I recently stumbled on an angry Reddit thread titled “Gary Vaynerchuk, a man with a net worth of $160m, [encourages] people to work for free.”
It wasn’t pretty.
But the folks in the Reddit thread weren’t having it.
“Imagine being so greedy that $160 million is still not enough to keep you from exploiting vulnerable and desperate people,” sneered one user. “This isn’t photoshop? He’s that tone deaf?” another complained.
On the surface, they seem to have a point (though it’s one formed by soundbites rather than the full context of Gary’s message). While the rich get richer, many are stuck just trying to pay basic living expenses. How could a multimillionaire suggest that anyone work without pay?
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll realize that there’s another issue going on.
Somewhere in the last decade, the concept of free work has been mistakenly reduced to one thing: corporations taking advantage of the less fortunate.
In the process, we’ve lost this simple truth: in most cases, it’s the employee who reaps most of the benefits of free work, not the employer.
The benefits are often disproportionately greater for the employee.
First, let’s clarify what “working for free” means.
My definition: a 100% voluntary, temporary period of labor where you are not paid in any form of currency.
Examples include internships, apprenticeships and freelance “trial periods.”
Now, let’s look at why all the anger around it stems from a simple misunderstanding.
Working for free isn’t allowing yourself to be exploited. You actually are being paid — just not in dollars.
Instead, you’re being paid in knowledge, influence and industry connections that exponentially increase your future salary.
See, working for free is a powerful way to obtain experience in a position you otherwise would not have been hired for. It’s a strategy for establishing connections above and beyond your resume’s qualifications.
And it’s completely optional. Don’t like the idea? Just turn down the offer.
But keep in mind you’re getting more value than your employer is
Here’s why you’re not being exploited.
From the employer’s perspective, most temporary labor is inefficient.
It requires managers to take time out of their schedules to supervise you through your duties and make sure you don’t mess up.
Sure, the company is technically getting “free labor” from your efforts. But considering most internships last about three months, the net benefit they get from your work is often minimal, if not a net negative.
On the flip side, you come out of it with:
- A behind the scenes understanding of the industry and career
- A valuable new bullet point for your resume
- References for future job applications
- A significantly higher probability the company will hire you in the future
Make no mistake. You’re not being exploited. You’re getting ahead.
I acknowledge that the ability to work for free is a privilege.
Some are struggling to pay basic expenses like rent and food and simply can’t afford to.
In these situations, assess what your goals are.
Is it your ultimate dream to break into [insert industry]? Are you willing to do whatever it takes? If so, you may need to find a side hustle to keep you afloat.
Otherwise, put this strategy aside for a later date.
How I’ve used this strategy to my advantage in my professional life
Free work is more than just internships.
I’ve used it as a tactic to land $12,000 worth of freelance clients, and continue to use it regularly in my pitches.
The concept is simple. To make my pitches irresistible, I complete a portion of the potential client’s assignment and then include it in my proposal.
For example, if they’re looking for someone to write a blog, I’ll send them a meticulously crafted opening paragraph and an outline.
Am I getting paid for completing work ahead of time? No.
But it shows the client I understand what they’re looking for and gives them concrete evidence I can do the specific task well. As a result, it makes my pitch significantly more attractive.
Of course, it doesn’t work every time. But even if they don’t accept my proposal, the work I’ve done isn’t in vain. I add it to my portfolio, then use it in future pitches.
Given the current socio-economic environment, I understand the backlash.
But step back and pay attention to the big picture, and you’ll realize that working for free is simply sacrificing short term comfort for long term gain.
It’s not exploitation, it’s not late-stage capitalism, and it’s not predatory.
It’s merely another strategy for career advancement.