when to work for free

by grechen on September 15, 2010 | RSS | FOLLOW ON TWITTER | FACEBOOK |

I was reading recently “279 Days to Overnight Success” by Chris Guillebeau and noticed a section where briefly mentioned that he worked HARD but also worked for free in the beginning of his blogging/writing/self-employed career (this is worth reading by the way – there are quite a few gems scattered about). I honestly just glossed over it without thinking much about it except that I said to myself, “yeah, of course you will have to work for free in the beginning, that’s part of the risk and getting your name out there.”

It also reminded me of a show I was watching on CNBC this weekend called “How I made my millions” where one of the entrepreneurs mentioned that he gave his popcorn seasonings to a movie theater in the beginning, after which they bought the seasonings for the whole chain – now he’s a millionaire. I don’t know any entrepreneurs who haven’t worked for free or given stuff away at some point; it’s part of the passion and risk that goes along with starting a business.

But then, the “culture of free” hit me again this morning while looking through some of the live tweets from the Independent Fashion Bloggers conference in NYC:

In principal I believe these sentiments are true, but in practice, it’s not always so easy, or even the right thing to NOT work for free – at least in the beginning. I did it. 6 years ago when I started Grechen’s Closet I worked for free. I did it for “free” for 2 years before I was able to quit my full time job and make blogging my career. The key is to KNOW WHEN YOU’RE BEING TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF. There’s a big difference between giving something away or doing something for free in exchange for proving yourself to a potential advertiser and consistently allowing yourself to be taken advantage of by PR companies, designers, agents, etc.

I made strategic decisions in the beginning to write ONLY about what I loved and to feature places online I have shopped or would shop, no matter if they were advertising on my site, or if I made a commission from them or not; editorial content has always been separate from advertising. BUT – I also knew that what I was offering was in demand, both from my readers and online boutiques, so I sent out e-mails every week to the new boutiques/designers I featured with a link to my media kit and let them know about my advertising options. They were already getting traffic from me FOR FREE, but I let them know that they could get more CONSISTENT traffic if they advertised with me. And while most turned down the offer, enough took me up on it, and the rest is history.

Maybe the time for you to do this is passed – maybe it worked for me because I started earlier, or because I focus on online shopping and fashion, not just “fashion.” What worked for me, might not work for you, but just based on my own experience, I don’t necessarily believe that if you start out giving stuff away for free, people will always expect it to be free. It’s harder to transition to charging for things once you’ve started out NOT charging, but it’s not impossible. And to a certain extent, it’s expected. It’s up to you to know when to STOP giving stuff away for free.

Again, if YOU are making the decision to do something for free, at least be strategic about it; know first what you’re getting in return. If you get nothing in return, don’t do it. If you’re being approached by a large brand who wants you to do something for them at no charge, don’t do it!! You KNOW they have money to pay you, but they’re being stingy and trying to take advantage of you. In that case, you know the right thing is to turn it down.

I believe in fair compensation, and I believe that fashion bloggers should be paid for their work; EVERYONE should be paid what they are worth. But you can’t expect to start a blog and begin making money immediately. You will need to prove yourself first. It took me 2 years to “prove myself” enough to make money to live off of, and 4 years to make “consistent” money. And I still do some things for free – if I’m courting a potential advertiser, I’ll post a code or something first, so they can get an idea of how my readers respond to their boutique before they cough up the big bucks (LOL) to advertise. No skin off my back. I won’t keep doing it, but it’s 100% worth it to me to build the relationship and trust first so they can see the value, then ask them for money.

What do you think? what has been your experience working for free?


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashe Mischief September 15, 2010 at 11:56 am

I feel like I recently jumped one someone’s back because I see SO MANY new bloggers who are like, “I want to make money, and they won’t pay me!” to which I want to be like…. we all want to make money. But sometimes you do have to work for free, some things you do need to ask money for, and you need to figure out and decide what is worth what.

In my new arrangement with a clothing company, I get free products each month to review, and I get to keep them. I see it as: it looks better to have a relationship with one respected company that’s consistent to show other future advertisers and collaborators. So am I working for less than I probably should? Yeah. But do I love the brand and the product? Yes.

Like Gala said, it’s not bad to want to make money off your blog. But you’re great at pointing out– it takes time. A LOT of time. And it takes a LOT of free work. But at the end of the day, it’s also passion driving us forward.


grechen September 15, 2010 at 1:43 pm

AMEN ashe!! i don’t know where the idea that it’s “easy” to make money blogging came from – or that you can just start a blog and people will chase after you wanting to pay you lots of money…unless you have a truly revolutionary voice (like tavi) or are a model (fashiontoast), it’s going to take a lot of time to build up your audience enough to make money. that’s just the way it is.

and i did the same thing you are doing a few years ago – i worked with a boutique i loved for store credit, maybe less than i would have been paid in cash – but it was totally worth it for me because i got content for the blog (new stuff) and i loved who i was working with. i still do stuff like that if i think the payoff is worth it. like i said, you have to be at least strategic about working for free and KNOW YOUR VALUE. the problem comes in when you get NOTHING in return, or you feel in your gut that it’s not worth it to you, but you do it anyway because you think you have to. as long as you are in control, there’s nothing wrong with working for free.


jennine September 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

yeah, i’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, a recent experience has taught me that bloggers need to be VERY careful about what they demand money for, and what they have to do to build a relationship. there are somethings you can’t charge for. like if you’re a new blogger and your blogs have no traffic, and you don’t quite have the skills yet to write posts, you have to work for ‘free’ in order to learn the ropes. Actually, it’s not the new blogger that’s working for free, it’s the new blogger that’s learning for free.

On the flipside, if you are established, have expertise and can produce results then you better believe that you should get paid, but even then there are some instances when it’s ok to do it for free.

1. if it’s for a friend (it’s the right thing to do, and besides, you never know when you need the favor returned)
2. if the results aren’t too specific (if you can create your own time line, and it’s not too time consuming it takes you away from paying work.)
3. if it’s for a charity, or a cause you believe in, or if it’s to give back to the community (they were there for you, the least you can do is to give back)
4. if it helps your brand legitimacy, ie being asked to speak at google

Even then, some established bloggers have been greedy, asking for compensation to make appearances A list celebrities did not ask for compensation to make. (True story.) It’s kind of shameful, but at the same time, I just think it comes with the newness of the business.


Becky B. September 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I hope working for free pays off eventually! Right now my writing gigs for Austinist (unpaid) and Examiner (like, $4) aren’t reaping me monetary rewards, but I’m hoping they are a good way to build my writing portfolio and maybe lead to paying gigs one day.


grechen September 15, 2010 at 1:47 pm

building a portfolio is important and i think working for little or nothing will totally pay off for you – you just have to know when to stop working for free and demand appropriate compensation.


Mallory September 17, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I totally agree, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and not only in terms of advertising. Lately it seems like a lot of people have been coming to me for advice, and while I’ve been willing to give it for free for a long time, I’m at the point where I’m realizing the advice I give has a lot of value, and I should charge for it. I’ve put a TON of time and effort into learning all these skills and gaining knowledge, so should I just pass that on for free? No!


Treacle September 23, 2010 at 11:35 am

This is where I am right now…transitioning out of free to compensated work (I say compensated instead of paid,because compensation isn’t always $$$).

I’ve been blogging for 2.5 years and I’ve only realized in the past six months that my audience is really valuable to advertisers who make products relevant to what I talk about. I also believe that no one will value your time and effort and expertise unless you do, and one of the easiest ways to reinforce that you have value is by charging.

What worked for me was giving really steep discounts to my first few advertisers. That way, those advertising spots were filled (no one wants to be the first one), and now I don’t have to pursue advertisers at all…they come to me.

And I love what you said about knowing what I’m getting in return first. I’ve had to turn down several jobs recently because the parties I was talking with wanted me to work for them but weren’t willing to do anything for me. A business relationship is like any other…both parties have to benefit for it to work.

Brilliant article! Thanks for writing it. :)


Tori September 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I do things for free all the time, and it is always with the intention of relationship building. I think with certain potential clients or advertisers, there is a line where you can scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, but they often will take advantage of you if you don’t stand up and say you need something in return.

Don’t be afraid to tell them they need to link to you and tweet about you and post you on their Facebook – that is all valuable. I think it is a misconception that if you aren’t getting cash money, you aren’t getting “paid” – you can be compensated in many ways, but of course free clothes doesn’t pay the bills!


Laura Connell September 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

I believe getting paid in product is as valuable as getting paid in cash: that’s what we fashion lovers spend our money on anyway. When I started fashion writing, I worked for a year for free and in return I got a pass to fashion week and some great events, so it was worth it. I felt intuitively when it was time to ask for money and I can remember the exact turning point. An editor for a print mag asked if she could ‘try” me out and see if I was a good fit. In other words, no pay. I just felt like I was done with that, I had enough tear sheets if she wanted to see my work and I stood up for myself: “I need to be compensated for my work,” is what I said. Well, wouldn’t you know it? She found a budget!


Courtney September 24, 2010 at 10:38 am

Isn’t blogging in general the definition of working for free? I don’t think most bloggers start off thinking, “WOW! This can make me the big bucks!” I guess that’s the difference between people who blog for their enjoyment and those who blog for a certain market.


Tatiana September 24, 2010 at 10:48 am

This was a really great article. My blog has been alive and pumping DIY/Crafty energy into the web-o-sphere for the last 3 years now, and just recently (I’m talking, the last 2 months or so) I started getting paid to write featured posts, and earning income on ads. I’ve written countless amounts of posts raving about other bloggers, designers, etc for free in the past, because I genuinely loved what those individuals have done for the community… BUT now that I have a few years of experience behind me, it’s nice to get a little compensation for my work. We all would like to do what we love full time, and some of us are taking baby steps to reach that goal… but going in the right direction.

Thanks again for the great, thought-provoking post!


Krista September 26, 2010 at 7:45 am

Great post, Gretchen! Something told me to check in at IFB today. So glad your article jumped out at me. In Nov. I’ll be blogging for 3 years. I easily put in more than a full time job, but get far less than a full time job would pay…but I’m getting there. Like you, I started out offering free press and services; however, I knew when to draw the line and say enough is enough. I am at the point where I am insulted by these huge companies wanting free press. Daily. Flooding my inbox. I think at the beginning, many of us have so much hope and know we need to put in the time…but there comes a time, if you approach blogging as a job or resume builder, that you are seasoned and have something of value to offer. Overworked and underpaid–that is the life for many good bloggers, and it shouldn’t be that way. I don’t like to see bloggers starting out with an attitude of entitlement, as it takes time to build a blog, audience and relationship with brands. On the other hand, when so many bloggers offer so much for free, it’ damages the reputation of bloggers as a whole…dilutes it. I do believe that if we conduct ourselves as professionals, we will be treated as professionals. But, it IS time to be paid as professionals. Time to tweet ;)


Fashion Limbo September 27, 2010 at 3:30 am

great article and what a controversy…
makes me think A LOT….right now I don’t make any money of my blog, that’s one side…then to write for others for free…It depends. If Vogue offers you a monthly column for free who would say no?
Then again is all about timing, and who is asking you to work for free, and if it is indeed “free”, you may not get money but other rewards such as good quality exposure etc…


Emily September 30, 2010 at 5:04 am

I love this post. I would love to make money from my blog and my writing but I know that it takes time. It’s nice to have this confirmed :) My blog is still relatively new and I don’t understand these people – like Ashe – who start their blog and immediately want to make money. You have to build an audience and a reputation.

As Fashion Limbo says, it might be free but it is all a part of gaining exposure. And as Becky B says, it also helps to contribute to a credible writing portfolio.

Thank you for the post :)


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