Is working for free worth more than we think?

Recently, while discussing my hopeless future as a film professional with my dad, he asked a question I found difficult to answer.

“Why do so many media and design people work for free?”

Why do we do it? Is it a masochistic drive to give away your hard work for a cup of coffee and a warm handshake, or is there actually a solid reason for it? Last week I took part in a five-day startup lab with plenty of insightful presentations by smart, rich and successful people about how to start a company. The location of this event, Aachen in the far west of Germany, is a domain of mechanical engineers. RWTH Aachen University takes about 1000 new engineering students each year and so about 70% of fellow attendees were studying engineering or computer science. Most of these folks had smart technical solutions which they wanted to turn into a business. Talking with these brilliant inventors and listening to their ideas, one thing quickly became clear: most of them spent a lot of time and money on developing their ideas to a certain, presentable stage. Some did so working as a research assistant, so they actually earned money doing their research, but most weren’t in this comfortable place. Basically, they spent time and resources, both equaling money, on the mere chance that they might make a business out of their project. This is not so different from creatives working for free to set themselves up in the industry.

One big part of the curriculum through the week was learning about startup financing. Big buzzwords like the “business angel” or VCs (venture capital), seed funding or incubation, early stage, Stages A through C and the desired Exit quickly became commonplace in my protected, happy little mind and I had to learn to sound like a serious entrepreneur to not embarrass myself. I was quickly disillusioned by one special shorthand: the Three Fs. Friends, Family and Fools. Those are supposedly the people who finance you to the point where your idea is ready to be pitched for serious financing. A value associated with this very first stage of financing (for the German startup circle!) was about 20.000€ to 50.000€. Shit, that’s a lot of money for a student. I was baffled. Surely, if this was true, I could bury my hopes of ever starting up.

When I went to the pub that night and talked to my dear friend and colleague Tamara, we arrived at a conclusion – one we later verified with an investor the next day. Time spent upfront developing and working on a product to start-up with is essentially the same as working for free as a creative. This point of view turned every film project, every edit or colour grade I’ve done for free from a waste of time and energy into an investment in my product – myself. Because, as Franc Dorfer said to me “[…] when you’re selling a service, your product is yourself and your value is determined by the software and processor speed that’s in your head“. Thank you for this great image, Mr. Dorfer.

I am not telling you to work for free forever because it is great for the exposure. We all need to make a living, we all need to eat, or, as we graciously say in my hometown: You have to keep yourself shitting. That does not mean to work for companies and deliver a valuable design, marketing concept or film on the promise of exposure.

Companies that use inexperienced but eager people are mostly in it to exploit them. Here’s why: they most likely could afford to pay the big buck to have whatever they need doing by an experienced company in the field. If they chose to employ an inexperienced but eager student at a lower cost it means they don’t take the process seriously. They do not care about the results, they just want it done to have it checked off their checklist. For example, many companies want video marketing material, not because it makes sense to have video as part of their marketing campaign – they just do it because everyone else has video, so they want to, too.

Consequently, a company that doesn’t care about the result and who delivers it, can’t even give you the exposure to people you are interested in because they are not working with professionals in the field. A quick example. A colleague of mine (who wants to remain anonymous) worked for a company that wanted an extensive Youtube campaign but pay peanuts. At the time, she took the job because they seemed a hip firm to work for plus, if the campaign ever went viral, she would have been the creator of a highly successful marketing campaign. Never mind the measly pay. After the videos were shot but not released, she was fired and the videos went on Youtube disregarding her release strategy and so did not generate any traction at all. This company, as she found out by working there, has a track record of ripping of aspiring creatives and then dumping them. No exposure, just hard work, and an embarrassing paycheck.

I work for free on projects I like, for people I want to build a relationship with when I can afford to do so and to learn something. These can be wildly rewarding and fun projects. They can also be stressful and demanding but by doing such work, I have acquired a network of over 50 people that already work in the industry in various positions. These are colleagues, friends and finally leads that will surely make my way to a paid gig easier. I am glad to know them and would not exchange the fun times we had for the cash I could have earned instead.

What do you think? Are we overworked, exploited and dumped or is there a feasible point to working without pay? I’m curious to hear from you. Drop me a line on Twitter or just comment here 🙂

Also published on Medium.

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