks you to write that article for him or if you can paint a canvas piece for her birthday, etc. That is all well and fine until you decide to get compensated for your work. This happens most often parallel, so you do paid work while still getting asked to do work for free. One day you have to decide.
    In the best case you can use time as an effective excuse why you can´t do anything. You can then argue that for a compensation you can make it more of a priority - believe it or not but that makes sense to the most insane people. If that does not help you can also help others to help themselves; For example you can mention where you have studied and say that the art instructors are pretty great and helpful and it does only cost you $20.000 to study. But if that is too much, I can teach you a thing or two in a few days in exchange for - whatever it is you want.
    It is mostly psychological tricks you learn as a parent to convince your kids, but some tactics never go out of style.
  3. The third alternative route (and why you should think things through)
    Very often we are in a position to say we need the exposure and if it is a win/win situation that is totally OK as long as there is a gain for both parties involved.
    I have cases where I do poster designs for conventions and get a spot on that event for free. This are best case scenarios because both parties safe something and gain something but it requires work of both parties to make that happen. Not everyone wants this and it does not work for every artist. I just wanted to give that example to say it is possible to have a third alternative.
    People are always out to save on something. If you can help them save something by having an idea and are able to discuss this, you are up to a win. If you tried everything and the person in question is not seeing any possible win you can safely afford to say no. But don´t say no without thinking it through.
  4. The comparison trick
    The easist trick, and one that I employ even on conventions to sell a canvas piece, is to say what something similar would cost. For example the struggle of renovating and the cost of a new wallpaper makes a $100 for a readily framed canvas piece appear cheap. And so on. Often times it only needs a bit momentum (the right timing) and a persuading comparison to make someone who wants something for free -pay for it.
    From experience I know that 2 times out of 5 this works. It will not work on anyone but at least they were educated and think about the matter.
  5. Give them something for free
    The best method to prevent getting asked is to give something away for free. In the digial realm that can be your images in a websize or wallpaper, brushes, whatever.
    In the real world, say on conventions, it can be little image cards - in fact plenty of them that also serve as business cards. This way people see what you are giving away for free and it totally makes sens that the bigger stuff has to cost something.
    Not everyone will buy, but people do at least understand your values.
    If you want to apply the #2 idea, it can make sense to say that 2 hours of your teaching are for free if they apply for a 7 hour course, etc.
These are my best bets to overcome the issue of getting asked to give away your labour for free. And if you observe them closely, they all incorporate a working third alternative. A solution that is better than every single party had in mind in the first place.

I learned that first hand to change interactions in your favor when you go for a third alternative. Life is too complex to believe what works for Wil Wheaton will work for you. Especially if you are starting out you have to listen carefully to what others have to say.
Only this way you are able to find the perfect solution.

Let me know what you have experienced and what solution worked best for you.
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Oliver aka Fantasio is a creative blogger who likes to share his insights about art, marketing and social media. Follow Fantasio on twitter or facebook


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