"Free Labor Will Win," 1942 - 1945A frequent discussion topic in the creative business world has cycled back around, and I want to chime in with a couple examples from my own experience.

The topic is doing work for free (with the assumption it’ll pay eventually) versus only doing work for pay. This round of discussion was sparked by Jenny over at Craft Test Dummies who, appropriately, cried foul when a company called Creative Paperclay put out a call for crafters to join their fairly demanding design team and offered compensation only in the product they require the designers to use.

Sister Diane sums up Jenny’s take, and her own, over on Craftypod. Go have a look.

My take on this issue is similar to my take on many issues: It’s not black and white, no one answer is the right answer for every person, and decisions should be well informed.

I think it’s important to keep in mind the particulars of who’s asking for the free and paid work, and under what circumstances. (ETA: Some companies offer to pay for work under grossly unfair terms, remember. Just because pay is involved doesn’t make it fair.) In the case of Creative Paperclay, I think their demands are way out of line considering the lack of monetary compensation to their design team. They want to control an awful lot of what people do, and they want to control it for an awfully long time. It may be a fine arrangement for a hobbyist who’s not too sensitive to having their time and talent exploited, but it’s downright insulting for a professional.

Sometimes, though, the benefits of working for free are reasonable and fair. To apply one broad stroke to say that working for free is not only bad for you, it’s bad for everyone fails to account for the subtleties involved with creative business growth and amateur recreation.

Now for those examples.

First, CrochetMe.com. Diane makes the very good point that if you want to build a name and reputation for yourself by doing unpaid work, do it on your own terms and for yourself. I agree with her.

When I launched CrochetMe.com in 2004, it was a hobby. I started it on a lark, remember. It was months before I decided to run it more formally as a business. I ran the online magazine for almost five years, and during that time it never turned a profit. I was never paid, and neither were any of the contributors to the site. Ad revenue covered hosting costs, so I consider the business to have broken even.

So CrochetMe.com was unpaid work. For my part, it was unpaid work for me. (For the contributors to the site it was, in part, unpaid work for me, too, but that’s a can of worms we can open up another time. For now I’ll direct you to what I said above about fair and reasonable.) And of course it wasn’t just work for me. I ran CrochetMe.com from a place of inevitable principled motivation. I had things to say about crochet. I had opinions to express and attitudes to challenge. I was on a mission.

What did it mean for me to be doing the work for myself? It meant I made the creative decisions. It meant I wasn’t beholden to anyone else’s constraints. It meant I got to show off exactly the kind of work I wanted to do. And from this project – directly from it – I built my career. A career during which I’ve been paid to write for magazines and blogs, paid to write books, paid to be a magazine editor, paid to speak and teach, paid to co-host a television show and paid to edit books. (I’ve also done some unpaid writing projects and unpaid speaking engagements.)

In addition to being a very important personal and public project, CrochetMe.com was my portfolio. It got me noticed. It got me – and many of the contributors – paid work, and lots of it.

And then I sold the site, which pretty much meant that those five years of intense work I didn’t get paid for did, in fact, pay off in the end.

I consider this a big fat pile of success in the column of unpaid work.

Now for the second example.

My new project is Mighty Ugly. In almost all respects it’s different from CrochetMe.com – except, of course, that I’m driven by an inevitable and principled motivation; I have things to say.

For the most part, Mighty Ugly is a live, in-person project consisting of workshops and seminars and speaking engagements – not one based primarily online. Ideally, I get paid for each event I do.

But I don’t get paid for each event I do. This summer, as I got the project going again after a baby-inspired hiatus, I did a few events for free. I didn’t get paid to be at Maker Faire Vancouver, and I didn’t get paid to be at the Cos & Effect convention, either. And here’s why I did those events for free, and why I’ll do one or two more of them for free in coming months:

I do not have a budget for advertising.

I know how to rock online, kids. I’ve been working online for years. And though I’m not inclined to use my online mad skillz to in-your-face sell stuff to people, I know how to get the word out about things I’m excited about.

I do not, however, know how to rock offline the same way. And I do not have the cash to do things like buy ads in places my target audience/customer/client will look. I also don’t have the cash to sponsor events that will reach my target people.

What I do have, however, is a limited amount of time, a giant pile of materials, a stack of promotional postcards, and my shining personality. I also know that my project is the kind of thing that makes people take pause. It makes people stop mid-stride when they’re walking by my table so they can take a second to see what’s going on. I know that when people come to a drop-in Mighty Ugly workshop at a conference or larger event, they have fun, and sometimes their brain explodes.

Given all that, I do some free events because my hope is that I’ll reach a few people who might then hire me. Or who will come for a longer, more formal workshop that they’ll pay to attend. Or who will tell their friends who work in HR that Mighty Ugly would be a great addition to their professional development program. Or who will invite me to participate in another event, for pay.

Either this strategy will work or it won’t. But I don’t have the money to risk a failed advertising scheme, so I’m happy to take the risk with my time. Especially because I have fun every single time I do an event. And because other people have fun every single time. And many people feel challenged in a satisfying way. And some people tell amazing stories. All that is related to my passion for the project. It’s no-brainer for me to do these events for free.

As long as I can sustain the business by getting paid work. That’s the kicker. So far it seems to slowly be working.

Only time will tell if this project is a sustainable business. For now, I’m comfortable with my balance of free and paid work. Stay tuned.