Why Every Creative Should Work for Free

My very good friend sent out the following tweet (which I in turn retweeted):

Any logo designers out there want to work on a fun project in return for a lot of exposure?

One of the first responses I received was this one from @notlikenormal:

Which was then followed by these tweets (as well as a few more):

I decided that these warranted a blog post since it allows for more than just 140 character sound bites.

Should You Ever Take Free Work as a Creative?

100% yes. Anybody who tells you differently is just angry that you got a job they wanted.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in some form of creative industry – from web design to application development to writing to speaking. I have ALWAYS done free work at the very beginning in order to build up a portfolio.

Why? Because without a portfolio of work, it can be extremely difficult to get paid work. It’s as simple as that. One of the first conferences I keynoted, I did for free so that I could have video of me on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Could I have refused the opportunity? Of course! Would I have been mistaken to do so? Absolutely.

That event has allowed me to book tens of thousands of dollars worth of speaking engagements, consulting agreements and more.

The Problem With the Starving Artist

Artists and creatives tend to make bad business people. Not all of them, but many of them. They value the time and creativity and energy that go into their art (as they absolutely should).

The problem is they are still starving because nobody is aware that their art exists. Ask any successful musician how many free gigs they played when they started and they’ll laugh at the idea of trying to number them. Most of them had day jobs to pay the bills and played nights and weekends to gain exposure and experience.

I want to be clear on this: you don’t deserve to be paid for your work, you earn the right to be paid for your work. How you get “paid” is completely up to you. When you have a day job and you’re starting out, which is more important: money or exposure? I would argue exposure.

Does that mean you should not try to start charging as soon as you can? Absolutely not. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that being untested and broke is noble.

The Truth About “Free”

Many of the people who get upset about situations like this give things away for free all of the time. They blog, they tweet, they post Facebook updates, etc. I do it here all the time.

Somehow, that’s an acceptable form of free. Yet we all know that it’s not free. My time has a high value associated with it. I have to pay hosting companies. I have to pay for designers and developers and much more to keep this site going. But I do it for exposure and that exposure has led to opportunities and those opportunities have led to income and allowed me to travel all over the country doing what I love.

I could live by the principle that people should have to pay for this “art.” And, if I did, I would still be slogging away at some job I hated. I charge for much of the content I create and I will continue to charge for more of it moving forward. I am able to do this because I’ve worked to create content and a brand that more people are willing to pay for.

Supply and Demand

It’s really simple: when you are starting out, demand for your product or service is non-existent or extremely low but the supply is high (meaning you have lots of work you’d really like to do). Therefore, your prices have to be very low or even free.

As you gain exposure and build up a portfolio or following, the demand for your product or service will start to go up and your availability (usually measured by time) will decrease. Consequently, you can – and should – raise your prices.

This is how business has worked for thousands of years and you are a business – whether you’re an employee, freelancer or business owner.

Is It Stealing Work from Others?

Nope. It’s simply choosing to get paid in a different way.

Don’t They Have the Money to Pay?

Probably. And there’s an old saying that you get what you pay for. However, if both sides agree to the terms, they both get to live with the consequences – good or bad. I know of plenty of professional speakers who charge tens of thousands of dollars for speaking gigs but will drastically reduce their rates given the convergence of the right factors (audience size, location, exposure, etc.).

I am also aware of organizations that could have easily paid for a speaker but tried to go the free route only to wind up with a train wreck on their hands and dissatisfied attendees.

Seth Godin has written 13 books all of which were best sellers. When he started his own publishing company and released the first book under the new company (Poke the Box), he spent the first week giving it away for free on the Kindle.

Why? Exposure. He knew that having people read and distribute it was more valuable than the money he could have earned during that first week. I would bet that he would tell you he made more from having given the book away than he would have if he held the price firm on the basis of “principle.”

Would he have been justified? Absolutely! As a writer, few are more proven than Seth Godin and his followers had both the money and the willingness to pay him. But this was about his new company which was not proven and launching under an entirely new model of book publishing.

You’re not Seth Godin and neither am I. If you want to quickly gain exposure in the early stages of your career as an artist or creative of any kind, leverage your ability to do work for free to build your portfolio.

[UPDATE: As John Morgan pointed out in the comments below, Seth Godin actually posted on a similar topic a couple of weeks back. You can check out that post by following this link.]

Is It Settling?

Absolutely not! I never settled for doing free work – I jumped at the opportunity to earn exposure and build my brand. I used that work to refine my craft and improve my skills so that, when I did begin charging, I was confident that I would over deliver to my clients.

It would only be settling if I never started charging out of fear or self-doubt.

Do you agree or disagree? Sound off in the comments below but please keep it respectable or I’ll nuke your comment.