When Working For Free Makes Sense

Unpaid assignments can lead to paying gigs

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By Erin Lowry

Young professionals have all heard one trite, stitched-on-a-pillow-worthy expression: If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. Perhaps the millennial generation equates doing what you love with being your own boss, because the landscape of traditional employment is changing, and rapidly. By 2020, freelancers are expected to comprise 40 percent of the workforce, according to a study by software company Intuit.

For the workers who already begrudgingly set up shop in a cubicle, there may be a way out – if they're willing to first work for free.

"I hoped that working on my own blog for free would pay off for me when I could use my site as a sort of portfolio to show potential clients and writing gigs," says Kali Hawlk, a freelance writer and founder of the personal finance blog Common Sense Millennial.

Hawlk, 24, took a traditional route after graduating college and settled into a steady 9-to-5 job doing order processing and data entry for a small company in Georgia. It wasn't long before she succumbed to a common millennial trend: the desire for professional autonomy.

In July 2013, Hawlk hit publish on her first blog post, which launched a powerful resource for millennials seeking advice on finance, careers and the art of side hustling. Hawlk spent those early months pouring 10 to 15 hours a week into writing. While some would argue she was simply indulging in a hobby, Hawlk started to take on unpaid assignments outside of her blog.

As her following and brand grew, along with the number of hours of free work, Hawlk was able to leverage her skills to obtain paying jobs.

"I could show my blog to others to demonstrate I could write, I knew WordPress, I understood basic SEO principles and that I could engage an audience," Hawlk says. "It solved the problem I had previously, the problem everyone has when trying to break into a new line of work: To get the new gig, you need experience, but you need the new gig to get experience."

Before her blog's first anniversary, Hawlk had a steady flow of paid freelance jobs. Jobs she initially viewed as a side hustle to bring in extra income ultimately led to her feeling comfortable putting in her two weeks notice and embracing the life of a full-time freelancer (or "solopreneur," as she fondly refers to her current position).

Hawlk acknowledges the challenge of putting in time and effort for a job that results in no monetary compensation, but she doesn't regret her decision to dedicate so many hours of free labor into her future career.

"In my experience, there really aren't too many negative consequences of working for free if you're just starting out and need the experience," she says. "And if you can, leverage your free work to be work you're doing for yourself – like your own blog, e-book, product, etc."

The young freelancer created a litmus test for deciding whether or not to take on assignments that would fail to give her bank account a financial injection. A similar test may prove valuable for anyone considering the financial burden of unpaid work.

Ask yourself:
  • Can I see any direct benefit from this work, even if it's not financial? (For example, would I gain social media followers or expand a professional network?)
  • Is this work indirectly benefiting me, and if so, how?
  • How is this work furthering my goals?
  • Do I like doing this work?
  • Could I be working on bigger and better projects – ones that better serve my goals or provide financial compensation for my time and effort – if I weren't tied up in this unpaid work?

Long-term uncompensated work is better known by another name: volunteering. It's noble work, but certainly not financially viable. "It can also be a little wearing, to work so hard on something and to feel like you get nothing in return," Hawlk admits. "No one likes to feel as though their effort or work isn't worth anything."

Fortunately for budding solopreneurs, Hawlk's path to full-time freelancer, in less than a year, provides a road map out of the cubicle. Hawlk took something critics might deem a hobby and discovered how working for free can turn into a professional and financially stable career.

> The 7 Phases of Freelancer Relationships

> Start a Blog, Give Yourself a Career Edge

Erin Lowry writes about personal finance for Daily Finance and manages social media for MagnifyMoney.com, a site dedicated to helping consumers save money by finding simple, transparent financial products. She is also the founder of the personal finance blog Broke Millennial.

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CLARIFIER: Something to think about for there comes the time when the standard career course is not working. So, it may be necessary to step-out of the box.

NOTE to AOL: It would be right nice if you added "Delete" and "Edit".

June 15 2014 at 8:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Something to think about for there are those time when the standard course is not working. So, it may be necessary to step-out of the box.

June 15 2014 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Jamison

I totally agree with article and Kali's determination. And, sorry "marathonman", I think you're missing the point here with your "emancipation" comment. A personal example. I'm a screenwriter / film maker who in the past has had work under consideration with folks who've produced films as varied as THE BREAKFAST CLUB, THE BLIND SIDE, THE BOOK OF ELI and more. Not "tooting one's own horn", just showing that I know what I'm doing. But for years there was a near financial moratorium on the industry picking up "spec" scripts (those written and shopped by the writer and not commissioned by a studio). As someone who isn't content to sit and wait (I'm one of those who'd prefer to walk six to eight blocks and get a little exercise rather than wait that same ten mins. for a bus or cab) I sure as hell wasn't content to wait until the tide shifted. So in the meantime I started a full fledged website - a combo online film magazine and growing reference library. I'd contribute articles, short films and more to it over the years, just as Kali did, as a resume of sorts. 3 years of burning the midnight oil WITHOUT PAY after coming from the proverbial "day job". But the writing and film editing practiced (and you've ALWAYS gotta be writing if you're a writer) is now leading to professional work doing what I've been doing for myself for free for three years. The only wrinkle? Well, it's been three years. But if you're attempting to build a bonafied career, and not just a good paying "job" (and today no "job" is guaranteed to last) then one has to be willing to put in what one wishes to get out of it. Simple math. Hard work, but ultimately rewarding ... and profitable.

June 15 2014 at 7:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So work as a slave and hope someone gives you a crumb. We had an emancipation proclamation to end slavery.

June 15 2014 at 6:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

edriv, volunteering is NOT for just seniors. I understand that if you are working overtime to pay your bills there may be absolutely no time left to volunteer. However, if you never, never volunteer, if there is nothing about which you feel strongly enough to donate some of your time and effort, then you and society are both missing out on something that would be good for everybody. Young people do volunteer, and they will keep right on volunteering until they are seniors!

June 15 2014 at 2:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is very good information for the young folks looking to get into a job. The kids should take this seriously.

edriv comment below...likely typlical of most young kids, unwise. Suggest edriv have higher thoughts.

June 14 2014 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

sorry but if you don't pay me I'm not working. I need money for food, bills, rent, gas, clothing , insurance etc. just about Anyone will hire you for volunteer work. volunteer work is really for retired and bored seniors.

June 14 2014 at 10:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to edriv's comment

What you're missing is that volunteering can give you experience that you need in order to be hired for a paying job. Employers definitely look at education when they hire, but they also want applicants to know something about the work they will be doing, and that's where volunteering comes in. Another point to consider is that volunteering can help you find out whether or not you like a particular kind of work. Maybe you'll discover that you like the work a lot, or maybe you'll find out that you don't care for it at all. That's invaluable information to have.

June 15 2014 at 3:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


June 14 2014 at 8:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good thought for the 50+ crowd still looking. You are toxic for hiring for most companies because of your age and possible health issues on the horizon. Yet the 50+ crowd probably isn't gonna move on from a new job most likely, so if employers need stability an realibility these people should be no brainers! of course human resources are usually staffed by way younger people. Maybe the govt. should subsidize companies that hirer the older more experienced and been there and done that crowd. this age group has very strong people skills. I'm sure a bigge company is gonna be sued soon for age discrimination. Just an idea for you lawyors out there also.. A couple of class action suits hmmmm...........

June 14 2014 at 5:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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