What I learned from building a career driven by an “everything should be free” idealism

while also remaining independent and not working for Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc

Marc Grabanski
May 6, 2013 · 5 min read

I’ve spent my entire career creating things for free: articles, tutorials, speaking engagements and coding open source projects. I did this out of hardcore idealism that everything should be free and easily accessible to the world. This sounds great, but I got burnt by people expecting that everything I do needs to be free.

Some Things I did for free:

- Built a blog to 100,000+ unique visitors per month
- Created one of the most popular UI component in the world: the jQuery UI Datepicker
- Spoke at 40+ conferences and workshops
- Created an event at Google Headquarters with 200+ developers
- Created lots of other free JavaScript-related events

Results of the free content mindset:

  1. Aggressive recruitment emails and phone calls from Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Amazon, etc as well as anyone who found my contact info
  2. Thousands of support emails from users of jQuery UI Datepicker and from people asking me to help them with their code
  3. Enormous expectations to do and release everything I do for free
  4. Legitimacy and credibility (this one is great!)

1: Not wanting to work at Twitter or Google or Facebook, was I destined to be broke?

I created and released everything I did for free which is a great way to get attention from the big boys like Google, Twitter and Facebook…but I didn’t want to work at any of those. So I felt I was cursed. No amount of likes, shares or pats on the back could help me keep the lights on. I just continued to pile up debt and tried to dig out with consulting to maintain independence and the ability to create things I thought should exist.

2: Endless supply of support emails

Thousands of emails flew at me with support requests from people wanting my help for free. That’s not at all what I expected, but I guess it makes sense looking back… if you do everything free people expect they can just get more free stuff from you.

3.Expectations to do everything for free

If I’d ever talk about creating a paid product or releasing a paid screencast I was looked down upon by the people who respected me. I had a network of people around me that thought I was cool because I did things for free and “for the community”.

I was suddenly looked at as the bad guy if I wanted to get paid and support my family. Much less profit from anything.

4. Legitimacy makes you rich…right?

I went underground and started to build a consultancy around my expertise and reputation…until I realized people started having unrealistic expectations. It was great being able to land jobs at higher than normal rates and even jobs with intense competition, but it turns out being relied upon for mission critical software for multi million dollar companies has it’s own pressure.

Perception vs Reality of All My Free Content Power Plays

“You’re Marc ‘big boss’ Grabanski, you’ve got to be rolling in money”

This is what someone at my gym said to me who I never really knew but somehow through word of mouth he came to this conclusion.

“Actually no”, I told him. Shaking my head I walked off wondering how he came to that conclusion.

Then recently I was at a BBQ with some friends and a guy I barely knew said:

“You’re a one-percenter, right?”

Ha, if only! Again, perception is NOT reality.

But I can accomplish a lot by getting people on board with a good reputation gained from making free things. I have a good reputation and can do a lot with a little…so that’s why the perception is out there.

What I Learned

The Secret to Remaining Independent is Charging $ for Products

This is really simple stuff, but took me 5+ years to figure out…

If you want to remain independent and continue making free things then you have to make a product and charge for it. Use that to build up enough residual income to buy you the freedom to make free things.

You are independent: so think like one and learn to charge for things you create. Learn business, marketing and sales. Sure, create free stuff, but not only free stuff or you’ll wind up broke like me.

If you create things for free: you only have the option of being subsidized by a someone paid products. Whether that is your employer or day job, someone is bank-rolling the production of your free content.

If you create paid products: you gain control over what is created for sustainability / profit and what is created for free. You can create free content for fun…or use it as a vehicle for marketing. You decide exactly what you want to create. And you may actually have the chance to create even more free content than you originally could have.

Free is not necessarily “holy”. It isn’t always sustainable. In fact, sometimes they can be the opposite of that and sell your data against your will in order to make them sustainable. Or more often, they just cease to exist because no one is maintaining the free stuff they originally created.

Paid products aren’t necessarily “evil”. In fact, they can create an evironment of sustainability which provides for families and employs more people to create more value. But paid things does create a barrier to entry…which I’ll admit sucks sometimes.

Free is great, but it isn’t 100%-always the best way to serve humanity. I don’t think even as hardcore idealists we should be trapped by thinking everything we create has to be free.

If you are going to remain independent, you have to either create paid products or spend a lot of time consulting to cover your gaps. Or you have to go work for one of the big boys and let them subsidize your free content creation. You can’t have both.

    Marc Grabanski

    Written by

    @1Marc - UI/UX Development Consultant. Publisher of http://FrontendMasters.com

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade