You should not work for free!

I haven't worked a single day for free in my entire career. No unpaid internship. No commercial free projects. Even if you are a junior person or graduate, I think you shouldn't accept it too. Businesses should pay for the work you do and the value you bring. Why?

You should not work for free!

I haven't worked for free for my entire career. Not a single day!

I would never ask a person to work for my company for free. It didn't happen during 10+ years we run a business with my partners. It won't happen in the next 10 years.

It doesn't mean I haven't done anything for free for anyone. In opposite. I did many things for free. I contributed to the community, I helped individual people, and I did work for NGOs (or similar entities).
During the current lock-down (COVID19, for the record of readers who will read it in years to come). I helped a couple of schools to get in a remote learning environment. I didn't charge them. There is no hidden business agenda. I don't expect them to get back to us later to work with us on business terms.

It was helping someone with my skills and time. It was my decision to contribute both to help some people. I do not consider it work. It was a contribution.
Work is something you are being paid for. By definition, you trade your time and/or skills for a value expressed in currency or other goods.
And no. "You will learn so much"* isn't a currency. Have you ever bought your coffee for telling a barista: "Look. I have exceptional needs for my coffee, and you will learn so much doing it".

Have you? If the answer is yes, I want to learn from you about your negotiation skills.
And I will pay for it.

Why bother with people willing to work for free?

People who are willing to work for free for commercial entities and projects do it on a false assumption. They assume that their work is less valuable, but the skills and experience they will gain will make it more valuable next time. It is wrong. It is an assumption created by some businesses that want to get people to work for them for free.

What is next time, they will also ask you to do it for free? It might never end.

If your skills are not yet at the level, you can charge a premium for them; you can be paid less, but still, you should get paid. It is your time and skills what is in the equation. If your skills are on a lower part of the scale, your time still is valuable. You should not trade it for nothing. And again - the promise of magical learning and experience from watching great people do the work is not a value you should trade it for.

Why write about it now?

I saw some posts last week where people encouraged others to work for them for free. On commercial projects, promising that it will give them years of experience, which can't be gained otherwise. And I saw people cheering up this idea and jumping on board.

It is a result of years of work of companies and individuals, who are subsidizing their business model with free labor. There is always the next wave of interns and juniors to tap into. There are still graduates who want to gain some points on a resume. There are always people who want to re-skill (it will be an essential factor in years to come! ).

People who will take a bite of e promise of great skills and expirience to boost their careers.
I bet you can build a model where you have a stream of people pouring in, to help you do your commercial projects for free exploiting those people.
It is wrong.

Every work delivered on commercial project or engagement should be paid! Period!

If you think people should work for you for free, to gain knowledge or experience, you should offer the same to your customers. That you will do projects for free for them. Would you?

In business,there is nofree projects

In business, there is no free projects. Free proof-of-concepts and trial engagements does not work.

Why? Such a situation lacks one crucial element - engagement.
If someone is getting something for free and does not take part in it with financial stakes, there is no engagement and commitment.

It doesn't have to be paid in full by customer. It might be even that someone else (vendors of solution) will want to pay for it. Even then, the value of a project has to be on the table. It has to be explicit states that there is value X attached to it. And there has to be a discussion about participation in this value.

What has to be there is that all parties have skin in the game. If not, the outcome will always be mediocre.

Again, why?
Because if there is no stake in the project, there is no perceived value in it.

If you are learning - work on your own project instead of doing FREE work

As a person, you might be at the beginning of the road - you want to learn new skills, upskill, or re-skill yourself. Doing some free work for a commercial entity might sound like a good idea. It is not.

When you discuss that kind of work - have a discussion about the payment/salary. Be prepared for it with your requirements what it should be. Do the homework. Have options prepared. If they will want to lower your pay, trade it for something:

  • official recognition in the project,
  • letter of reference from CEO,
  • your name in the contributors list,
  • referral to next opportunity.

Do not accept work for free.

There is a better alternative to such free engagement. Start your own project in the same area? What kind of project? Few ideas:

  • Research people in this area and write a summary of their work. Create a curated list of their content and publish it.
  • Research this business area and write a report on it
  • Start a development project and post it on GitHub, spread a word and ask people to tell you what they think about it
  • Start a blog or channel on YT. Document your learning in this area. There are people already behind you on this track who will enjoy it.

Why is it a better idea than doing some project work for free?

  • You gain knowledge by learning and researching the topic or area of expertise?
  • You build network and recognition in this area. Asking questions, participating in discussions sharing outcomes. All those activities contribute to your brand.
  • You may actually get paid in different models for work you have done.
  • Most important: you build your own brand and person. Not other people - YOUR! OWN! BRAND and PERSON!

Why is the last piece essential? Having a brand as a person build options for you. Choices that will pay off later down the road with new opportunities.

You don't know who will read what you will write on the topic. You don't know who you will reach with your questions and activities. One of those persons might later get back to you or through the network. And it will result in some next opportunity.

Working for someone for free at the same time builds options for other persons. Not you.


  • #1:work for free and build other person brand and options and,
  • #2 Do something for yourself without being paid and create your own brand and options,
    my choice is simple. I go for #2. It is better for you in the long term.

If you don't know where to start, ask people in a field to give you advice. There are plenty of people who will help you with some mentoring advice.

Businesses - pay your people! Always!

For my fellow entrepreneurs, business owners, and managers. I have one ask.

Always pay people you ask to do work for you.

If your customers asked you to work for free, you would not do it. If people asked you to give away your goods for free, you would not do it.
Because it is not a viable business model. There is one thing between business, product or service, and profit. It is called PRICE! (credits goes for @DHH for reminding this ancient true forgotten by many).
If someone contributes to your business, they deserve to get paid. If they are not contributing to your business, why you hire them in the first place.

Pay for the work people do for you! They deserve it!

If you think otherwise as a person who works or as a business owner, I would hear your point of view. But I don't promise to change mine!

Photo credit: ishane / CC BY