When it comes to media, Huffington Post is pretty much considered today's evil empire. The latest rallying cry comes from Star Trek actor and cult icon Wil Wheaton who took to Twitter and, later, his blog to share HuffPo's attempt at free content.
HuffPost: We'd like to publish a story you wrote! Me: Cool! What do you pay? HP: Oh, we can't afford to pay, but EXPOSURE! Me: How about no.
-- Wil SCREAMton (@wilw) October 27, 2015
I get it. Even as I expand into entrepreneurship, my words quite literally put food on my family's table. My books and articles allow me to bootstrap my startups. I volunteer my time and expertise with non-profits focused on artist advocacy.
Making a blanket statement like "Never work for free", however, can be perhaps more dangerous than actually doing something for free. This isn't a defense of the highly controversial HuffPo model, but a caution to actually make an informed decision based on your own context.
When you can't pay for the experience: As I've shared with my brain trust, starting, running and selling Cuddlr was like me getting a MBA in Silicon Valley startups. Was I paid for it? Eventually, yes, but I was actually paying into it through opportunity cost as well as actual money.
The "Don't work for free" mantra would have me triaging the Cuddlr experience before it even started. Is it a one-of-a-kind experience that will create new, high-paying work in the future? Maybe you can pay towards your future versus getting a payday today.
When you can't pay for the exposure: TV appearances, radio spots, book tours and guest podcasts are not paid experiences, but they can give you exposure that savvy entrepreneurs would die for. In fact, any request for pay reeks of amateur hour. Imagine a potential Shark Tank attendee demanding they get paid to share their startup with five brilliant entrepreneurs... and millions of people. And, as fans of the show know, many companies that are not funded on the program go on to get sales and/or investment because of the exposure.
A creative person is well within her prerogative to only share her goods or services for pay. A creative businessperson knows that some of her smartest investments are when she makes her work available to the right platform. And sometimes she does it for free.
When you can't pay to say no: Actually, Wheaton says it best.
I'm very lucky to not need exposure or "reach" or anything like that, at least not right now and not this way. I'm also very lucky to be able to walk away from things like this because I believe it's the right thing to do.
Exactly. As a well-respected actor with about 3 million Twitter followers, of course he doesn't need exposure, which would be like me writing for free when I have a dozen published books under my belt. It may be different, though, for the person who has never written a published piece, or the person who is changing professions, or the startup founder who is focused on bringing attention to his product. I'd wager that Wheaton's earliest acting gigs, whether it be school performances or local plays, went unpaid, even if they were charging for tickets at the door. He was taking advantage of an opportunity.
I spend significant time mentoring artists, writers and, now, entrepreneurs. It's dangerous to pass judgment and blanket advice to others when you have no context for their current situation. Imagine if I told people to walk away from a potentially career-changing opportunity simply because there wouldn't be an immediate check?
Money is cheap, but experience is expensive.