Making a Career Out of Working for Free

by Peter Attia on September 11, 2012

work for free

I know a wide variety of tech professionals that have started their own freelance careers. Some blossomed into full-blown businesses, some failed almost immediately.

There are a countless number of reasons why some succeeded while others flopped, however there are trends I’ve noticed amongst many of the successes.

They Had Full Time Jobs

One of the immediate trends I’ve noticed is most of them had full time jobs and started side projects. They supported themselves with their jobs, while making zero dollars on a new project. This gave them the liberty of taking their time and making sure things worked.

They weren’t reliant on their new projects and trying to force something to happen. I know this may seem like a handicap to motivation, but there’s a difference between motivation and force. They already had motivation – that’s what allowed them to work 70 hours a week.

This also allowed them to put any profit they made back into their projects.

They Traded Work

This is another plus to working for free. If you give someone free work, they will happily return the favor.

Now, I’m not saying you should make a free website for your vet and expect them to waive the bills for your diabetic hamster Gregory.

hamster jams

However, if you offered some free SEO consulting to a new website, you’d be comfortable asking them to recommend a good developer.

As an example, I’ve traded SEO audits for PPC audits.

They Made Referral Connections

This is a good one for freelancers and new agencies especially. If you offer free work to someone with a lot of connections, you’ve just gotten a nice referral.

When they hear about someone looking for something you specialize in, they’re going to think of you. Plus, they’ve already seen the work you can do.

This is also a good way to build professional awareness of your company amongst local business owners.

They turned Free Jobs into Paying Ones

This doesn’t happen often, but every now and then a free gig turns into a paying one. If you help a small business succeed into becoming profitable, they’ll turn to you for expansion. They’ve already seen that you can make their business profitable on a budget, so they’re happy to pay you (or hire you) for further growth.

I will say that I’ve only seen this happen with start ups. Full businesses have money, so they have the flexibility of hiring multiple agencies and seeing who provides the best results. Startups get personal. You already know their business more than anyone else, so they’re comfortable keeping you on their account.

Strengthen Your Relationships

There are other ways to help someone out that will keep you in their good graces.

For example:

  • Help someone find a job
  • Introduce someone to a connection
  • Refer work to them
  • Send them industry news they may not have heard about
  • Connect them with contractors they’re seeking
  • Notify them of an issue you’ve spotted

These are just a few examples of quick and short emails that help you grow your professional relationships.

Be Selective

Don’t hand out free work lightly. The last thing you want is people expecting free work from you.

If you’re taking on a project that is not your own and you’re not getting paid for, make sure you’re getting something out of it. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. It can be as easy as making a new connection.

When Possible, do it in Person

If you’re providing consultation or even just general information, meet up in person. This give you the opportunity to make a stronger connection.

For example, say you know two people that do the exact same thing. Who are you more likely to refer, the person you’ve only spoken with via email, or the person you’ve met in person?

Grow Your Network

Lastly, don’t forget about growing your network. That’s why it’s important to meet people face to face and make strong connections with them.

The more face time you have with people, the more likely you are to meet more of their network.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance September 11, 2012 at 4:49 pm

This sounds a lot like John Acuff’s book Quitter. This principle makes so much sense. Out of all of the stories of business persons who quit their job, mortage their homes, and sacrifice all to start a business, there are only a handful of success stories and dozens of tragedies. Establishing yourself in the area makes so much more sense……..and your kids will thank you for it.


Peter Attia September 13, 2012 at 10:47 am


I’ve never read that book, but I’ll have to check it out. I’ve also known people that up and quit, took out loans, etc. I’m not saying it can’t work, but you have to make something happen very very fast. This can be difficult especially when you’re a fresh company of two people. It takes time to find experts for fields you’re unfamiliar with.



Shivbhadra Gohil September 12, 2012 at 12:55 am

Loved the idea of offering free service to start-ups. Thanks a lot for the Tips, Peter.


Peter Attia September 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

Sure thing Shivbhadra,

Start ups are great to get into good graces with as they’re usually growing pretty quickly as well. Meaning, you usually don’t have to work for free for too long :)



Charles Sipe September 13, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I totally agree with this. If you help others first they are often very happy to help you out if they can. I know an SEO who volunteered to work for free at a startup and became one of their top employees.


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