Dear Startups, Stop Asking People to Work for Free

Startups, wise up.

I recently read this request from the founder of a mobile app development company, looking for “designers who are interested in a side project”. Here’s the text of the message (I’ve removed the details of the project):

Are you interest in some side work?
What we need help with is creating a beautiful user experience that allows the user to understand what we’re about, allows them to go through a mind-numbingly simple … process. What do you think? Would you like to help us? We’re doing everything with blood, sweat and tears so we’re not ready to pay at this time. But, if we start to get some traction, we will be happy to pay you. And, if we work well together, we would consider bringing you on to the team as well. Right now, it’s very much a side project.
Let me know what you think and if I can provide more information!

Three Things I Hate About This Message

It targets students and recent grads.

I’ll start by saying that this was posted on a boot camp Slack team by a student friend of the person requesting the work. This message was meant to target students and recent grads who are looking for a job.

As someone currently looking for a full-time position, I know how tempting it can be to take on unpaid work as a student or recent grad. Employers are looking for real on-the-job experience, not just schoolwork. And I’ve been told many times about the importance of side projects. But there’s no rule that you have to work X amount of pro bono hours before you gain the right to charge for your services or land a junior role.

I hate that there are people out there looking to take advantage of students and recent grads, simply because they are young and hungry (an equation which, unfortunately, often = naive).

It purports the project as a “side project”.

This message clearly indicates they want this person to create a beautiful and simple user experience (for a fairly complicated process, without getting into any details). The task outlined here does not sound like a side project to me. It’s a full-time job. Maybe coming up with the idea and talking to some people about it was a side project. But the task of designing a user experience is going to be a big undertaking, and I’m pretty sure the author of this message is looking for more of a commitment than, “I’ll work on it in my spare time.”

What’s more, they’re asking a lot from someone with (presumably) little to no experience. Realistically, they’re wanting someone who can work under very little direction. This won’t be a mentorship; there’s not going to be any hand-holding (or training, for that matter). They are going to put senior level demands on this person and expect a high level of output. And I’m guessing there are going to be deadlines, because even though this is a “side project”, they probably want to get this thing made asap.

It dangles a carrot of future payment / employment.

This may be the most offensive part of the message. This kind of thinking is downright toxic. This is spec work at its worst. “…if we start to get some traction, we will be happy to pay you.” That’s subjective, isn’t it? How much traction? “…if we work well together, we would consider bringing you on to the team as well.” While I understand the bit about working well together, this is hardly a promise of future employment. So, if you work really hard, do good work, and they like you, you might get to interview for a potential job. Wow. How… underwhelming.

But even with all of this vagueness, designers will be considering doing this. Someone will probably take on this project, and may even view it as a good opportunity. Why? Because right now it seems like no one is hiring junior level designers, and there’s a growing mindset that you have to cut your teeth doing stuff like this to get the experience you need to be able to get a legitimate, paid position.

Startups, Wise Up

It’s ridiculous to me that this is even an issue. There aren’t many professions in existence where this kind of request would be tolerated. I’ve seen all kinds of analogies for this type of scenario and I don’t believe there is a perfect one, but here’s one of my own:

This would be like someone going to a college and saying, “I’m a smart person and I would like to start a career, so I need you to educate me. I’m going to need good training, so give me your best! I don’t have any money, so I’m not ready to pay at this time. But, if I get a good job, I will be happy to pay you.”

Startups, Listen Up

  • If you have a great idea for an app, go get funding for it.
  • If you can’t get funding for your idea, it’s probably not viable.
  • If you don’t have money for something, don’t ask for it for free.

On Side Projects

As if I haven’t already voiced enough personal opinion, I’ll throw in my two cents regarding side projects. Side projects are great; everyone should have one. They’re a good way to try new things, learn new things, and gain experience. Here’s the thing, though: work on your own side project.

A side project should be fun. It should be stupid. It should be your idea. Side projects are like babies; when it’s yours, it’s expected that you do all the work. If you want someone to come in and help raise your baby, you pay that person. Don’t ask a nanny to work for free, even if they do love babies.

On The Other Hand

I know full well that this is a free country and the person who wrote this message, and anyone else for that matter, has the right to request free work. It’s not their responsibility to look out for the designer. It’s the designer’s responsibility to look out for him/herself. If we, as a design community, ever want to see an end to spec work, we are going to have to start saying no to this kind of thing. Additionally, we are going to have to start educating design students better so they will stop taking on unpaid work.

In Summary

Startups: Stop asking for free work.

Designers: Stop working for free.


Originally published at alexmacduff.com.

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