Finding Work by Working for Free

By Kevin M

Work for free—preposterous on the surface, I’ll admit! But it’s an effort that could pay off in a big way, especially in this economy. Think of it as though you’re starting a new business and you’re working to build a customer base by giving out free samples.

Just so you don’t think this is just an idea I heard somewhere and decided to write about, here’s my story…

After leaving the accounting world for a brief hiatus of about, ohhh–15 years—to pursue a career in the mortgage world, the time had come to return to my career of origin. (You’ve no doubt heard or read about the Great Mortgage Tribulation of the past few years.)

But how do you find work in a field that you’ve been out of for a decade and a half? Some would say that once you learn to ride a bike you never forget, and that’s true. But convincing nervous employers that you haven’t forgotten is another matter entirely, and calls for some creative thinking.

I sent out hundreds of resumes and responded to ads, and the return on the effort was pathetically low. Just three responses in about 200 tries—that’s enough to discourage anyone. The first response I got liked my resume, but was “concerned” over my lack of current experience. Duh!?!? Like I was trying to hide it! A second response was positively non-committal. I vowed that if I got any other responses, that I’d do what ever I needed to do to land the job.

Third response…I made the free trial period offer early on. I was taken up on it. And it worked, I got the job. It was just a contract situation, but it was a start back and a big fat “mission accomplished” in a tight job market.

Working for free to start a new business

Dave Kelly, whose posts appear here on OutOfYourRut.com, has done something similar, but on a much more dramatic scale.

Like me, he had worked in the mortgage business for many years (20 actually) and wanted to go into professional speaking. Going from the mortgage business to professional speaking isn’t exactly what you would call a natural transition so not many doors were open.

Dave had done speaking in the non-profit realm on a casual basis, and discovered early on that it was his passion. But the problem was that not many institutions were willing to pay money to an unknown mortgage guy to speak before their businesses or student groups. Before Dave could charge a fee for his speaking, he first had to get some experience and develop a list of credits and referrals.

And that’s what he did. Dave took speaking assignments where ever he could get them. He spoke for free…he spoke for meals…he spoke for gas money…he spoke for $50 tips…then for $100 tips…he spoke for travel expense reimbursements.

Then a funny thing happened. After a few months and dozens of un- and under-compensated speaking engagements, he began to develop a decent list of credits and referrals, and made some important contacts along the way. Then he started charging fees for his services; little early on, but steadily higher as his experience and book of business grew. Within a couple of years, he was speaking as a full time career.

These are real life stories of working for free, so I know it can work.

Before giving it a try…

Some points to consider if you’re thinking of giving working for free a try:

It’s especially applicable in a weak job market. Employers are on tight budgets right now and we need to work outside the box just to get noticed. Offering a free trial period removes the risk of hiring (and paying) someone who doesn’t work out. You may move your candidacy to the top of a pile of resumes sitting on the desk of a business owner or hiring manager by making this offer.

It won’t interfere with unemployment benefits. You’re working for free, so there’s no income to report to the unemployment office. If you are receiving unemployment benefits, think of it as a stipend for the work you’re doing and not being paid for on the job. In fact, where possible, it’s best done while you do have benefits coming in.

It’s not recommended or necessary if you currently have a job. Obviously, this isn’t something you’d need to consider unless a layoff is imminent, then consider doing it on weekends or vacation time.

If you are employed but looking, consider gratis contract work. This may enable you to work your way into a new company or even a new industry. Offer to fix a prospective employers problem for free—that’s an offer almost no one can refuse.

The offer will work best with small employers. Small businesses are more personal in nature and have jobs to be done and often no one to do them. Offer to step up and fill the empty void on a trial basis. Small business tends to be more flexible than large ones, and you’re impact will be greater.

Keep your time to a specific limit. Two weeks should be more than enough time for an employer to assess your skills and make a decision. Be careful that it doesn’t become an open ended situation where you’re being taken advantage of. Remember, this is a trial period for the purpose of securing employment, not a commitment of free labor.

Don’t offer to do this unless you’re reasonably certain you know you can do the job. The purpose isn’t to take blind shots at jobs you can’t do in the hope that it will somehow work out. The purpose is to convince a skeptical employer that you’re the one for the job. It will be a complete waste of time if you can’t do what you say you can.

It gives you a chance to see if you want to work for an employer. Obviously, Job 1 is impressing a prospective employer with your skills and convincing him or her to hire you, but you may also get into a job and find out it isn’t for you. In my experience, you usually know a job is a bad one within the first few days.

You have nothing to lose. If you’re currently unemployed, you have nothing to lose by giving this a try.

Have you ever tried working for free as a way to get a job? Do you know anyone who has? How did it work out?

3 Responses to Finding Work by Working for Free

  1. This is a great idea, and I think that a lot of people could probably find success with it. One thing I would point out is the difference between two seemingly similar employers (from the worker point of view):

    – One who will gladly take your free work because they are skiddish to hire, but they have some cash flow and enough to hire you in the end if your work is top-notch.

    – One who will gladly take your free work and then realize (or finally tell you) that they don’t have the cash flow to hire you. A bit unethical to take you on in the first place, if you ask me.

    I’ve also heard of people having a lot of success with volunteering as a way to get a permanent job, especially (and probably only if) you put in a lot of time and establish the relationships that you need to make that happen.

  2. Wojciech, that’s an excellent distinction.

    If anyone decides to try this, there will be the risk of running into the 2nd type of employer, the one who won’t pay. But you might be able to extract some compensation in the form of a referral, which can help if you’re on a new career path.

    The suggestion of the post is primarily for those who have few other options in obtaining a job and not much luck with other methods.

  3. Hey Kev – I agree. It’s like dating, the more you put yourself out there, the higher the chance you’ll find something to ravish!

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