When Working For Free Makes Sense

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By Erin Lowry

Young professionals have all heard one trite, stitched-on-a-pillow-worthy expression: If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. Perhaps the millennial generation equates doing what you love with being your own boss, because the landscape of traditional employment is changing, and rapidly. By 2020, freelancers are expected to comprise 40 percent of the workforce, according to a study by software company Intuit.

For the workers who already begrudgingly set up shop in a cubicle, there may be a way out – if they're willing to first work for free.

"I hoped that working on my own blog for free would pay off for me when I could use my site as a sort of portfolio to show potential clients and writing gigs," says Kali Hawlk, a freelance writer and founder of the personal finance blog Common Sense Millennial.

Hawlk, 24, took a traditional route after graduating college and settled into a steady 9-to-5 job doing order processing and data entry for a small company in Georgia. It wasn't long before she succumbed to a common millennial trend: the desire for professional autonomy.

In July 2013, Hawlk hit publish on her first blog post, which launched a powerful resource for millennials seeking advice on finance, careers and the art of side hustling. Hawlk spent those early months pouring 10 to 15 hours a week into writing. While some would argue she was simply indulging in a hobby, Hawlk started to take on unpaid assignments outside of her blog.

As her following and brand grew, along with the number of hours of free work, Hawlk was able to leverage her skills to obtain paying jobs.

"I could show my blog to others to demonstrate I could write, I knew WordPress, I understood basic SEO principles and that I could engage an audience," Hawlk says. "It solved the problem I had previously, the problem everyone has when trying to break into a new line of work: To get the new gig, you need experience, but you need the new gig to get experience."

Before her blog's first anniversary, Hawlk had a steady flow of paid freelance jobs. Jobs she initially viewed as a side hustle to bring in extra income ultimately led to her feeling comfortable putting in her two weeks notice and embracing the life of a full-time freelancer (or "solopreneur," as she fondly refers to her current position).

Hawlk acknowledges the challenge of putting in time and effort for a job that results in no monetary compensation, but she doesn't regret her decision to dedicate so many hours of free labor into her future career.

"In my experience, there really aren't too many negative consequences of working for free if you're just starting out and need the experience," she says. "And if you can, leverage your free work to be work you're doing for yourself – like your own blog, e-book, product, etc."

The young freelancer created a litmus test for deciding whether or not to take on assignments that would fail to give her bank account a financial injection. A similar test may prove valuable for anyone considering the financial burden of unpaid work.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I see any direct benefit from this work, even if it's not financial? (For example, would I gain social media followers or expand a professional network?)

  • Is this work indirectly benefiting me, and if so, how?

  • How is this work furthering my goals?

  • Do I like doing this work?

  • Could I be working on bigger and better projects – ones that better serve my goals or provide financial compensation for my time and effort – if I weren't tied up in this unpaid work?

Long-term uncompensated work is better known by another name: volunteering. It's noble work, but certainly not financially viable. "It can also be a little wearing, to work so hard on something and to feel like you get nothing in return," Hawlk admits. "No one likes to feel as though their effort or work isn't worth anything."

Fortunately for budding solopreneurs, Hawlk's path to full-time freelancer, in less than a year, provides a road map out of the cubicle. Hawlk took something critics might deem a hobby and discovered how working for free can turn into a professional and financially stable career.

> The 7 Phases of Freelancer Relationships

> Start a Blog, Give Yourself a Career Edge

Erin Lowry writes about personal finance for Daily Finance and manages social media for MagnifyMoney.com, a site dedicated to helping consumers save money by finding simple, transparent financial products. She is also the founder of the personal finance blog Broke Millennial.