WTF is up with companies (esp. startups) expecting people to work for free?

Hi folks,

Because they think/hope they can get away with it -- and oftentimes, they do. Give em an inch and they'll take a mile, if not the whole goddamn highway. I'm sure if big box brands like Amazon could get away with not paying their workers, they absolutely would.
I offer trade to some clients, like for instance, if I did work for a photographer and they offered to do some headshots or something for me that was equal in value, I would consider it.
Work for free though on someone else’s passion project? Nope. I got bills. If he wasn’t suggesting trade, you were right to walk away. If he hung up abruptly during money talk, you were right to walk away. If he wouldn’t consider paying you, and then hung the phone up and couldn’t act like an adult — you were right to walk away. I suppose he “walked away” in this situation but you didn’t cow to his stupid request or pursue him after her hung up so I think you did the right thing for you. He sounds like he would have been difficult to work with and unprofessional.
Edit: typo
Yup. Totally separately (to this point at least) the few times I've done projects for "friends" they have ended up being even worse to deal with than the worst clients I've ever had. I've been shocked each time. The last project for a "friend" I ended up writing a huge text that took days and which (because this person asked for days' worth of revisions with hours until the deadline) I didn't even get paid a cent for. I legitimately felt like I had been scammed.
I was listening to a radio show a long time ago - was a business advice show and this clown calls in and says "I'm having trouble getting investors for my can't-miss business idea. I don't understand why they don't want to get on board for this golden opportunity. How can I convince these investors?"
The host said "Well if it's such a great can't-miss idea why don't you invest your own money?" They guy said "I don't have any."
So they guy asks "Do you own a house? answer: Yes. Then why don't you take out a second mortgage on your house and use that money to finance your business?"
Answer (you know it's coming): "Well I don't want to do that! What if I lose my house!?!?!"
Host: "Well if you have so little confidence in your can't-miss business that you won't even risk your own money how can you expect anyone else to? My advice to you is to forget about your business idea and go back to whatever you were doing before you had this great idea."
I've interviewed with a couple of Startups and they all had very limited resources and shoestring budgets. This seemed particularly true when it came to hiring talent and making purchases.
Honestly we live in a world that encourages and rewards behavior like this. We also live in a world where people are desperate enough for work that they will agree to a terrible opportunity like that. You were one of dozens, if not hundreds, of people that said no so they could find that one person that agrees to a terrible deal like that. It's never going to change, stay strong.
Not to mention the small companies who think interns are the same as slave labor, free to be exploited in return for some resume entries.
They want to get work for free and there are actually idiots who do it. For "exposure" or other shit like that. Even some idiots advocate this, making more idiots who do it.
This runs rampant in the DJ nightlife world. Party promoters tell DJs the exposure is worth way more than the money.
i don't know if its fair to call people desperate for work idiots. As he said sometimes they make promises to pay later- and for someone just starting out it can seem like the only option. you should be trying to offer advice to people before they end up in the situation not judging a beginner for not having your same expertise, dick.
People die of exposure.
Because labor is the most capital intensive part of many companies (especially in tech or other knowledge work). This means that anyone who can successfully convince people to work for free can get a new company off the ground with no actual investment. It's a no-brainer to try this tactic for your average broke, less-than-scrupulous founder.
You're doing the right thing, just keep filtering these people out of your pipeline.
If you had agreed, he could get back to his boss and gloat how he negotiated freebies for him,
These people think it’s a numbers game and eventually someone will agree to it. And some might. But karma is real. Rest assured that people like him will burn in a special hell for corporate people who take advantage of freelancers and creatives :)
This guy was the boss!
I've worked with a ton of startups and now that I have, I don't pursue them very often.
Likewise. I've worked at them too (as in, in-house). As freelance clients, they're always the ones that set impossible demands / are cheap AF and end up being the ones I end up remembering as "nightmare clients" I learned lessons the hard way from. Honestly, I've come to sort of hate startups and startup culture as a result of my collective experiences with them (almost all negative!).
I actively try to avoid them u less the founder already has other successful projects and can pay me with $$
This thing is happening at my job. 6 Weeks ago...someone else (Very junior) person joined the project. He is working for free. Boss fired another junior person...because he was being paid (and this new guy was willing to work for free). Now the boss wants him to do more and more of the work...so that he can get maximum free work. I do not know why he is doing the free work. Boss has told him that he will get paid once company raises external funding. In my opinion: People get tired of looking for job...and then someone shows them a job with everything (except instant money...with a promise of money). They hold on to that...in order to "learn" new stuff and maybe with a hope to get paid later on.
Its tough to break into some industries, so people that have only worked for minimum or minimal wages might as well work for free for the experience since there isn't a whole hell of a lot of difference. Add to that that they may have been going into insane debt for their college degrees, then the comparative pain of simply working for free may not seem so bad.
In other words our economy is fucked. Sure we have low employment, but the job market fucking sucks. Therefore companies have an easily exploitable population of laborers. Hopefully we collectively get some class consciousness soon and work together to change this.
It's illegal to hire someone and not pay them minimum wage in the US. Report them to the labor board.
Cause they don’t have any money! Stay well clear of a start up who can’t pay you
Tell them that freelancing is not free.
Ugggh, I see this too often as well. My rule of thumb now is if I just met you, I'm not going to partner with you, period. Pay me for a while to do some work, let's gain some trust in each other and our abilities and maybe we can partner in the future. If you can't pay me then I already don't trust that you can generate revenue. There are always ideas to start a business on, and even those change during the course of a business. More important are the team members and the trust they build, and the value of their contributions over time.
You're expecting a logical answer for an illogical scenario. People who ask others to make their bills harder to pay aren't respectable, logical, or frankly, even professional.
As ever, most of these delusional customers can never understand their requests.
Good point! Thank you!
The disconnect is that it is a reasonable thing to ask, but you're not the right person to ask it of. If they have no outside investment and no personal money to put in, it's perfectly reasonable to look for partners who can help get the project off the ground.
But the process of looking for partners and the pool you select candidates from are very different from looking for a freelancer or employee. And the amount of equity you give a partner is probably much higher than they were planning to offer you.
At best they were socially clueless when they decided to do this. At worst, exploitative and opportunistic.
Absolutely not. There is nothing reasonable about asking people to work for free. Nothing. At all. Nothing. Zero.
My response to the whole situation is that I'm not a knowledgeable investor, I don't know how to accurately evaluate and assess a business plans potential profitability. There are people out there who will do that, though, that will look at the potential, and give you money so that it can come true.
So that's what they need to do, convince those investors to give them money, and take that money and give it to me, and I will gladly do the work.
If they can't convince those investors that it's a good idea, I should probably take the same stance as the professional investors.
Buy him a gift basket for helping you dodge the bullet that was his company. Man you’re better off without that turd.
"Relationships are investments"
Which is why I need paid money for this work... So I can use the money to invest in relationships. What a stupid wanker.
OP you are learning to say 'No' ... In time you'll be able to recognise all these freeloaders a mile away without wasting time conversing with them.
It's a tough gig, freelancing. Don't let these retrobates get your hope down!
Thanks. I'm already getting better at it (e.g. pre-screening this guy and thus avoiding the call entirely). But I have a lot more to learn!
You could be surprised by how many big companies had "employees" working for free during months or even years in the startup stage. Now, those "employees" are millionaires. It's hard to predict when it's a great opportunity and when it's a charlatan trying to get free work, though.
Now this is the 1% (or less) I keep hearing people bitch about.
Honestly I'd rather spend a night at the casino. Better odds.
"alternative mechanism for compensation"
haha!! That's a new one for me. Though last week I got a response to a cold e-mail:
"We do not have any paid positions or projects currently available. However, if you wanted to volunteer, you are welcome to submit a piece....."
Why even bother offering this? I don't get it when potential clients respond with this. I am a writer with a business. Why would I do free work?
This is basically why I started the thread. It baffles me too. But as another respondent said, we are in the futile position of attempting to seek a logical answer to an illogical proposition!
So I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure they can't accept "volunteers" unless they're an actual non-profit under the appropriate 501c category or similar public sector jobs.
My husband is a freelance designer and people are always asking him for free work in exchange for "exposure", which he doesn't need because his website is first page on Google for his niche. Also, fuck that, he has a family to feed just like the client does!
If it were for equity in the startup, I would do it if I felt confident in the other players. Would require a deal in writing.
Thats what people sell. This is the best startup...and you will get X% equity etc etc. And some developers fall for it.
"You're right. Your business is an investment. You should invest in hiring me to do this job."
If a start up can’t pay you, it’s not a real start up
"I don't work for free. Do you? 'Cause if you do I've got a killer opportunity for you."
While you should never work for free... I agree with that start up person to some extent that relationships are investments.
I would recommend explore other options of payments as well in such situations like payment in terms of equity, or as in trade. In either of the options you must evaluate what is return of your investment, investment being the money equivalent of your time. This is risky and you must evaluate whether the startup is worth that.
This particular person definitely was an idiot as he did not have an entity as well. But if you come across a startup that shows promise a payment in equity could prove to be very profitable. Play your cards very carefully.
On the other hand Any person suggesting free work for experience or exposure are bullshit. there is nothing that is free free.
Edit even larger organisations do this to build a long time partner or get a larger share of the revenue in future value.
Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too.
I’d tell em to suck it and take a hike.
Name these companies publicly. The more they do this in the dark and get away with it, the more it will happen. They perceive this as having no cost to them. If there is a reputational cost, others may hesitate in the future.
Which two companies are these?
They’re probably just some startups with no money that can’t get anything another way. I wouldn’t work for them, but their hardly being malicious
"Only if you have a viable alternative mechanism for paying my bills with your mechanism"
lol i Think you should cross post this to
I don't work for startups - 99% fail - and I've been freelancing for 24 years. In fact, I have only had contact with 4 or 5 startups during that time.
WTF are you doing that this is even an issue?
Hey! That's cool. I'm paranoid about leaving too many digital breadcrumbs (or at least, providing too many clues), but it's in the broad domain of communication/PR services. The vast majority of my work experience (and current client base) is in the technology world. While I would love to avoid the startup ecosystem, all I can say is that I find it exceedingly difficult to do so. There are so damn many of them, they are so glorified, they all look good on the outside, and ... where I live ....all these dynamics are exaggerated. I'm actively trying to figure out a way to truly differentiate startups, and those that subscribe to the same mentality, from companies that are actually profitable and pleasant to work with .... and, just as importantly, which have matured to the level of professionalism one might expect from profitable, mature companies. The other thing I struggle with is how much startups are hyped. Because my experience with them has been, on the whole, extremely negative, it makes me feel like I've swallowed the wrong pill in The Matrix or something and the weird one .. has to be me!
I just saw a job opening that was getting paid in equity. 🤷
The world is broke and freelancers are fucked
I think there is a segment of the population that thinks "freelancer" means "free" "lancer" and thinks "free" means "at no cost to the people that hire him/her" instead of "has the freedom."
I busted my tail for so many people that never paid me a dime. I did custom business software and bent over backwards so many times it was a joke.
One lesson I've learned is that once a person has what they want from you, they really don't feel any need to pay you.
I did a nation wide beta test with a few companies during the DotCom era. I put a lock on the software and when the testing was done, I asked if they wanted to purchase the product. They got 100% of everything they wanted it to do and loved it, but they declined to purchase a copy for $99.00. I worked for the biggest competitor and he was $299.99 + support fees. I was $99 with free support for life and mine was way better.
The lock expired and kicked in, all they sudden they called wondering what was going on. They were trying to steal the software after I bent over backwards doing everything they asked for.
Had another decompile the software and move forward after I spent nearly a year working on it.
Don't be a fool, EVERYONE has a million dollar idea, but not everyone has a million dollars. Some people are too stupid to realize that they're too stupid to realize.
Sorry to hear about that sucky experience. I've yet to be screwed over as dramatically as this for any one project .... just a few bits and pieces of work that I wasn't paid for (client ended up bailing / pulled the project despite the contact etc). I think people know that, for freelancers, enforcing our rights legally often isn't feasible. So there are likely no consequences from pulling the rug out from under us.
People that ask others to work for free are dicks. Straight up. Unless you are taking your project to a student to help them learn their trade (and even here you should pay something), OR you represent a nonprofit, you have no business asking someone to donate to your business. I would just say move on and don't give it a second thought. Grinders gonna grind.
I would suggest that you adjust the target customer profile for your prospecting to exclude pre-seed or freshly minted startups. They are notorious for this kind of bullshit. Startups have everyone believing there will be a money volcano at the end of the ride for everyone who gets on board, when 90% of the time this just isn't true.
Thanks for the tip!
Good friend of mine worked for below minimum wage rates but got good equity as a developer for a startup. After 1.5 years they had a great product and only 6 people at the company then they were acquired. He ended up walking away with 3.8 million after sleeping on a couch in LA for over a year. Work for free? Absolutely not. Equity involved instead of cash? Definitely possible, but a high risk.
To quote Goodfellas: "Fuck you, pay me!"
don't worry you'll all be millionaires...just work for free now.
>relationships are investments
Then ask him why he's not willing to invest in you?
Those generally like to prey upon those who need the work experience. And if they have the time to work on it, it becomes a resume builder, but usually, it's just bullshit.
Just say sure, for 90% equity.
Cause they have no money to pay you lol
I would work for free to learn machining, welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, farming, carpentry, etc.
Agreeing to work for free only makes you look like you are not competent enough to confidently charge your reasonable rate. There are always users out there who try to find that type of person in order to exploit someone they judge to be weak. It is a competition for them, and they want to win. And they are predators. And if you work for them, they will keep trying to get for more for less. This is the world we live in. Walk away from people who want to use you. I say this as a person who has worked as a fly on the wall watching users like that exploiting like that. It never changes, and they never stop trying to take advantage of you.
Many people who are rich aren't generous. Or they might be in some ways but they compartmentalize it. And when they want something free at the expense of others they come off as sociopaths. You just met one of them. But think of this. There are plenty out there who will hire you with no intention of ever paying you and don't care if they burn a bridge. Those people are out there.
Very well put. I've had other experiences of exactly this nature. And come to think of it there were plenty of hints in this conversation that the requester came from a well-off background!
As a bootstrapping startup founder, I can sympathize with the hiring guy’s position and I have asked several people what kind of payment options they would consider.
What I take issue with is his obtuse way of asking, at least as OP reported it. Regardless of the actual words used in this case, if you’re going to ask a difficult question, just ask it clearly and directly.
I have said, “we don’t have a large budget. Are you open to a payment plan, trading services, or a testimonial/reference?”. I have done all of these as both the service provider and the client with generally positive results.
Many, many freelancers and even established business owners need to be more firm about the value of their services. (I don’t know OP so I’m not picking on him.) But this can mitigate a lot of compensation and delayed payment issues. If clients are satisfied and see the value provided, they’re less trouble when payment time comes.
I promise that this founder used the exact words that I reported. Verbatim.
On a very related note, investor-type people are nightmare to work with for similar reasons. In my business (residential design), if our company interviews a client that ends up being an investor (vs a homeowner) we've gotten to the point where we just say no. They might not ask you to work for free upfront, but they'll try and nickel-dime every aspect of the project, avoid paying if they think they can get away with it, want to exploit your labor for cheap+free while you're mid-project, will ignore your input and spin things off anyways as long as they get the permit drawing they wanted (garbage for a company portfolio), etc. Anything that leads to lasting value, aesthetic, or sustainability can never come from investor types because they are just looking to cash out ASAP. Not to mention being nightmares to work with.
If anything, startup guy is almost preferable because you're not wasting any time except the upfront communication on their comically bad view of how business works.
Get used to it. I’m a freelance graphic designer and people on Reddit seem to think all artistic services are free. What you’re experiencing will keep on happening more and more in that culture.
I've worked around a variety of startups. They vary greatly.
By count, 95%+ of "startups" consist of 1-2 guys behind a computer trying to look legitimate in order to get funding. These guys are lucky if they have $2K in the bank.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are "startups" that have received billions of dollars in funding and have thousands of employees.
I wouldn't bother with any startup that hasn't yet raised a Series B or later. Crunchbase is your friend here. And NEVER accept payment in equity in the startup realm.
There was a startup a couple of years back that advertised their positions as “internships” to get away with not paying workers “initially”. I interviewed for one and the founder said “this will be an unpaid internship for the first 6 months and after that we can assess where we are at and if it is a good fit moving forward”. Needless to say I noped my way out of there.
Here is the solution to potential clients requesting services for free: Form an LLC and name it a consultancy (eg. ABC Design Consultancy). Having a registered business name helps in providing legitimacy for your services as an expert. It also removes the expectation of free services when people are dealing with a legit company compared to a freelancer or freelance agency.
Fuck this people. More and more companies are taking advantage of people desperate to find a job. If I would be you, I'd make sure I'd write a post on LinkedIn explaining what happened and who you were talking to. There need to be consequences to these actions.
Not helpful, but I pictured them then sobbing in their arm, your picture in a frame on the desk, crying "why won't he love me?!?"
In IT, we often see job specs that require multiple programming languages, operating systems, cloud Infrastructure, and routing protocols, but want to pay minimum wage. It's ridiculous.
And the end result of that is that all small-to-medium enterprises, and about half of large enterprises, have shitful data security.
Worse: if you're Boeing and some MBA-having retard thinks he can get a bigger bonus by outsourcing coder functions to Bangalore for $9 an hour, you wind up with planes that aren't very good at staying up in the sky.
"Pay peanuts, something something"...a lot of middle managers forget the second half of that aphorism.
It also doesn't help that the average HR-tard has the cognitive chops of a third-quintile high school teacher.
I used to keep a set of bookmarks that logged every major data breach; by 2014 9t had got to 45, and so it was clear that the system wasn't learning. The institutional response was always to hire some dickhead from Deloitte with 'cybersecurity' on his card ... who could not tell Python from PostgreSQL.
Face it: short term, charlatans have an advantage. Same's true in religion, politics, psych and a variety of other fields.
Also: not for nothin', but there are plenty of charlatans on the supply side as well... "HelloWorld" types who think that getting phpinfo.php to launch on shared hosting, makes them 'full stack' or an 'engineer'.
Kinda like how an Accounts Receivable clerk is now a "Financial Analyst" (or, god fuck me, a "Risk Analyst").
This happens because there is usually very little (or uncertain) value in your services when a business has very little traction.
It's much harder to justify spending $20K on a really performant website when you're only charging $5/mo for your subscription and have 20 total customers.
Subsequently, the solutions that most providers are offering seem lower in value to the buyer and you run into shady nonsense like this where people are asking you to work for "alternative compensation".
Edit: So...what do you do with this? Generally, don't work with startups unless they're backed with some serious funding. Often, they're better off using something like Wix or Squarespace until they've got the traction to afford a more premium option.
Thanks for the advice. I'm not in web design, by the way, but your point is equally valid. I'm taking a much closer look at funding before I get on any more calls.
I understand you made this as a rant and I came late to the party, but I will still play a bit of a devil's advocate here.
No, you shouldn't do professional work for free. No, you shouldn't take "exposure" as a sufficient reward. No, you shouldn't deal with people that don't understand the education you need for your work. But. BUT.
I remember working in 2011 and 2012 on a movie about a card game. The crew was unpaid, as were the actors. Half of them were professionals, the rest was either amateurs or hobbyists. We worked on the movie for a year and after it was released, it went boom and was screened over the world even in places I can't pronounce correctly. Best part is? The people had a great time. Not one of them regretted coming on board. And we are talking 20+ people here.
Were there arguments? Sure. Was it sustainable for another movie? Hell no. But we did it, and the best explanation was that probably a miracle had occured. It would not have happened if everyone needed to get paid by the young producer with a part time job. It was me.
Tl;dr: You shouldn't refuse unpaid work "jus because". There are other factors at play, like the field, the topic and your personal interest and enjoyment.
You left out "having some means to feed and house yourself while you swan around making a movie for a year" from your "other factors".
I am assuming that y'all weren't sleeping in doorways and eating from dumpsters: someone was paying everyone's rent, food and utility bills.
It's one of those biases that a lot of people have: forming their expectations based on one stellar observation.
Not every Harvard (or Stanford) dropout goes on to establish Microsoft or Facebook... or even Theranos. Most dropouts get dropout-like returns (which are identical to people in the same cognitive strata, but who never went to college).
I surprised a friend of mine by paying her. She's starting out as a freelance artist after finishing art school. I needed some illustrations done and asked her if she fancied doing them, and she said yes. I was up front about how much I could afford, less than the market rate for an illustrator, but I'm also fairly new to freelancing. She wasn't expecting any payment at all.
I have done some 'for experience' gigs before, but typically only when I can see some kind of benefit for me. People often think of art, writing, etc. as hobbies and people don't realise that there's a big difference between enthusiastic amateurs and professionals in terms of their approach to a project (not so say an amateur can't be talented - we all started as amateurs). You wouldn't ask your accountant to work for free, so why your illustrator? I've got two master's degrees that I've acquired at great expense. No, I am not working for free.