In 2004 I moved to New York to chase a girl. I landed a position as an account manager for a startup doing university marketing.

I was hired to manage client relationships, but I really wanted to be involved in the creative department. I had dabbled in design in college, but had never done client work.

So I offered to work for free.

I told the design director I wanted to take a stab at designing my client’s projects myself. The deal was I’d submit to him, and if he didn’t like it it would never go to the client. Even if it did go to the client, I didn’t need to be compensated for it. It was no risk for him, so he agreed.

Every day I’d put in my 10 hours at work, and at night I’d design. The first one never made it to the client. Or the second one. Or the third. Or the tenth. But I did get feedback each time so I could make it better.

After three months and over 25 projects, one finally got submitted. The client hated it. It was hard listening to the client shred the work, not knowing it was me who did it. But I was also thrilled – my work got submitted.

I got better. St. Anselm College decided they actually liked mine, and it went into production. TCU followed suit. Then Bryant, and Chestnut Hill, and Marist. I still wasn’t being compensated for it, but I had a portfolio of major universities who used my work.

The company was working on a social network, and I asked to take a stab at designing the UI, again for free. UI was different than design and required new muscles. My first attempt sucked, as did my second, and third, and fourth. I finally made an approach that got implemented. I wasn’t very good at UI, but neither was anyone else. All told, it took three iterations of the software to get something that looked like we knew what we were doing.

All this work was done for free, on top of my usual responsibilities. I spent 3-5 hours of off hours most nights doing work that I didn’t get paid for. People thought I was nuts.

But the owners of the company noticed, especially when the social network started to get traction. I got promoted and started doing 50% account management and 50% design. My salary tripled within 12 months. By 18 months I was the Creative Director of the company. And that crappy social network became less and less crappy, and eventually helped the company get acquired.

Many people will tell you all the reasons why you shouldn’t work for free. About how your time and talent are worth something, and companies that don’t pay you are taking advantage of you. I don’t believe this at all.

In five years I designed or managed the design of over 500 client projects. And it only happened because I was willing to work for free. I wasn’t being taken advantage of – I was capitalizing on an opportunity.

I was honest with myself and knew that I wasn’t good enough yet. And the opportunity to learn and practice and get better was way more valuable than the opportunity to make some extra money.

If your portfolio is weak and someone doesn’t want to pay you what you think you’re worth, that’s not their fault. Take any work you can get, and use it to get better. Having 50 real world projects in your portfolio that you did for free is better than five that you got paid for.

If your portfolio is strong and someone doesn’t want to pay you what you think you’re worth, that’s not their fault either. They might be misguided, or cheap, or stupid, or good at negotiating a bargain. If you don’t like it, don’t work with them. Go find clients that pay better. Learn how to market and sell. But quit complaining. You’re frustrated because your pipeline of opportunities isn’t big enough.

You might not be as good as you think you are. Or you might be better, and just terrible at letting people know. Either way, it’s important to remember that nobody owes you anything. Experience is more important than money.

  • Rishi Shah

    Sean – This is an amazing inspiration post. Loved how hard you worked to get where you are today. What made you keep going in the early days? I would have probably given up – did you just enjoy designing? 

  • Anonymous

    I think I saw a path to get where I wanted to go. It was a small enough company that someone with initiative could create their own opportunities, and I thought that with enough practice I could get good enough. It actually happened a lot faster than I thought it would – in a larger company it probably would take several years to get there. But still worth it.

  • David Miller

    Sean – awesome post. Can’t agree more. I think the key in your story was the positive reinforcement – clients were eating up your work. Similar to creating a free app/service that gets users – the payoff will come over time, but in the early running the fact that people are using your stuff is a more important motivator than any monetary benefit. Side note – this read a lot like a James Altucher post (meant as a compliment), keep up the great writing!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks David! One clarification though – no client actually saw a design the first couple dozen tries, and the first couple times they did see them, they ripped them to shreds. Eventually got the positive reinforcement but it took a while. To your point though, the fact that _anyone_ saw my work, even a design director who didn’t think it was particularly good, did provide a measure of validation. It meant they thought there was a chance I could make something valuable.

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  • Michael

    I really enjoyed this post and couldn’t agree more. Many people dont understand why I am sometimes willing to work for free. Now I have a great way of articulating the idea that sometimes an opportunity is worth more than whatever amount of money the project might have been worth. In fact, several great projects have come way as a direct result of a project I did for free. Again, great post.

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  • Anonymous

    Sean, this is a great post. Living in NY is not cheap, I know because I grew up there. How were you able to afford to work for free? Apologies if I missed it in the post.

  • Anonymous

    I worked during the day at the company – I did this stuff at night or before work. And yeah, when I got there I was making 40k. Was pretty tough.

  • Anonymous

    Gotcha. And thanks again for the comment on my post this morning. Cheers and keep up the good work.

  • Gary Moneysmith

    Great post, Sean. In 1995, I was smitten with this new “web” thing and HAD to get involved. I took 2-semesters on Photoshop at a local community college after work. I taught myself HTML and started doing freelance web design for a couple years. While I migrated into account management/strategy over time, the hands-on, under-the-hood, gotta-get-it-done experience I gained from the do it myself work (in addition to my day job) was the most valuable learning period of my life. It was really stressful, but has been me back immensely ever since.

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  • Lara Wilkens

    Great post and an inspiration! I came across your article as I am actually considering to work for free however, my situation is a little different than yours. I had to stop work about half a year ago due to a near burn out. Now that i’ve been out of the running for some time, ideally I would like to pick things up again. I’ve applied for a couple of positions without success. My last interview made me realize that I actually don’t have enough experience and not being specialized is deeming to be the major obstacle. Its quite nerve wrecking. I decided to research Marketing agencies in town and I’ve found a few who have experience in what I would like to specialize in. I was thinking about calling them to offer myself as an “intern.” I was hoping it could be a win-win situation- they train me on the job, and I offer my time for free. I would love to hear any suggestions you may have in how to best approach this. Have you ever done something similar where you weren’t working? Thanks in advance. Lara

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  • Juan Uskiano

    awesome thoughts!

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