} On Working For Free


I have taken this subject seriously for over a decade. (Ok, I sound old! haha) Perhaps because I’ve been working for myself for 11 years now, always in artistic fields. I’m talking about the idea of “giving free work”.

I mentioned earlier the creative aspect, because this issue seems dominant (and frequent) in professions such as graphic design, photography, illustration, writing, handmade, music… Altho after asking around, it is obviously not reserved to more creative work; fields like computer programming, teaching, and in a way, professional sports, are also often asked to work for free.

Now, let me get something straight first. I am not talking here about investing skills in a non-profit that you care about (read on that (and this whole subject really) on my friend Pierre’s blog!). Nor lending physical goods, for a small amount of time, for a photoshoot, which will be returned intact and without fees to you. Nor helping your mother out with her lost kitty flyer. Nor giving simple opinions at a hangout with friends about their text on their website.


I mean more like magazines and journals asking photographers to give a free picture(s), but “we’ll give you credit, of course”. Or a start-up company asking for free copy writing for their first website, but “we’ll pay you on future projects”. Or big music festivals asking small bands to play for free, because “it’s great exposure and visibility!”. Or a publishing company asking an illustrator to create them a book cover, because “it’ll be a great portfolio piece”.

Or, in handmade goods’ case, which is the category I’ve experienced personally for the past almost 8 years, a blog asking to send free samples, and then “I’ll blog about it”. Which is exactly what happened (for the I-can’t-even-count-how-many-times) to me a couple of weeks ago that got me feeling this urge to talk about it now (along with this NYtimes article from a couple of months back). For some reason, this time in particular urked me even more than usual (lol), because the email was filled with “I LOVEEE your work!!!!”, a “You inspire me!”, and a couple of “Handmade is my life’s passion!!!”. Which is very contradictory, because when you ask me for free items, you are saying that my work is not worth a penny to you. You are also acting like you don’t respect my time, all my efforts towards my career, nor my products. So NO, I don’t inspire you. And by not even offering to pay shipping costs, you’re adding salt on my wound (or, insult to injury, if you prefer). Even more, the blog in question (nope, won’t drop a name, ain’t giving it free publicity HA!) was in Italy (where I’ve sold only like twice ever), written in Italian (I can’t read it, hence I couldn’t even know if she wrote well or not), with really bad pictures (as in large-view-on-plaid-tablecloth-with-a-lot-of-flash bad), and it looked ugly as fuck as a whole (sorry, but it truly was a pain for my retina).

Let me just say this:
• Credits, future potential projects (also called “opportunities”), and exposure don’t pay current bills. Ask anyone, in reality, these very rarely bring some concrete paid work. The chances of a company seeing one of your photos in the local paper and then actually researching you, contact you and offer you a paid contract are slim to none. Sure, it *could* happen. But I’m also sure your phone company *will* shut down your service if you don’t pay your bill… There is an epic rant by Harlan Ellison (pretty funny too!) on the subject over here, and you can also read a good article called “Opportunities Are Bullshit“.
• Your portfolio already exists, and that’s why they’re contacting you in the first place. Because they saw it, and liked it. That means your portfolio *already* works great. YAY!
• As far as blog posts go (which is also in the “exposure” realm), I think they ask for this to justify their own time spent on blogging. So basically, you’re asking me to sacrifice my finished product, and time, and materials, and even take extra money out of my pocket (shipping fees), in order of helping you feel like you’re not wasting your own time and energy? Puh-lease. Don’t forget that pretty much none of the great, interesting, inspiring and most read blogs ask people to give their work away: they either just blog about it because they want to, or actually buy an item for themselves first.


I remember that in the early years of Etsy, there was chat rooms, and also live critique workshops, where one could voluntarily put their shop up for constructive comments from other sellers. I really loved participating in this, I felt like I could help others with the knowledge I had acquired over the previous months/years. They still had to do the work themselves, but having suggestions and opinions from people not as emotionally involved in the project is never a bad thing. However, one thing I always voiced my opinion against was “adding a free item” or “giving coupon codes for a next purchase” once you actually made a sale. I am against it yes, but my opinion is much less radical on this subject, simply because this is something one would decide of their own free will and initiative, not pressured into by someone else (altho at some point the practice was used SO much by so many sellers, that I did receive 2-3 “there was no free stuff with my order, this sucks” messages, which obviously I thought was annoying, and rude. lol).

I also remember that as a young graphic designer, right out of school in the early 2000’s, without any actual contracts in my portfolio, that suggestions of working for free in exchange for “exposure” and “portfolio pieces” was very enticing. I am guilty of doing a couple of free business cards back then, as well as doing a couple of projects for a very low pay (between 25 and 50% of actual worth). I also realized quickly that I lost much drive for the project once I got half way thru, and my self-confidence got screwed up fairly quickly in the process. But believe me, I totally understand that urge to actually create, as well as that desire to show what you’re capable of, to prove yourself to the world, at any cost. The problem with that is (this also applies even if you’re a veteran) that by giving of yourself for nothing (or undervaluing), you’re denying that vision of the person you want to be: a creative paid right. You’re shooting yourself in the foot, basically. It’s also cutting the grass under the feet of others in your field (they are your competition, yes, but they are also a lot of things that you want to be, such as actually paid), and hurting your profession as a whole (if everyone starts to sell themselves short, at some point no one will ever want to pay (or pay what it’s worth) for the service/object, EVER).


As far as trades with strangers go, well… I do them myself once in a while, but only if I actually really WANT or NEED the product or service, and if they are of close value. The problem only arises if it’s something you don’t really desire, or if it’s not even close to being equal.

And for friends, I suggest going with your instinct perhaps? If it’s a case of the “can you program my whole CSS 5page bilingual website in exchange for a coffee and a hug?”, then you might have to either just say that you don’t feel like it/don’t have time, or think of a counter proposition that makes sense and suggest it. For example, a couple of rooms in your new apartment might need to be painted and it seems like about the same number of hours than the task they asked you for. They’ll either decline altogether because that made them realize what they were actually asking for (and hopefully, they are a true friend and will keep being your friend as usual), or think it’s totally worth it and you’ll both be happy! But if it’s something along the lines of “can you show me how to put this text in bold in my free WordPress blog post?”, then don’t be an asshole, don’t charge for that! lol


Free work is never really free. Each time you do it, you hurt your value and loose some self-confidence, because it’s like accepting and agreeing that your skill is worth nothing. Personally, I prefer eating peanut butter toasts for a long while before I agree to that again. ;)

Ok, I think that I’ve gotten pretty much everything off my chest now. lol! Obviously, not everyone has such a radical opinion on the subject… Including Seth Godin (which surprised me actually) in his blog post “Should You Work For Free?“.

I accept other points of views, or a more nuanced opinion, so feel free to share them in comments, even if it’s to tell me that I’m totally wrong. lol! ;)

To finish on a less gloomy note, I suggest taking a look at this “Should I work For Free” visual chart for a humorous spin on a serious subject! ;)



Filed under My Life

10 responses to “} On Working For Free

  1. This article is right, so right!
    It’s frustrating when you get a hint from someone who told you they are IN LOVE with your work but do not seem ready to pay for it.

    Yah, you may not be able to buy love but you can certainly pay for my work! ;)
    To make you smile, here’s a blog about the topic:

  2. Thank you for this post. It opened my eyes ! You made my day.

  3. Maru

    Interns get that memo too. Most of them still fall on it! :(

  4. Haha oui, j’avais déjà vu ce site!! Merci de me le rappeller!

    Ah, the concept of buying love! Such an illusion ain’t it?

    Merci de ton commentaire :)

  5. My pleasure Theany! I’m glad you found it useful! :)

  6. hahaha That says it all.

  7. Ah, interns! I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it, I’ll admit. Hum… Let me see…

    I think perhaps an internship that is in an actual school program (as in, it counts as a class) it would be more of a “normal” thing that it wouldn’t be paid…

    As for internships out of the school context, you’ve guessed it, I’m really against that for all the previous reasons in the post. ;)

  8. Well, I agree with Seth Godin mostly! It depends what you mean by free. When I choose (not the same as when I’m asked) to give product to a journalist or blogger, I am not giving it away for free. Press and social media attention from influencers is the driving force behind web sales for us. When I give product away, I factor it into our marketing budget as part of the cost of client aquisition. Do I also do other things, that are free of charge, to interact with my audience and gain new happy customers? Of course! But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t sometimes have to pay out of pocket (cost of goods and shipping and press events and my time) to get the sales that allow me to make handmade products for a living and build a prosperous business. I frequently say no to requests from bloggers that are not the right fit for us. But if they are the right fit? Hells yeah I want to send them something and have them become evangelical fans and talk about all the things they love about us, loudly. I facilitate their discovery of us, basically. In my experience, the bad requests are from people who aren’t right for you anyway–I actively court the publications and people that *are* right.

    And as Seth says in the post you linked, “The more generous you are with your ideas, and the more they spread, the more likely it is your perceived value goes up.” Press is the best and lowest cost way I know to grow an audience. I am not plastering the world with billboards and ads–I am plastering it with journalists who smell like our newest Peach Blossom & Citrus soap :) Haha.

    That being said, I am frequently asked for free product by other small business people or large businesses, on the prmeise that exposure is involved. Mostly, these are crap. Mostly, they are just trying to grow *their* business at the expense of yours. And in these cases, I agree that it is a pretty gross behaviour and you shouldn’t help them!

  9. You have a very valid nuance here. I’m thinking it might be perhaps because of your precise field of goods… It is true that it would be harder to blog about a scent of soap one has never smelled before, than earrings that have only one mission: visual decoration (which is translated easily by pictures only). So I understand your opinion that for other fields, the smell and touch for example are an important part of the brand and product itself. One would actually have to have it in their hands to – at least – smell it so that a review makes sense. Altho I have blogged a couple of times about bath & body without holding the product, but it is true that my opinion was about the look of packaging and general feel of the brand.

    The fact that you (mostly) choose by yourself to do these things in also an important point that I just lightly touched in the article, and it makes a very huge difference on the topic too! :)

    I have to say that I am *still* against it, in the way of comparison. For example, we both have to buy supplies to be able to do our jobs. So, I don’t get why a writer (or the publication they work for) wouldn’t have to buy a supply in order to do their own job as well. I understand that this would be more complicated when reviews are about, let’s say, furniture, but then again, furniture is blogged about all the time and I’m sure most don’t have that precise coffee table in their office while they write on it, and even less to keep for themselves after if ever they do. ;)

    Such a complex issue huh? One thing is for sure, each business owner will, in the end, choose what is best in their opinion. Thinking about it (and hearing about other points of views also) is never a bad thing either way. :)

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