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When should you work for free?

Welcome to episode number 5 of my 31 day series where I am answering your questions about creating a career, or a business that you love. In today's episode, I'm picking up on something that I actually talked about a couple of episodes ago, I mentioned it very briefly in the how much should you charge episode, and someone followed up with me on it, so I thought I'd dedicate a whole episode to when should you do stuff for free which is quite controversial topic I know. So we'll be deep diving into that.

This is a transcription of the podcast episode. Instead you can listen here:

So when should you do work for free? This is a very, very big topic and I just want to do a disclaimer right at the top, I am not going to be talking in this episode about my personal beliefs about whether or not this should be the way that the system is built. I'm not going to go into political, I'll try not to slip into political ramblings about why innately working for free, and the whole idea of nepotism and just kind of the creative industries in the way that they work. Like, why that system ultimately leads to a lack of diversity. I'm not going to...I'm not going to go there, although I just have, but maybe in another episode.

In this episode, I'm going to be focusing on the pure hard truth, which is ultimately, throughout your career, you will have to do stuff for free. It is a fact in our in any creative industry, and especially in an industry where it's very new and it's, it's still kind of the industry and the technology itself is still proving its worth, especially in this industry, you will have to do stuff for free. I still do stuff for free to this day, and I have been working for myself since I was 21, technically, so nearly 10 years of doing stuff, and I still do stuff for free. The way I'm going to talk it about in this episode is why you should do work for free, I am not suggesting you go out there and just do everything for free, there has to be a strategy behind why you're doing something for free. So I'm going to break this down and if you've kind of looked into this before, you might have heard various kind of versions of this. I like to call this strategy, the four P's. So basically, I'm gonna break this down at the top, and then I'll go into each one. So the four P's are, the four reasons why should work for free: number one, portfolio. Number two, profile. Number three,

passion. Number four, people. I'm sure for the majority of you could probably ascertain where I'm going with this episode and you can probably already from those headlines, get a good idea as to when is the right time to work for free but let's go through them anyway.

So number one, portfolio. When you're just starting out, you have no social proof, you have no proof that you can actually do what you say you can do. This is so important when people kind of say - oh, you know, I've bought a 360 camera, how do I get my first paying client? And I'm like - well, you could if you're a brilliant salesperson, I mean, I personally consider myself to be quite a brilliant salesperson, I'm sure I probably could sell that. You know, if you're a good enough salesperson, go for it, go try but realistically, most people are going to want to see what you've done before or they're going to need proof before they exchange money. They want proof that you can do what you say that you can do and so it's really important to have good portfolio pieces. Now, I would suggest that if you are wanting to go after a particular client you should probably decide what kind of client you want to go after first and then go out and create some portfolio pieces so that you have proof and if I were you this is exactly what I did. I basically picked things that I was really passionate about anyway and we'll get onto passion as a separate P but, you know, I picked things that I like to do anyway or things that for example, and I remember once recording a stand up comedy gig in 360 and I was going to the gig anyway.

I was super excited about the new light camera that I bought, I can't remember what camera that was back then, but that was a good few years ago and oh, in fact, it might have been...it might have just been the gear 360 or something, because I remember the comedian commenting, because I was holding up like this, this little eyeball and he was like - what is that? So anyway, so getting back on topic. So portfolio, pick things that you want to do anyway, but also that lend itself to the kind of clients you want. If you want to go after real estate clients, go do some real estate things for free. If you want to do 360 videos of tourism and travel, when you're on holiday, take your 360 camera and pull together a nice little taster or a kind of example and then voila, you've got a portfolio piece that you could then send to tourism boards, or you could send to adventure companies to say -look, I'm a 360 filmmaker, and I specialise in travel and adventure films! Again, you kind of need to reverse engineer what you want to happen first, and then build a portfolio around that. The one thing I would say with portfolio pieces is make sure that you make the person aware that you're going to do it for free but don't kind of position it as - oh I'm a total beginner, I have no idea what I'm doing, I need some practise. Maybe you say something like - hey, I've got this new technology and I'm looking to build my clients and my portfolio, in your industry (let's say for example it's a hotel) I love coming to your hotel, or I love the look of your hotel, I think it'd be the perfect portfolio, you'd be the perfect client to have in my portfolio, I was wondering if you'd be willing to let me come and create this video or tour or whatever it might be. VR experience for you for free that you could then use in your marketing, how does that sound?

Then what you want to do is, you want to make sure, you want to follow up with them once you've done it to make sure that they are using it in their marketing, because the key thing here is you need to prove that your product works in order to get more clients, right? So if the whole point of doing a 360 video for someone in the hotel, the idea is that then they get more people coming to them or more bookings or more retention of clients, because they offered VR as a activity to do at the hotel, whatever the thing is, whatever the thing that you're doing for them for free, make sure that they use it in the way that you intend. So that then they become a case study and a testimonial for you to then go and do more of that, if that makes sense. So then the next time you go to a hotel, and this time, you're going to charge them you say - listen, you know, I did this piece for blah, blah, blah hotel down the road and they've seen massive engagement on their Facebook page, they've been anecdotally telling me they've seen a spike in new customers coming because they've seen this video. You've got that proof and then you can be like - okay, you know, let's talk and then they probably will want to pay you. So that's the thing, a portfolio doesn't have to be massive, you don't have to go out and make 10s of hundreds of videos, of course you want to get to a point where you are confident in your craft and you know what you're doing to be able to go into a paying job but realistically, you don't need that many under your belt to be able to then go out and actually, you know, start charging people. So that's the first one number one portfolio.

Second one is profile. So this one is all about if there's an opportunity to work on a bigger project, or with a bigger client or with a big name, or big piece of talent, etc. It might be worth doing it for free. So, I mean in my own career, a literal textbook example of what started my VR career. Although I was doing bits before, Keyed Alike (for those of you who don't know, in late 2016) I'd written a script basically, for a brief, a little rom com short film and I ended up through happenstance and a brilliant kind of coincidence, I ended up being put in contact with an incredible TV director Chloe Thomas. She directs Victoria for ITV and Harlots, for Hulu. She's a real deal. She's awesome and she's just the loveliest person. I got connected with her, she was interested in working on it with me. She had previously worked with Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy on Game of Thrones. She was like, shall I send the script to Gemma? I was like, haha, sure, why not? Literally in the space of a month, my life was like turned upside down because both Chloe and Gemma agreed to do this project with me, along with some other brilliant collaborators. And before I knew it, we were standing alongside the riverside in London, recording Keyed Alike, which was one of the first ever 360 rom coms and because it had profile attached to it, because it had Gemma and at the time, Natasha Kurama, who was the other lead in that project, she was still quite up and coming and now she's a big time actress on a Fox TV show with Rob Lowe. So like... it's weird how I did it. This is such a strange kind of time in life, to be honest but yeah, that piece was this original piece from a script that I wrote and we pulled together as these collaborators and we did something that hadn't really been done before at the time, which was create this 360 drama. And the reason I wanted to do it in the first place was because there wasn't that much content out there being done in that space and I was like - well this is bullshit, because I work in the VR industry, but there's no content that I actually want to watch and so that went on to basically be the catalyst for my whole career. Now, I didn't even just do Keyed Alike for free. I spent 1000s of pounds of my own money and when I say my own money, I do mean the bank money because it was on a credit card or an overdraft or something. That wasn't my money, basically but I put my own ass on the line, because it was such an incredible opportunity. Now, I'm not suggesting that you do the same, I'm not giving anyone any kind of financial advice, what you shouldn't or should do but, you know, for me, that paid off. It was the most stressed I've ever been in my entire life. It was one of the kind of most complex, crazy things to try and pull together. Everyone on this, basically did it for free. It was just mad basically. But that piece led to not only be a profile builder, because as an original piece that's never been done before but all of a sudden, from that I started getting asked to go around the festival circuit, I started getting asked to talk on the subject of VR storytelling. From there, I started to specialise in drama, specifically on narrative driven VR experiences and that is still the niche that I work in today. All of a sudden, I got these opportunities to kind of work with research bodies on exactly that, talking about VR storytelling. All of a sudden, from that I got opportunities to you know, curate and facilitate VR cinemas, including showing Keyed Alike and getting that real time feedback from audiences. All of a sudden, I became a little bit of a...not to be arrogant, but I became the go to person to talk to, about that stuff at that time. Obviously, you know, that was a long time ago now but that was the thing that started it all. It all started from that profile building piece, that I had absolutely no idea where that was going to go. I had no idea when I was working with Chloe originally that we would end up working with Gemma and Natasha and there would be all these people working on it that would essentially kind of boost the profile the piece. So what I'm saying from that is sometimes it's worth doing something for free if, you know it's the right kind of talent that attached. If it's the right kind of brand. I mean, you could to some extent, you could do this with brands that you kind of currently already use in your own life. You could reach out to them and see if they wanted to record a little taster for free because you thought it was a brilliant idea. But either way thinking about should you work on that project for free? Well, if it's gonna be good for your portfolio, or it's going to give you a profile boost, then potentially yes, it's worth it.

So P number three is passion. So this kind of ties in and that's the thing, all of the work that you do free will probably have some overlap with a different P but passion, if you're really passionate about something, if you just love doing it, if you like for example, with Keyed Alike, that started as a passion project. I didn't intentionally do it as a profile builder. It started as a passion project, because I was writing the script anyway, I wanted to make a piece of that content that I really loved. But I wanted to tell this story that I had an affinity too. We all talk about in the creative industries, this idea of passion projects, and weighing up passion versus paid work, and all of that jazz, and maybe that's even like a separate episode but yeah, sometimes you just got to do stuff, because you're passionate about it and I don't think anyone's gonna argue with that.

So say for example, say you love Comic Con, maybe you reach out to the event organisers for your local comic con, and you say - I am just are so passionate about this, I would love to make a 360 documentary about the experience of Comic Con, and like, see through the eyes of the different kind of people and a day in the life of someone who goes to Comic Con.Then maybe you know, maybe get access to some of the press briefings, that kind of thing. That's an example of a time where that's brilliant, because you're kind of doing it for the passion, it's a passion project but also, now you can say on your website, that you've made a 360 documentary about Comic Con, which is, you know, kind of a profile builder as well, because they're such a big brand. So passion projects, super important. Sometimes you're gonna do stuff just because you love it, like, I still do so much. So much of the stuff that I do for free now is because I'm passionate about it. And that could be in the form! I do a lot of speaking gigs, like locally for free. I absolutely loved that, before lockdown going into see my old school and give a talk on my career and showcase some VR and I'll do stuff like that for free all the time. Like, if I've got the time and you know, the circumstances line up, you do it, because you're passionate about it. I do mini films for free still because the subject is something I'm passionate about or because I like the people that I'm working with. So this gets us on to the slides as nicely into the last p which is people.

Sometimes you just want to work with really cool people. Not everyone you meet, when you work on a big corporate commercial like project is going to be someone that you want to be mates with, you know, sometimes those kind of projects, even if you are working with your mates on a paid project, it's a totally different dynamic, because as soon as money's involved, and as soon as there's an end client, there is a lot of pressure that comes with that. And it kind of can sometimes even mess with the dynamics of the people that you work with, if they're friends. Again, separate, maybe separate topic but yeah, sometimes you got to do stuff for free because you really want to work with those people.

This could be from a passion point of view or a profile point of view, because from a profile point of view, you could do stuff for free to work with cool people because you know they're connected in with the wider industry, you know that they've got the kind of contacts that would get you your next gig, you know that if you're in with that particular crowd, because let's face it, a lot of the creative industries are completely nepotism based. I mean, life in general is a people's game but specifically our industry is very driven by who you know and of course, you have to be good enough to back it up but this is why the industry does suffer from a diversity issue. Because a lot of the time it is a kind of a who, you know, it's kind of a...you naturally just work with the people that you know, or you like and you get on with. They're just within your kind of circle, they're within your network. So sometimes you got to do stuff for free, so that you can get into those networks, do so for free, so that you can get in with that crowd and I'm not saying you like, do it manipulatively and you're like, rocking up thinking - I'm gonna work as a runner on this project for free, so that I can, you know, pick the brain of the director. That's the absolute worst thing that you could do but it might be that you're like - hey, you know, I've seen these people around, I know, they're really well connected but also, they're just really cool people and I'd love to do a project with them. So you just get on with them. There's stuff to this day, and even just in the last couple of years, where I've met people throughout the years in this industry, and they'll be like - oh, I'm so sorry, I need a favour and I hate asking of you, but you know, can you do XYZ and I'm like - of course, because I'm friends with that person, or I owe them one because they've done me a solid throughout my career. It's all a people's game at the end of the day. So sometimes you have to make that calculated thing of you know what, I'll do this for free. And when you do something for free, you're not really doing it for free, because you're giving up the most precious thing that you have, which is your own time so I appreciate that. But at the same time, sometimes that's the best way into a network.

I remember specifically in late 2015, or maybe early 2016, right when I first started getting into 360 and I remember taking two friends of mine to this random field, and my friend had a drone and that was quite a new cool thing and I'd never seen or worked with the drone before. He was really keen to see the 360 camera and talk about that and so we just went out to this field. We just basically passed around and tested different things and I had to go with the drone and they had to go with 360 camera and it was awesome. I ended up using parts of that footage that we got that day in one of my early show reels because we actually did some really cool like moving stuff with the 360 camera and we also had this behind the scenes drone footage of us doing that, which was so helpful. So you know, that's an example of like doing something for free but that's not really what I was thinking at the time. I was just thinking how yeah, I'm gonna go hang out in a field with a drone and 360 camera. Sounds like the beginnings of a dope ass horror film. So yeah. Anyway, those are the reasons why you should do stuff for free.

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