When to work for free — and when to run for the nearest exit

November 10th, 2008

I have a guest post on Marci Alboher’s Shifting Careers blog in the online version of today’s New York Times. The intro follows. You can read the rest  here.

Despite the fact that I’ve gone from greenhorn to grizzled veteran in my 16 years as a freelancer, I receive calls and e-mails like the following at least once a month:

“We really love your work. And we have a great opportunity for you at our exciting new media venture.”


“We’re launching a new Web site/magazine/start-up and we’d love to have you do some consulting work for us. For free.”

My hopeful client will then explain that his or her company is poised to be the next Google or that some former “Apprentice” contestant who’s long since faded into oblivion is on the advisory board. All this is meant to butter me up for the next line, which happens to be the sentence in the self-employment lexicon that I hate the most:

“It will be great exposure for you.”

No one ever filled a gas tank or bought groceries with exposure. The 20.9 million Americans working as consultants, freelancers, small-business owners and independent contractors are not keeping a roof overhead by getting paid in exposure, or “PIE,” as I’ve taken to calling it.

But writers, illustrators and other creative types aren’t the only ones who routinely get asked to donate their time and talents to clients devoid of outsourcing budgets. Business consultants, virtual assistants, bookkeepers, programmers, publicists and all other manner of self-employed professionals get offered platefuls of PIE, too.

Sometimes the PIE — with all its promise of fame and fortune at some vague date on the horizon — will sound pretty delicious, especially if the economy’s in the gutter like it is now. Sometimes you’ll convince yourself that a little sliver of PIE couldn’t possibly hurt your bottom line. But usually these gigs are as empty as the calories at your favorite bakery counter.

Read the rest of this post here.

Entry Filed under: Money honey,Overworked and underpaid,This freelance life

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nichelle  |  November 12th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Love the article as I read Marci’s columns and your blog as well Just curious…were you PIE? The New York Times is definitely worth it.

  • 2. Michelle Goodman  |  November 12th, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Nichelle, I guess I can no longer ignore this question as it’s been asked several times in public forums. ;) I was indeed PIE for this post. When faced with the option to do the post free of charge or not at all, I never once thought of walking because I had yet to write for the NYT (and what writer wouldn’t want to write for the NYT?). I did, however, drag my feet on getting the post written for many weeks because paid work took a front seat.

    I thought about asking Marci if I could mention that I did it for PIE in the post, but then I decided that I didn’t want to disrupt things in case she had been able to pay people in the past (or would be able to pay in the future).

    I spent a day writing the post, and half a day on the initial pitch of ideas to Marci, the post’s edits, and some follow-up discussion with Marci about topics covered in the post. Considering how fabulous the PR was for my book (Lifehacker and several prominent freelance blogs mentioned the post), and how thrilled I was to have this clip on my bio, it was well worth it.

    Other than book promo activities, which I actually considered this a part of, this is the only PIE I’ve done in 2008. The same day the post went live, a friend passed along the name of her editor at another section of the Times and said I should pitch. Having this online clip makes me feel that much more equipped to approach this editor.

  • 3. Mike McDerment  |  November 13th, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Loved this article – read it on the TImes then came an seeked you out. As a former freelancer, and now as someone running a business that serves thousands of small businesses, I gotta say this post was money…even it was PIE.


  • 4. Kate  |  November 15th, 2008 at 10:23 am

    You forgot a form of PIE, the ones that the try to list as ‘Internships’,

    “New web based publication in search of dedicated interns (4 to 6) who are willing to create content on a daily basis. Must be willing to create 3 to 5 well thought out, insightful 500 word pieces by 7 pm on the topic of new technology developments, specifically cell phones.”

    and then the ad has a clause with something like this in it:

    “You must have at least 3 years writing experience in order to apply for this unpaid position.”

    How many college student have that, and if you had it why would you need an internship? I guess they think people are pretty dumb.

    Not that I think all internships are scams, but a lot of them online seem to be.

    PS- I like the PIE term. I’m adding it (with a reference/link) to the freelance encyclopedia on my site.

  • 5. Why Writers Should Say No&hellip  |  November 23rd, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    [...] mills don’t have PIE. Michelle Goodman describes PIE as “paid in exposure,” meaning that you actually benefit from the low-paying or [...]

  • 6. The Anti 9-to-5 Guide &ra&hellip  |  July 11th, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    [...] 6. Set firm limits on pro bono work. I think by now you all know how I feel about PIE work. [...]

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Who I am

Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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