Is It Ever a Good Idea to Work for Free?

UPDATED: June 14, 2019
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2019
work for free

I chose my outfit carefully: the perfect dress, the perfect heels. I left two hours earlier than was necessary, just in case.

It didn’t matter that there would only be 20 people at the luncheon, and they were there to socialize more than to take in one of my first speaking engagements. It didn’t matter that the keynote was two hours north of where I lived. This was a very big deal to me.

They didn’t have projection equipment, so the audience had to squint at my computer screen to see the power point. And I had a coughing attack in the middle of the presentation that could only be cured by drinking an entire bottle of water while the audience stared at me. And despite all of that, I considered the event a massive personal success.

At the end, the organizer paid me for my services with a taco.

“You are welcome to enjoy what’s left of the buffet,” she said with a smile, motioning to a single, silver food-warmer at the back of the room. I thanked her and went back to the buffet where one lonely little chicken taco remained. I put it on my plate with a blob of salsa.

I then packed up my belongings, thanked the organizer and drove the two hours back home, still a little hungry.

I’m reminded of that event when I hear the current debates around side hustlers working without getting paid. In the early phases of my business, I listened to countless experts discourage anyone from working for free.

“Value yourself! Don’t underestimate your talent!”

And I agree. To an extent. There is certainly a point at which you must run, not walk, away from those offering you “great exposure” in exchange for your blood, sweat and tears. However, in the beginning of my hustle I found the situation much less black and white. I wanted exposure and experience, and in many ways it was a more immediate need than cold hard cash.

Related: The Long-Term Benefit of Working for Free

If you’ve ever faced this conundrum, here are a few scenarios I found in which it makes sense.

When You’re Figuring Things Out

I remember once listening to a Donny Deutsch interview about pursuing passions. “Think about what you liked to do when you were a kid,” he said. “What did you enjoy doing for fun?”

I immediately thought about my love for telling stories and the weekends I spent at public speech festivals. Maybe that’s what I should do, I thought. I should be a professional storyteller! But what would that look like? I needed to figure some things out.

I started by writing posts for a friend’s blog, telling her stories. I wrote vows for people’s weddings. I wrote the love story of a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary, a gift from their children. I wrote stories for local charities, speeches for local executives, and did anything else I could think of, all for little to no money. I needed the freedom to explore and make mistakes and change course without the pressure of accounts receivable.

I was lucky: Our family expenses were already covered with other work. This was strictly a side hustle that added bonus income. And this phase didn’t last forever. As soon as I figured out how I could confidently deliver my service, I stood firm in the price people needed to pay for it.

If you’re still figuring things out, taking on pro bono clients who help in that quest is not undervaluing yourself. It’s valuing the process.

When You’re Not Very Good… Yet

I remember leaving one of my first keynotes and calling my mom, my husband and my mentor and squealing to each of them about how amazing it was. I was on Cloud Nine after a big breakthrough.

A couple weeks later, the event organizers sent the video. And it was awful. From the information, to the delivery, all the way down to the shoes I chose that made me look like I was a baby deer just learning to walk for the first time, it was embarrassing. They deserved their money back. Fortunately, they hadn’t paid me anything.

When you’re still focusing on improvement, never underestimate real life experience. It’s often more valuable than any check a would-be client could write.

When You Just Don’t Want to Be Paid

Yes, work is more fulfilling if you’re passionate about it. Yes, work is more meaningful if you love what you do. But do not be mistaken: Work is work.

I saw a video clip of Lady Gaga recently in which she said it makes her sad when her passion and creativity takes a backseat to making money. She doesn’t like being a moneymaking machine.

Now I certainly can’t speak for Mother Monster, but I believe there comes a point—way, way down the line, long after the idea has proven itself—when you want to do things simply because you enjoy doing them. And in a world obsessed with constant monetization, it can feel like you’re breaking the rules if you don’t put a dollar on the time or the service.

In those moments, think of Gaga and this article. (Please, I beg of you to think of me and Lady Gaga in the same brain space!)

There are no rules. Sometimes you’ll choose to do what you love simply because you love it.

Will Work for a Taco

A lot has changed since the day I was paid with a soggy tortilla and flavorless chunks of chicken. I often think back to that day and that two-hour drive home. I remember feeling proud. My balance sheet wouldn’t show it, but I had the distinct feeling I was on to something. And someday the chicken taco would be a great story to tell.

Related: The Side Hustler’s Handbook

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by © Alto Images/Stocksy United 

Kindra Hall is the bestselling author of Stories That Stick and a sought-after keynote speaker. She is the president of Steller Collective, a marketing agency focused on the power of storytelling to overcome communication challenges.