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The Fair, the Unfair and the Ugly: Working for Free and Working for Pay

"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.

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Anonymous

I’m glad you posted in this discussion, Kim – you always have a cogent view to offer.

I’m also on board with the conclusion you express here (and that we’re coming to in the discussion on my blog) – that each person must make his or her own path in terms of free vs. paid work. I’ll tell you this, though – I really do believe in raising this issue again and again, because I think we currently have a community that’s comprised largely of very new business owners, for whom this idea of placing a valuation on your time and effort may be uncharted territory. 

While I like the “to each his or her own” model, I also worry that it doesn’t make for enough productive discussion or help change enough minds. (And yes, I’m aware that I have a distinct tendency toward stridency on this subject.) :-)

To my mind, the craft industry will naturally tend toward getting as much benefit for as little expense as it can, and that plus the aforementioned relative business inexperience of our community is a dangerous combination. As I’ve said repeatedly over the last few days, I applaud Jenny for standing up, pointing to something specific and saying “This is unfair.” The overall conclusion may be the same, but the event hopefully brought a few more fledgling business owners to think differently about how they value their time.

Anonymous

Oh, certainly – I don’t think that we’ll effect industry-wide change, especially in a tough economy. But I do see value in bringing visibility to particularly bad exchange offers, like the one from Creative Paperclay, as a means of letting the industry know we’re paying attention.

M.K. Carroll

Your taking a chance and launching CrochetMe.com benefited me directly (who would have thought something I made on a whim would lead to actual work?), and I agree, doing work for free in the hopes that it will pay off is risky. In my case, sustainability means I continue to work a full-time job unrelated to crafting and fiber, because it means I can take chances I might otherwise consider too chancy (like what I’m doing with Cooperative Press – I’m choosing to get paid out of royalties). I appreciate that you continue to push the conversation further – there’s a lot of gray area!

M.K. Carroll

It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. I think I might still have yarn older than CrochetMe!

I was so fired up about continuing to stoke the fires of crochet that I agreed to be the series editor for all 11 Fresh Designs Crochet books. It’s a big mouthful, but so far I’ve been able to chew.

Kristi

Food for thought, as always, Kim! I started designing and tech editing for Knitty.com when it first started. For free. Never dreamed it was a job, and it wasn’t for a while, but we were doing something that we loved and that was enough. (Also, it was 2002.) I was not a professional as either a designer or a technical editor until I started there. It gave me a remarkable opportunity to learn on the job. That experience, combined with the willingness to take on insane projects under ridiculous deadlines on my first few paid gigs, turned into my first book, which turned into lots of editing work, which turned into reasonably paid work from home on my own terms.

In any industry, there’s a lot of “who you know”, there’s a certain amount of proving you’re a team player, and a great big helping of delivering what you promise when you promise. Just like an apprenticeship, when you are learning to be a professional, you might work for free.  For me, it was not calculated, but rather a series of small decisions which allowed me to be home with my small children and not pull my hair out. But I regret very few of the decisions I made along the way. And none where I worked for free.

Tara Swiger

Yes!
Like you’ve clearly stated here, working for YOURSELF for free + building a platform for YOURSELF is totally different than building a platform for someone else.

Something I’d like to see more of, as the internet grows up, is crafters thinking about HOW they’ll make money from the platform they’re building, before (or as) they build it.  
As I heard SisterDiane say, “the day of the magical blog is over”…the chances of starting something HUGE and FREE having it magically turn into money is pretty slim nowadays.
I think it’s unlikely that a CrochetMe could pop up today and have the same trajectory…what do you think?

(Whereas something like MightUgly, seems much more now-appropriate, a good mix of online + offline community with the money baked right in (paid workshops))

nordie

There’s another reason to doing a workshop for not-for-money: you’ve developed a new workshop, it’s not quite ready, you know it needs some tweaks but are not sure what, and you want to iron things out before you start charging real people real money to do it for real.  People get a near-proper workshop for not-money if they know up front it’s not actually perfect and they’re going to have to give constructive feedback in return (so they do actually pay you, just not in money).

My own, badly edited and un-proof-read thoughts on the subject are over here:
http://sorchaogle.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/be-free-or-not-to-be-free/

It may change if and when I go back and actually read it back

Cynthia

Great discussion and I agree with many of the points made! Kim, as you know, you & I met via CrochetMe when I did those lil’ illustrations for you way back when! Over a bit of time thru you and your connections I got more work- getting paid to illustrate your books was an amazing and cool benefit! And led to more books with a different author as well! And of course working with you is always awesome whether getting paid for it or not and I am so thankful to have met you! :) At the moment I’m working a fabric manufacturer who found me online. I’m creating design collections in hopes they get chosen for production but there are no guarantees that they will and if not I don’t get paid for them. Not yet anyways! So far they *have* chosen one collection which is very exciting! But there are other avenues to explore with my designs if not chosen- places like Spoonflower where I can upload my designs and earn a small commission every time somebody orders my designs on fabric, which is actually working out pretty well for me too. Why do I keep at it when there are no guarantees of money in exchange for my work and time- at this point anyways?  Because I love it. It’s my happy place. It makes me think more outside of the box and I can create whatever I want and design things I like with no “interference” (for lack of a better word)- from the client. I run my own graphic & web design business and can use my time in between client projects to work on my fabrics, (and art and…). Who knows what will happen with them! I never dreamed I would get discovered this way… Read more »

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