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By reading this post title, your immediate reaction should be “Ugh, this issue again?”.
We have all heard the old adage: “workers require money” or some variant of it. At this point, it is natural for us to assume that work comes with a reward. For the sake of bluntness, I will point out that this association is so incredibly simple in its logic that Pavlov realized dogs understood it back in the 60s, and we all know dogs aren’t the most business-savvy creatures out there.
Sadly, the notion of “maybe workers can work… for… no money…?” has been equally prevalent and annoyingly persistent over the ages, which is why I find myself yelling about it one more time. This post has no intention of looking deep into our social and economic conditions, nor does it provide a deep look into labor laws and workers’ rights, so much as it is a rant about this particular issue that gets my knickers in a knock so often.
To further spice the deal, I will break down word-for-word a job proposal I recently received. A job that would come with the enticing offer of not receiving any money, but perhaps getting an experience …?
Can experiences pay for bread? A question I’ve asked as often as “oh God. Where did I go wrong?”
Let’s look at payless jobs for what they are: mostly a scam.
Yes, I’ve said “mostly.”
Working as a freelancer – the problem with the freelancer life
Working as a freelancer, I quickly learned that the problem with the freelancer life wasn’t the vast amount of free time, the sweet work that you do out of love or the yacht parties with coconut drinks and, for some reason, Rihanna is there. No, the problem with the freelancer life is finding clients, paying clients, mind you. At least for me, it was, but I had the social skills of a sun-starved lizard on top, so my experience is admittedly entirely subjective.
Suffice to say that most of my first projects were done for free. These served chiefly to put together a portfolio. Let’s be honest here: they were absolutely horrid. Yes, I was prompted to complete them and was certainly trying to do my best, but at the tim my skills just weren’t up to snuff. Because of this, I also don’t feel like it was a particular loss on my end that I didn’t get money for them. These projects were formative in essence and similar to an internship.
In a twinkling, I actually obtained some form of clients and with them followed an incredible sense of self-realization. I was developing ridiculously cheap websites, but I was concluding them for money. People were really compensating me for a service. There’s a special kind of bliss that seems to fall from the highest heaven when you realize that you can get paid for doing what you love. Because of this, I get especially insulted when I’m sought to work without compensation.
The moment I decided to stop accepting projects for free, I encountered some problems because a few of mu “clients” felt entitled to free service, or rather service for “exposure.” Exposure delivers its benefits, of course, but why would I be spending time with a client that only promises me exposure when I had clients that gave me exposure and money?
Flash forward to today. While browsing LinkedIn for ideas to do a blog post, I am was contacted by a young man that had previously connected to me and… You predicted it: this young man had an unbelievable proposal for me, all for the low, low price of my time and skill!
Low, low price of my time and skill!
Being the devilish little imp I am, I could have just refused the proposal or not even reply back, but alas, I live for entertainment and that has been scarce lately. There are only so many YouTube videos dissecting the same obviously fake sasquatch footage I can watch before actually getting bored.
So I dug a little deeper and decided to see how far this rabbit hole went.
Right of the bat, we start incredibly strong. This person won’t pull his punches, he’s out here selling a dream, damn it!
Let’s ignore the obvious grammar mistakes because they are sincerely unimportant to this tale. I took the liberty of highlighting the most important parts because this is the business world and we don’t have time to waste. After all, time is money, but not your money because you get none.
There’s a lot of ambition here. I mean, this could be my opportunity to get into one of those big tech companies that have sliders instead of stairs. Note that this person isn’t looking for two or three developers that would be willing to work for free – no, he’s looking for an entire team of slav- *cough* sorry, voluntary unpaid workers. Already have a job? Not a problem whatsoever, you can just give up sleep.
So, let’s be honest here, there are some red flags right now, but you know, this person could be a genius entrepreneur, so let’s do the next obvious step: check out his LinkedIn profile. I did just that, figuring I would maybe find one of those lengthy recommendations from previous co-workers that, for some reason, always feel like they’re being written at gunpoint.
Instead, I find a profile completely barren of relevant information… This person is an undergrad with absolutely no work experience or any volunteer experience to tell. Curious how we’re willing to ask others to work for free without doing it ourselves.
Ok, my confidence in this project is a little shaken, but let’s see what else is on the table.
Ah.. one of the biggest companies in the world… like SkipTheDishes.
I mean, hey, whoever is in charge of Vimeo is probably really rich, and Vimeo is still a derivative of Youtube… I just think that SkipTheDishes might not have a market as large as Youtube’s… so a derivative of that… probably won’t be that “big.”
Genuinely concerned at this point, I give some heartfelt suggestions to this young man such as: “Not interested, thank you. Also, no one is going to work for free. Please, get money and then you will probably be able to create a team” and also “Please, stop, you are hurting me on a deep emotional level.”
This. This was the moment I knew I had to write about this, mostly because I can’t keep these things to myself. It’s just too much.
I wanted to follow the rabbit hole to see how bad it could get, but I didn’t expect to be talking to someone who had lost all reason. What can we gather from this reply?
1) this person already HAS developers on his team but still wants more.
2) there is a plan to hire the “best of the best” developers when there’s also profit. This implies that while there isn’t profit, they would only work with the lowest of the low (which, I won’t lie, hurt my feelings a “wee bit”).
3) This company will be part of fortune 500.
Here’s a wild guess… Fortune 500’s website is way more expensive than whatever app this person is thinking about producing and I am certain that they had to pay every penny of it…
Again, I try to reason with this young man, explaining it’s unfair to ask for people to work for a promise, not even a certainty, but a promise. Either this person has so much genuine faith in his genius idea that he’s willing to risk it all, or he’s just ready to risk my time because it’s mine and not his.
Again, I am overpowered by this man’s lack of self-awareness or, to be fair, any other kind of awareness.
Anyone that hasn’t had their brains surgically replaced for birdseed and soot can read that first sentence as “You won’t be working for free… you’ll just be working for no money… with other people.” I mean, it’s not even convincing, it’s just something that sounds vaguely like business talk but means absolutely nothing.
To be fair, this person did get me thinking about how do startups begin? I started wondering what I would do if I wanted to create a startup and quickly came to the conclusion that asking random strangers on LinkedIn to work for me wasn’t the way to go. I can barely ask my roommates to let me use some of their salt, let alone ask someone I don’t know to sacrifice hours of their lives to me, like some sort of pagan god.
Here’s what I could gather from some anecdotal stories. Most startups start with either a good, well-researched idea with a lot of promise and funding, a team that was formed while working under the same employer and collectively decided to try their luck with their own ideas, or with a lonesome freelancer that creates his own company and grows from there.
Or, at least, that was the idea I got of how to start a startup properly. Not harassing some people with vague promises of vast amounts of riches in the future.
Working for free was and will continue to be an unfortunate plague in the business world. There will never be a shortage of people trying to get other’s skills for the lowest price possible. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who want to hone their skills and will offer their services for no money. Sadly, many times, these people end up being exploited.
The lesson today is
The lesson today is: don’t ever undersell your skills. No one is entitled to them but yourself. Whether you’re a mean cook or the best crocheter in town, you should be the only one to decide whether your services are free or not.
I code a lot of stuff for myself and even today, when a friend asks me for some form of web service, I will happily provide it for them. If one day I was to find myself wanting to create my own business, I can’t, for the life of me, conceive asking someone to work under me without a reward. It wouldn’t just be unfair and keep me awake at night; it would also be a complete lousy base to build a respectable business.
Today even the greatest companies are susceptible to scrutiny. The conscious job seeker will take into account how a company treats their employees. Imagine trying to build something and being unable to; imagine how hard it would be to get talent on your team because everyone knows how you couldn’t follow the most basic of rules: pay your employees.