Working for free: not something most of us strive for. While it’s hard to recommend, there are still times you might take a leap of faith and work without a steady paycheck.
If that sounds antithetical to your thinking, you’re not alone. We take jobs in large part due to the salary attached to them. The Dice Salary Survey shows income is still the most important thing to us (by a long shot); while other factors such as time off and the ability to work remotely are also critical, we give it all up for more cash.
With that in mind, when is it right to work for free without considering what you may get in return? If you’re contributing to open-source projects, you’re working for free. For some, that sort of thing is a résumé-building exercise: contributing to a well-known product is like catnip to hiring managers, and may provide valuable experience. Similarly, if you can find a project where your skills help humanity prosper, working for free is still rewarding in its own way.
Don’t work for free on promises of future payment, though. Freelance developers know this situation all too well: your client promises money after the project’s completed, but the cash never appears. Last year, New York City passed legislation to provide recourse to freelancers who aren’t paid on-time. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act provides “the right to written contract, the right to be paid timely and in full and the right to be free of retaliation.” More:
The bill would create penalties for violations of these rights, including statutory damages, double damages, injunctive relief and attorney’s fees. Individual cause of action would be adjudicated in state court. Where there is evidence of a pattern or practice of violations, the Corporation Counsel may bring civil action to recover, on behalf of the City, civil penalty of not more than $25,000. This bill would also require the Office of Labor Standards (OLS) to receive complaints, create a navigation program, and to gather data and report on the effectiveness of the law.
That’s only part of the problem tech pros face; even those with established jobs sometimes work for free. Online forums are full of stories of startups that didn’t pay employees while trying to secure additional funding. Sometimes those startups try to overcome the lack of cash by promising more money to workers in the future, or even equity.
Via Quora, James Waldrop of Fitbit says his early-stage startups (founded before his time with Fitbit) often left him without salary for significant periods of time. “In the first instance, myself and the two other ‘management’ types didn’t take a salary for a couple months while waiting on some of our customers to pay us,” he writes. “We got paid back although we didn’t get any extra incentive beyond that.” His second run-in with non-payment was even more harrowing:
The second one was worse, the company was 5 or 6 people (I forget the exact number) and had a fairly inexperienced sales type as CEO. He managed to burn through all of our cash because he was operating like it was 1998 in 2003. We didn’t get paid for several months and ended up with some stock (that was also worthless as it turned out). That company also illegally paid all of its employees as 1099 contractors which meant it avoided paying employment taxes. That one cost me a lot of money because at the time I didn’t have any experience with that and our salaries were not sufficient to make up the difference.
It’s okay to work for free when you have an ironclad method for getting what’s owed later on. Unless you’re contributing to a passion project or volunteering out of the goodness of your heart, make sure you have a contract. If a startup needs work done now but signs an agreement to pay you a month later – and you can withstand the lack of income – you at least have recourse if they fail to pay you. Whether you’re working full-time or as a freelancer, the end result should always be money in your pocket.