How Not to Ask Someone to Work for Free

There comes a time in every creator’s life when he reaches a certain level of success, relevance, and skill and reaps the rewards. The universe chooses to applaud him for all his hard work and effort over the previous years.

People come out of the woodwork to recognize all of his strides and progress and say…

“Hey, so I’m doing this thing, and I would love it if you would help me out with it. I mean, I can’t really pay you, but it would be awesome if you could help me. And people would see it!”

[insert sound of record scratch]


Remember how I talked about getting traction and just kind of keeping that momentum going in my last post?

Maybe that was a bunch of bunkum.

Or at the very least, there’s a side effect to doing well: people start to see an advantage in, well, taking advantage.

In the past week, I’ve been approached by three people who want me to contribute my time, energy, skills, and effort toward their projects. None of which actually pay.

In one very specific case, it would get him (or her) paid, without any compensation on my end.

And I have to ask… what the fuck are you smoking?

(Okay. Maybe that’s rude. But bear with me.)

How Not to Ask Someone to Work for Free / / How to ask skilled creative professionals to contribute to your project or event for free. Or, the broke-ass's guide to not getting laughed out of the room.

How Not to Get People to Work for Free

First of all, don’t. Stop trying to. But definitely don’t patronize me in the process.

Don’t tell me I’m working for exposure. Exposure is easy. I could rob a bank and get both fame and fortune by the time the nightly news airs. That’s what people actually pay attention to.

Don’t tell me I’m getting paid in experience. I have experience. That’s why you chose to approach me rather than your nephew, your plumber, or that lady you went to middle school with that posts all that stuff on Facebook about trichotillomania awareness. I’m a professional.

Don’t tell me I’m getting a backlink. If I wanted a backlink, I’d do a Google search for blogs that have do-follow comment sections or write a guest post for one of my many friends that actually support me.

And for the love of all that is pure and good in the world, don’t tell me that I should do it because of how awesome the idea is. You’re asking me to stop working on my ideas to spend time on your idea by virtue that your idea is better than mine. Tell me I’m being extra, but that’s insulting.

How to Get People to Work for Free

Here’s the thing: people who have skills, talent, and a name for themselves have an interest in continuing to develop those things. But your Great Idea for a project probably isn’t all that great.

So I’m going to need you to get your shit together first.

Find a budget

If you have literally no budget and can’t even scrape together enough money to hire a few people off of Fiverr, that tells me things about you. It tells me that you don’t actually take your project seriously (you’re not willing to invest in it) and that you don’t have enough clout to solicit free work from bigger names.

So find a budget. I don’t care how broke you are. If you can’t even scrape together a couple hundred bucks to break into an increasingly competitive and oversaturated industry, you’re going to fail and waste my time in the process. It’s taken me $30,000 of credit card debt and a year and a half of hardcore struggle to get to entry level.

Put your money where your mouth is. Then I’ll listen. Maybe.

Pitch a plan. Not an idea.

One exception to the budget rule: If it’s a charity project, great. Get in touch with my agent (or whoever) and pitch the idea.

Tell him what the project is for, what my contribution will be, how you’re actually going to bring in money from it, and what that money will be going to.

But it’s not in my (or any performer’s) best interest to perform for charity for the sake of performing for charity. We need to know that somebody’s actually going to benefit from your benefit. The main reason non-sociopathic people perform for good causes is because we get the warm and fuzzies from what we’re doing. But we don’t get any warm and fuzzies unless we know how we’re making a difference (and who we’re making a difference for).

(And the main reason most people perform for good causes is that it will get them exposure and make them look cool – see points above about getting your shit together.)

It also doesn’t make sense to throw my name onto something that’s ineffective. I worked for several non-profits for several years, so I’ve seen what good organizations are capable of. I’ve also seen what happens when you throw money at gross incompetence. Prove which one you’ll be.

Then flatter me

We’re creatives. We have egos. You need to tell us that we’re the only ones who could possibly fill this particular role – that the fate of the project rests on our shoulders.

Tell me how my strengths are going to play to what you have in mind and make the project great. I want to know that you wrote it with me in mind – that I’m not just a warm body with a small following to bring you eyeballs and attention.

How to Get People to Work for Free / / When you're asking a creative professional to work for free, flattery never hurts. Tell me I'm pretty.

Flattery will get you everywhere.

I’ll be honest: half the pitches I’ve received have nothing to do with my content, my interests, or my ‘brand.’ They’re asking for a handout of attention or work, but I don’t have the skills, the audience, or, honestly, much else to offer to the project – and I wouldn’t gain anything for my own projects in return. Or they’re just totally off-brand for me.

I’m not opposed to selling out being compensated fairly and equitably for my time, energy, and skill. But why approach a comedian and ask him to make a video reviewing a car dealership? That’s weird.

And if you do just need a warm body, don’t waste your time reaching out to creatives individually. Do what every other fly-by-night future failure does: post an ad to the Craigslist gigs and try to sweet talk strangers into doing it.

Sure, it’ll either read like a high schooler’s op-ed about cafeteria food or be plagiarized, but that’s what you’ve earned with your efforts. You get what you pay for.

But you’ll never know unless you ask

Sometimes, you may be surprised by what people will say yes to. Much like haggling for a lower price or asking someone out on a date, you’ll never get a yes unless you’re willing to risk a no.

So invite people to join your projects. Reach out to creators – even me – and see if they’re willing to join your team for free (or at least at a very reduced price). We all have moments of low self-esteem generosity or curiosity that lead us to make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise.

Just take the time to put together a strong reason of why we should. Maybe you’ll land an all star.

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