By Molly Hallman
On May 7, 2009 about 400 people showed up at a bar in San Francisco to meet other people and find out if they were a good fit for each other. No, this was not a dating mixer. This was Jobnob's fair for professionals willing to work for free. That's right, out-of-work professionals pitching their skills to start-ups for a chance to offer professional services for no pay. Did I mention there was a line out the door to get in?
True, prospective employers were supposed to buy alcohol for their prospects. So, this begs the question, are these people insane? Drunk? Maybe not. In fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to think about working for free if you are unemployed.
The Benefits of Working for Free
Consider the following payoffs for choosing to work on a cutting-edge project or new career path, minus the cash flow.
Career Path - This is your chance to transfer your expertise to an emerging market, one that really interests you. Richard Chun, a product manager in Silicon Valley, donated time to a start-up to gain experience in the iPhone applications market. "I wanted to learn about a new market that was gaining a lot of attention. I helped them set up a process for product marketing. The product became the number one application in the history of iPhone", said Chun. Taking work for free to more proactively steer your career path shows you have the initiative to think outside the box in order to get the results you want.
Networking - You meet more people with influence while you are working than while you're sitting home posting your resume to job boards. Al Hulvey, Chairman and Founder of GreetingsManager.com from the Silicon Valley in California found that working for free at start-ups helped him, "meet people and stay current with innovations." Of course, the hours you put in can detract from your job search. It is important to weigh the benefits of working for free carefully. Setting limits keeps you from being taken advantage of and also helps you stay disciplined about your goal of a new job.
Resume Solution - A gap on a resume is a common dread among job seekers. Working for free lets you add another layer of job experience to your resume and eliminates the stress of figuring out how to explain the gap. Be sure all of your tasks you take on for no pay will be worthy of a bullet point on your resume later.
Confidence - Let's face it, being out of work is a bit depressing. If you are one of the many with the unfortunate habit of equating personal worth with a job title, the sudden lack of work can hurt your self-esteem. Working for free can boost your self-confidence and give you a sense of purpose. That purpose can generate enthusiasm that transfers to your job search, affecting how you interact with job search contacts as well as your interview performance.
Enthusiastic References - You may have had the experience of working for someone who was truly grateful and pleased to have you as an employee. Imagine how eager they will be to refer your good work, not only because of its quality, but because you had the work ethic to follow through with excellence without a financial incentive.
Chasin' the Dream - Of course, the greatest hope of all is to work pro bono for a start-up, setting yourself up as the obvious candidate-for-hire once the company is funded. The upside potential (like, maybe becoming a millionaire) has its appeal.
Is It All Upside?
Some job search professionals do not agree with the work-for-free strategy. They think it demeans workers and sets them up to be taken advantage of. They say your good ideas are at work to make someone else rich and there is no guarantee of an upside for you. There is also a big risk of losing momentum on your job search.
Despite this potential for disappointment, many folks who work for free have positive experiences that lead to paid work opportunities, career growth or both. "I love marketing, and I figure, why not?" says Hulvey. "I've done it to help out colleagues. [I recommend putting in free time] if you think it has upside potential."