“Working for free is not the “opportunity” we often think it is. Opportunity doesn’t pay the bills. Exposure won’t put food on the table. And working for free sets a bad precedent that’s hard to break later. If you want to stop starving, you can’t continue doing favors for people and expect it to lead to anything other than bankruptcy.” — Jeff Goins
I’m a huge fan of writer and entrepreneur Jeff Goins. However, when it comes to his words above I couldn’t disagree more.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve worked across three continents, each time starting from zero in each and I’ve never gone to bed hungry.
In fact, I’m quite well-fed. I’m 41 years old, a father of two, and unless the world implodes my children will never worry about having a roof over their heads.
This is all because in each place I found myself I sought out the people and organizations I wanted to work with and then offered my services for free with the aim of making their lives easier.
Below are a handful of the strategies I’ve used during my career that have paid the highest dividends when it comes to creating my dream career. I hope they motivate you to go after what you want by helping other people get what they want.
How working for free led to high-paying teaching and marketing jobs:
In 2010 I left my cushy management job in the US and moved to Barcelona where I had zero friends waiting and the same number of viable work opportunities. I didn’t even have the proper documentation to work in Europe legally and was told time and time again that I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.
However, within three months I had created multiple income streams and was earning more than the average Spanish person. The main reason for this success was because I embraced the logic — when you give you get.
One of the few things Americans in Europe can do without proper working documents is to teach English. However, schools and organizations take advantage of the fact that most Americans aren’t “legal” and pay their teachers pennies to work a lot of hours surrounded by screaming kids.
I didn’t want to do this. So instead I decided to cut out the middleman and I went straight at international businesses that I assumed needed English training. Each day I spent an hour or so looking for companies that had flaws in their English website copy and after cleaning it up I sent them a message with the changes I made along with the services I was offering.
This took time and it was indeed a gamble, but it paid off. Within weeks I had meetings set up with organizations and was offered jobs teaching Business English and received opportunities to collaborate with their sales and marketing teams — both of which seriously boosted my resume while paying me more than the average teacher.
From this experience, I learned two valuable lessons about creating the work of my dreams.
First of all, I realized I didn’t have to be an expert to offer my services. Prior to doing this, I didn’t have any previous writing experience, but I knew what I could offer them was better than what they had.
The second lesson I learned was that when you help someone you never lose. I didn’t win every contract I was hoping for, but I made a lot of friends and ten years later I’m still reaping the benefits of these relationships.
Like most things in life — creating opportunities is a numbers game — and when it comes to winning your dream career there’s no better advice than helping as many people as you can.
“Opportunities don’t happen, you create them.” — Chris Grosser
How working for free landed me high paying coaching jobs and talks:
Prior to moving to Barcelona, I was a sales manager and corporate trainer in the banking and mortgage industry. Through these experiences, I fell in love with coaching and training and I dreamed of doing the same thing in Barcelona. So after I had enough teaching and marketing work to sustain me I began to cut back on offering those services to free up time to go after executive coaching clients.
My first step in acquiring clients was I offered a few coaching sessions to the companies I was already working with. However, what really moved my needle (and this too may sound ridiculously simple) was I hung up flyers outside of high occupancy metro stations in heavily populated business areas offering free coaching for 30 days. Within 24 hours of hanging up my first advertisement, I had people of all shapes and sizes reaching out to me.
Quick but important aside: every Tom, Dick, and Sally advertises on the internet but very few people do it in “the real world.” That being said — Who do you think stands out more?
I did this for free for a month with each client and after the 30 days were up I simply asked them if they wanted to continue after I explained to them I needed to eat. After recognizing the value I had provided them a high-percentage agreed and at that moment I began to transition out of teaching in order to focus more on coaching.
Quick but important aside: the clients who did not continue still gave me something — and that something was coaching experience with real human beings.
I did the exact same thing with giving seminars/talks. I offered them for free to multi-national companies, schools, and networking events and once I built up a name for myself I began to charge for them. I even hung up flyers to give the talks in public parks regarding topics like marketing and sales (websites like meetup today makes this too easy)and every time 10 or 15 brave people would attend which gave me a chance to pitch my coaching services after.
Fast forward 10 years and I’ve given close to a hundred talks covering subjects like how to find work as an expat for schools, presentation and negotiation seminars at government agencies, and marketing and PR talks at multi-national agencies — all of which started by offering my services for free.
“Give, give, give and then ask.” — Gary V.
How working for free landed me writing gigs and mentor/advisor roles for Startups:
In the quote that kicked this post off Jeff Goins wrote that “Exposure won’t put food on the table.” And in a sense he’s right — writing free articles for online publications won’t make you rich today. But life is the long-game and from my experience, it will absolutely make you rich tomorrow.
When I began writing I poured hour after hour into writing articles for free on places like Medium and spent hours pitching mainstream publications like Fast Company, Crunchbase, and Thought Catalog. This cut into my “paid” work time, but I loved it and decided to go all in.
Fast forward to this month and from that exposure, I’ll clear five-figures while working a maximum of six hours a day — and every single dime has come from this exposure “that won’t put food on your table.”
If someone is looking for a coaching client, who stands out more? Someone who has had their work published in mainstream publications? Or someone who hasn’t?
If someone is looking for exposure for their company, who stands out more? Someone who has had their work published in mainstream publications? Or someone who hasn’t?
If someone is looking for marketing services……..
This action alone has led to consistent four-digit paid opportunities ranging from communication consulting, coaching, and marketing with businesses as well as reputable universities.
However, this has not stopped me from working for free today for people and places I believe in.
Currently, I’m a mentor at various startup accelerators including Startupbootcamp. I’m an advisor for two companies and continue to offer my services to budding organizations that are doing things I think are cool led by people I admire.
Not to mention I run a free mastermind group full of writers who are working together to improve our craft.
These jobs are not paid. In fact, helping out at Startupbootcamp costs me money as sometimes I have to travel to their headquarters in Amsterdam. However, I have a hard time believing that offering a few hours a month to these organizations and groups will lead me to bankruptcy.
“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” — Lincoln
How I became a sales manager……… How I became a corporate trainer……… How I helped ex-pats find jobs……..How I became part owner of the previous startup I worked at…………
All of these jobs started “unpaid.”
However, I attached myself to a person or organization worth betting on and ended up doing all right for myself.
Want to be a writer? Why not clean up websites for free and build a relationship? You can do this all over the world from your sofa and never run out of potential paying clients once you have a few names under your belt.
Want to be a coach? Why not have a few hours of open online hours each day and practice your craft. Again, you can do this all over the world from your sofa.
Want to work with startups? Why not spend a few hours before the next rooftop bar networking event and research who will be in attendance and go there with a few ideas of how you can make their company move faster. Content Manager. PR. Sales. Startups need help. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.
The odds are high you’ll work for the next 50 years. This means that each year represents just 2% of your career — so why not take some time this year and do whatever you can to get on the radar of the people and organizations you admire?
I used to think that I got lucky with my career.
But that’s nonsense.
I helped people and in time they helped me back.
I would be willing to bet the world will respond the same to you.
Give, give, give and then give some more.
PS: Hands down the biggest lesson I’ve learned through this experience is that the world is full of kind people who are willing to give other people a shot. But this becomes much easier if you are kind to other people first.
Enjoyed this article? Receive a free 2-part guide to help you meet more interesting people and build more meaningful relationships here.