2015, Marketing Your Life, Oni's Life

Wil Wheaton thinks you should never work for free, I politely disagree

Wil Wheaton wrote a lengthy post recently about how people should never work for free.

I think Wil is a great guy and like him a lot but I have to disagree.


From his perspective it makes total sense to have this stance – and truthfully I do not disagree with 100% of it. I am just as frustrated with the ever-lowering pay rates that afflict my fellow creatives and the near constant demand for me to produce free art. Music, art, and writing are 3 highly undervalued fields. The past 15 years of my online career has been full of me posting rants about how inappropriately terrible it is to survive in one of these fields.

Let’s break this down. I have staffed cons since 2004 – for free. I founded Intervention and (Re)Generation Who: The Doctor Who Convention for Every Generation – for free. No, scratch that. I paid all of the start up costs out of my own pocket. I didn’t just work for free – I paid for the privilege of working for free. As of this writing I have never made a cent directly from my work at cons.

I blog for free. I don’t get paid to blog here because if I did I’d be awkwardly writing about tampons and diapers and other bullshit that I have no interest in which would actively pollute my message and hinder the trust that you all have in me. I am not paid off by anyone – that’s one reason why people know I can be trusted. You can tell that nothing here is a product placement. I reject writing about anything that I don’t actually like on this blog.

I made comics and T Shirts for free for 10 years. I gave one (for free) to the then lead singer of Nightwish and she wore it on Finnish TV. She did that for free. That sealed me being a fan of hers at the same time it helped me get needed exposure.

If I hadn’t done any of these things none of you would know who I am. My career would be nonexistent.

Because I worked for free and made a name for myself I NOW get paid to speak. I NOW get paid to attend parties. I NOW get paid to blog on other sites. I NOW get paid with freelance work that few other people can get at hourly rates higher than most people can get. And yes – even though I do get paid – I still do work for others who can’t afford me – for free.

The initial strategic investment that I made into building who I am as a brand and as the best there is at what I do paid off. When I started doing this I was an underpaid receptionist. Now I am essentially the Dr. House of Marketing. I have between 3-5 job offers per week and I am known as the best Marketing VP in my area. I run my own geek convention company and simultaneously freelance as a Marketing VP.

But it was because I got involved in things and did art and skilled work for free for organizations that could not afford to pay me. I also did free work for people who could afford to pay me, didn’t know who I was, but could give me exposure. For example, it got my work on Finnish TV.

That slowly made me a name brand. That got me out of entry level scrub work and into high roller work.

I’ll have my own business and employees quite soon – because I worked for free. When you run a start up – whether it’s art or tech or events or something else it is usually based in an initial investment of time and skill unless you are already famous. If you don’t have someone willing to place your name next to big people, well, you have to work your ass off until no one can ignore you anymore and you get on the list with the big people anyway.

That was all because of my reputation. Sitting in a cubicle wasn’t going to give me the opportunity to do the kind of work I needed to do to get that rep – I made my own damn work and worked for free until my skill was undeniable. I literally made my entire job by serially working for free and feeding it with my own paycheck until it started being self-sustaining, and soon, money making.

Today I make 7x what I made when I graduated college – because I initially worked for free while working a day job.

Let’s be clear – Wil is half right:

– No one should tell you HOW to work for free.

– No one should demand that you work for free.

– A major company who can afford it SHOULD be paying their people.

– Creatives should be fairly compensated for their work.

BUT – if you are a regular person and do nothing unpaid you won’t get very far. The only way that I know to stand out on the internet if you aren’t already famous is the path I am describing here. Is it easy? NO. Is it fair? No. But I do not know of any other way other than being a famous actor already or really lucky. I have spoken to hundreds of self-made from the ground up with no help creatives thanks to my work running Intervention, which is an awesome indie creator artist makerspace and educational facility specifically for people who want their own business (that I created and run – for free). Their stories all echo mine.

Here’s a handy chart of where my money comes from.

If I had done nothing unpaid I would still be getting people’s coffee for them and hanging up their coats. This blog would not exist. My company would not exist.

Wil is speaking from a privileged point of view. He was an well-known actor on Star Trek – a show that is directly related to and well-loved by most people on the internet. I respect his point of view and truly believe that he pioneered blogging for many other well-known actors – but his business model doesn’t really have anything in common with mine. He’s never had to struggle from zero to prove his legitimacy and to build his internet presence like most of us who have not been on Star Trek. I know he worked hard getting the role of Wesley on Star Trek and worked very hard on the show – but his blog and internet presence started after all of that.

People already knew who he was. The door was already open.

Our challenge as regular people is to build ourselves up and force the damn door open before we can even stand head to head in the room with most actors. I’ve been working toward it since 2003 and only last year did it start to really pay off based on the good reputation I have for having a high level of skill, but there’s one more thing – my reputation is also that I am the person who will save people’s asses when their event or marketing campaign fails. I do it for major corporations and I do it for the little convention down the street.

I have saved many a person’s ass who could not afford to pay me. That made my network stronger and made my career better in the long run because I was the first person they would recommend when someone had the ability to pay for it. People know they can trust me, that my skill at marketing anything is unmatched and that I am the Snake Plisskin of Positivity.

That’s the story that most of us have to understand – or we can stay in that shitty office job getting the coffee for people who make more money than us, hanging up their coats, and going home miserable every day. To a regular person – we have to invest in ourselves because no one else is going to do that for us. No you should not have to work for free, but you do have to build something around you if you want to be a successful online entrepreneur without a pre-existing fan base because no one else is going to do that for you. Why should they care? Show them.

Read more posts about building and marketing your online business (or just managing your life) on my Marketing Your Life page.