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On the Value of Valuing People

I browse the Orlando craigslist on a pretty regular basis looking for side technology work to help knock some more holes in the ol’ student loan debt. Craigslist postings for jobs and gigs generally fall into four categories:

  1. Bona fide help wanted ads, with cash in trade of services
  2. Value-for-value trades, like unpaid modeling where the photographer will give the model a DVD-R full of pictures from the shoot
  3. Scam/spam posts
  4. Wanted: talented individual I can fuck over

Number 4 posts enrage me a great deal. Let’s look at one.

Character Artist

Reply to: see below
Date: 2008-02-01, 6:22PM EST
I am looking for someone to create me a 3D Character of a virtual human/avatar. The character is a woman age 18-21… I want this character to be shown in several different outfits…And I am hoping to find someone that knows how to draw the character in several different positions to animate walking.Please email me for further details, I have some examples of what I am looking for.. I will be glad to send those pics to you. This is a position for fun, a student who is just looking to gain experience.. I will put your name in my credits, and link to you.. if possible.Thanx!

Let’s break this down. I am going to begin by translating it.

“I have very specific requirements for a highly-detailed, advanced-level computer animation project. Instead of paying you for your work, I will provide you with recognition within the tiny sphere that will be exposed to this project. I value your skills enough to give you credit for them, but not enough to pay you for them.”

Now, to be fair, there is plenty of work that creative or technical people sink dozens of hours into for fun rather than for pay. What these projects have in common, though, is that they almost always spring from personal inspiration and motivation. Working with a client for no pay isn’t fun — it’s a pain in the ass. Someone interested in sharpening their chops is much better off following their own muses.

This is just one of hundreds. I see it for gigs in photography, computer repair, web design, writing and plenty of others. Sometimes they get generous, though, and offer a few bucks:

Motion Graphic Needed

Reply to:
Date: 2008-01-11, 8:23PM ESTStartup company seeks a motion graphic (animated logo + tagline) for website. It will be the primary graphic on the homepage of the site.The total animation time will not be long (probably 15 sec or less) and the output file will be either a flash file or a flash movie file.The only downside is I don’t have much to offer as cash is minimal right now.This is a good project for a student or someone looking for a quick gig.Those interested should send me an email with at least 1-2 samples of animated logos or similar.

  • Location: Orlando, FL
  • it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
  • Compensation: $25

You know what, dude? You can’t afford motion graphics. Any sort of reasonable designer isn’t even going to plug in his tablet for $25, much less do the dozen hours worth of consultation and work it’ll take to turn this out. Let’s be ridiculously conservative here and say that it takes only five hours, including consultation and revisions. Designer, who has unique job skills and probably a college education, is making $5 an hour, less than minimum wage.

Homie could go and work at McDonald’s for an afternoon and get a better deal.

This one is my favorite:

Needed: Web & Photo Person!

Reply to:
Date: 2008-01-22, 11:01AM ESTWe are looking for someone to expand and upgrade our website as well as work with various photo editing programs. We do events and need photos uploaded for sale and viewing. The project will be ongoing and you will be able to grow with us… We are noT looking for someone looking to score a huge payoff or a corporate way of thinking. If we did we would hire a company. We want to give a newcomer a chance to grow with a company that is fun and flexible. If you have mad skills and like getting outside now and then for a change…let us know.

  • Location: Orlando
  • it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
  • Compensation: no pay

I don’t even know where to start with that one. I mean, clearly, anyone who wants to get paid for their talents is some sort of icky suit, right?

It’s not unique to craigslist, either. People with technology talents are constantly set upon by vultures who think that credits or a link back are fair compensation for hours or days of work. My suspicion is that the people who expect this kind of trade have no idea the sort of work that goes into learning and discharging the skills they’re asking for.

Yet, even people who should be savvy fall prey to this. A couple of years ago, when I was just out of college, Ramit Sethi reached out to me across the interwebs and offered me a remote internship with his startup, PBwiki. Sounded pretty sweet, I thought. Then I asked him about the pay. He gave me the classic line about it being unpaid at the start, but hinted at the possibility of paid opportunities down the road. This is akin to a philanderer telling one of his mistresses that at some point in the future, he’ll leave his wife for her. It sounds very compelling but very rarely is it actually true. More problematic is that once you and your employer agree that your value is $0 an hour, it’s very difficult to move your payscale into the appropriate range.

I had just started my career and had a job that paid well, so didn’t take the offer. Still, it took me a year to get used to being compensated for my talents before I could look back and see the offer for what it was: insulting. These days, Ramit is a self-styled personal finance blogger. Hopefully he advises people to sink their time into work that actually pays. Update 2/4/08: See Ramit’s comment and my response below.

To be sure, there are times where working for free can be an incredible opportunity. Working for the White House, Conde Nast, Playboy, Google or other luminary organizations is a privilege early in one’s career. But these guys aren’t Hugh Hefner or Josh Lyman looking for talent. They’re just cheapskates.

Whatever the cause, these people come off looking like assholes. You have to think that they’re getting no responses at all or the work they’re getting is shockingly awful. Word of advice, kids: next time you ask someone to do hours of work for you, ask yourself how much you would honestly expect to be paid for the same time commitment. Then you should probably double it, because if you can’t do it yourself you’re probably asking for a rare commodity.

Only you can stop yourself from looking like a dick when you go in search of good help.

  • Hey Danilo,

    Great post. I agree with you in many ways — businesses should pay for value — but the question is *when.* I want to give you a counter-example: I occasionally get people offering to help me out with my personal blog for free. Some of them are very good and I take them up on it. And I’ve hired *every single person* who has helped me for free — in many cases, for thousands of dollars.

    And when I “hinted” to you about becoming paid, that wasn’t really a hint — I took my book researcher, who initially started helping me out for free, and sent him multiple outside contracts (plus an hourly rate for his work with me).

    Again, I agree: Companies *should* pay for value. But I guess my experience affects my way of doing things, because one of the ways I made such great connections was by offering to work for free and prove my value before a company paid me. Once you’re indispensable, the money will come.

    I do apologize for coming off as an asshole, but I stick to my guns. More people should be doing work for free to open up doors to the big rewards. By removing the money barrier for a set amount of time (“I’ll work for free for 3 months, but after that we need to negotiate a fair rate”), you open yourself up to huge rewards. The $20/hour or $50/hour you could get now is chump change compared to what you could with a great network and a proven track record.

    Ramit Sethi

    February 4, 2008

  • Thanks for coming by, Ramit.

    Yeah, I’ve read Keith Farrazzi saying similar things and I’ve seen it in practice myself. There’s a degree to which this wisdom is common sense. Still, there’s a fine line between proving your worth and being exploited. Trading the value of your work in exchange for the value of access to someone’s network can be a pretty powerful thing, but it’s also very easy for that kind of deal to end up lopsided.

    I enjoyed the post you referenced. Socrates tells us that virtue does not come from money, but rather from virtue comes money and all other things good to man. That’s an absolutely essential truth for anyone to understand. Focus on being your very best, on making something that is the very best, on creating an experience that is the very best, and you’ll have the fulfillment of achieving excellence, which is its own reward, plus ample coin to pay the bills.

    But the bills do have to be paid.

    Most of the stuff from craigslist similar to the examples I showed above will never get anyone anything more than frustration. My point is that given the choice of working for myself or working for someone else for free, I’d much rather give the time to me. My imagination is infinitely more interesting to me and will likely help create a much stronger body of work that will augment my ability to get paid in the future.

    I’m going to sweep all of this to the side for a moment, though, and say there are circumstances, every once in awhile, where you should take on an absolutely impossible project, even if it isn’t paid, simply for the thrill of watching yourself grow to meet its challenges. You can use the growth later. Still, only a truly worthy project is worth that much of your soul.

    Danilo Campos

    February 4, 2008