To Recent and Unemployed Grads: Go After Free Work

free-workThis post may sound like crazy advice, especially coming from someone promoting making and saving some. But, since hearing about it a few weeks ago, I’ve been really intrigued by the idea of free work . This is something that I think would be great for someone who wants to improve their marketable skills, build a portfolio, make valuable connections, and find their way towards doing something that you love. I also think this is extremely valuable to 1) someone just out of college and/or 2) someone that can’t find a a job.

I was turned on to this idea by Charlie Hoehn, who released an ebook called “Recession Proof Graduate” (shown below). Charlie figured out how to get “free work” with some big names, which led him to gigs with Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss, and others. And he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s loved it, too. Here’s the full text for his ebook along with a YouTube video from his TEDx talk. Both are really inspirational with fresh ideas for graduates out there.

Charlie brings up a lot of great points about free work vs. internships. Here’s my favorite points:

1) Free work is much less formal than internships. This can work to your advantage to offer an employer/mentor a low risk, high reward tradeoff on your proposal. Essentially they have nothing to lose.

2) You can work remotely. This is great because you can work with anyone in the world from anywhere in the world.  No need to be strapped down to a desk.

3) You don’t have you be an expert. You just have to be good at something. Charlie admits that he’s not an expert in the areas that he’s worked, but that’s okay. He just needs to know more than most.

4) You can work with awesome people on awesome stuff. With internships, you may be competing against a ton of people for one position. But, with free work, you’re not vying for one spot. The proposal is what you make it, and who you contact is completely up to you.

5) Eventually, you can make money doing what you love. It won’t come right away (see definition of “free”) and it might not be a lot at first. But, is there really anything worth going after that’s more rewarding that getting paid to do what you love?

I can’t think of any video that’s resonated with me more this year than the TEDx talk by Charlie. He hit the points dead on about taking a job that sucks and planning to make a change to something better but never actually getting around to it (see 4:45 in the video). Before we know it, we’re in our mid-thirties with a wife, kids, and no opportunity to take chances and take on free work.

As for me, I have a few things in the works for how I’m going to implement this. As I see it, there’s almost no downside. I have free time around my 9-to-5 job, and I’d definitely like to take on some interesting work that will also help me develop skills. Just about any of these skills you can learn online could be something you could find free work for and eventually earn money doing.

For new graduates out there that haven’t found a job you love (or haven’t found a job at all), this type of thing could shape your entire life. Forget about going after the big paycheck. Forget about sacrificing the next 40 years to get to retirement. In just a few months of doing free work, you could be well on your way to being happy doing what you’re truly interested in in a matter of just a few months. It may not be easy, and it’s much less enticing than a $40k paycheck, but pursuing free work building up to something amazing (and potentially extremely profitable) for the long-term.

What do you think about “free work”? Have you have done something similar?

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photo by: billaday


  1. Great post again Jeff. You’re producing some awesome content. I think this choice is a liberating one too. A break in employment can provide a segway into a new career and more fulfillment in what you do.

  2. Most employers want their students to have both a degree and experience

    • That’s true, but there’s a lot more to “free work” than that. It’s about finding what you’re excited about doing instead of just taking a soul-sucking job.

  3. Free work, unpaid internships…that stuff is poisonous. I think it applies downward pressure on salaries in general. People think they’re gaining an upper hand by doing free work, but I’d argue they’re actually contributing to the devaluation of skills in that industry. For example, take Art & Design. Free work seems to be a growing (and concerning) trend in this industry. A graduate may think they’re doing themselves a favour by taking on free work, but look at it from the employer’s point of view…If an unpaid slave can do the work, why do you need a junior to do it? The skills of the people actually getting paid in the industry have been devalued. Who cares? Well, that unpaid guy will care when he’s a low paid junior and some other chump is doing his work for free. He doesn’t have anyone to complain to though as he helped set up the state of the industry.

    I would absolutely never work for free. That’s not to say I’m lazy. I just have self respect. There have been times when I have worked on my own unpaid projects that have ended up giving me great benefits…but the thought of giving those efforts to a company that doesn’t have the decency to pay me for the value that I’ve added….screw that.

    • I see what you’re saying, Ash, but I see it differently than you do. If you watch the video, Charlie talks about the difference between free work and internships. I don’t think unpaid internships hold much value, at least not to me at this point in my life. But I would KILL for an opportunity to work (for free) with Tim Ferriss or Ramit Sethi.

      Secondly, the idea isn’t to do free work forever. Charlie is clear that you need to make it clear with whoever you’re doing free work for that you don’t plan to work for free forever.

      For me, free work would allow me to break into areas that I don’t have formal education and a portfolio of work. I’m really interested in SEO and web development, but I’m not in a position yet to simply take on clients of my own. If I can develop my skills a bit more through free work while connecting to others, it’s only going to help me down the line.

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