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.