Working For Free

“Don’t work for free!”

That’s the common wisdom in the film and TV industry (and many others). It’s a good starting point, but it’s also kind of a boring approach for many people, especially those who are newer to the industry. So what’s a better way to look at it?

There are definitely cases where you should not work for free. Companies that have real budget for real work shouldn’t ask you to work for free. Craigslist ads definitely shouldn’t ask you to work for free.

The danger in working for free (or even a heavy discount) is two-fold. Firstly, you may be costing someone else paying work – which then becomes a cycle that comes back to bite you when someone else does a job for free that you were going to be paid for. Secondly, you risk setting a dangerous precedent for yourself – once you’ve done a job for free or very cheap, how do you then ask for a proper fee next time?

But there are also benefits to working for free. You get experience (perhaps at a more senior level than you might usually have), you build relationships, you learn new skills and, ideally, you have fun!

I don’t often do freebies anymore – I have a full-time job and a family – but I am always willing to offer advice and input where I can, and I do sometimes ask others for their help on projects I have no budget for.

So how can you decide when to work for free?

Well, there’s a flowchart that someone has put together… It sort of addresses the basic ideas, but it’s a little too rigid I think.

My general rules are the following:

  • Only Work For People You Like
    Taking on projects with friends is great (usually). Everyone learns and grows together. Or at least that’s the idea. Doing freebies for some guy you’ve never met who found your profile on Facebook probably isn’t such a great idea.
  • Only Work On Projects You Like
    In our professional lives we sometimes end up doing work that, frankly, kind of sucks. It’s tedious and annoying, sometimes even infuriating – but at least we’re getting paid. Don’t do that work for free – try to take on only jobs that seem interesting and appeal to you.
  • Don’t Work For Future Anything
    No matter how many promises there may be of “a big project around the corner” or “hitting it big on the festival circuit” or “a portion of the profits” don’t let any of those things make your decision for you. If any of them happen then it’s a great little bonus, but they quite probably won’t.
  • Accept That You’ll Make Bad Decisions
    Sometimes you might pick a crappy project. Don’t dwell on it, if you’re being open to free jobs you can’t be resentful of the ones that go a little pear-shaped.
  • Try To Be Open And Honest
    If the project goes off the rails try to be honest with those you’re working with (in a diplomatic way). If you can’t do it anymore then say so, don’t just vanish halfway through without saying anything.

That’s about it really. No hard and fast rules… Trust your instinct and don’t sell yourself out. If someone should be paying you then they should be paying you. If they can’t and you’re okay with that then go for it.

If you want someone to work for you for free then ask and be honest. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver, just be upfront about what’s happening and try to remember their support later.