Would you work for free for the experience?

To make a long story short, a person I know is trying to start a startup. He knows that I’m studying web development, so he contacted me and asked if I would like to work.

Here’s the thing though. He said that so far it’s not making any profits yet, so we’ll all be working for free and depending on external sources for income. He says he thinks it’s still valuable in my case for the experience, and that it would look attractive on my resume when I say I worked at a successful startup. At first I agreed, but now that I think about it, I’d basically have two jobs; one that pays really low, and another that pays nothing whatsoever, which obviously will leave me little time for anything else.

I’m determined to get into the industry, and so far my study path has been going really well (one of P1xt’s guides), which quite honestly I think is more than enough to get me ready for a paying job without having to work for free.

Now after thinking about it for a bit, I’m not sure I’d want to be working for free. I thought I’d ask what you guys think. Is he trying to use me? Should I tell him that if there’s no money in this then I’m out?

Depends what is he offering. Personally if some interesting project is in on the table and good set of technologies and he is willing to help you, mentor you, don’t think about it too much go for it. Later you will be able to state that project in your resume and you will have hands-on experience that will bring you money later. If he is serious - go for it, my advice.

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First of all, it might actually be illegal for your friend to not pay you depending on where you are. Even if it is legal its very unethical. If you do work you deserve to be fairly compensated for it. Now one thing that cash-strapped startups often do is offer equity (stock etc.) in the company. This usually turns out to be worthless but could be a jackpot if the startup does manage to succeed. Think of all the millionaires who got rich because they were one of the first employees at Microsoft or Facebook or wherever. However it doesn’t look like he is offering anything like that.

My general advice based on years of experience in the IT world is don’t do any work for anyone without a written contract that specifies what you are to do and how much you will be paid for it preferably, examined by a lawyer.

In summary: unless the experience you want is the experience of being scammed avoid this. You will find other, more legitimate opportunities.


@mirkoacimovic Obviously the upside of all this is that I will be able to state this project on my resume. However, that’s not to say I can’t do other projects by myself just continuing what I’m currently doing. I’ll be honest, I’m much more inclined towards declining his offer. I’m not sure I’m willing to put a lot of my time on something that won’t be getting me any money in return, especially considering the fact that it will slow down my current study pace considerably. Thank you for the advice anyways, much appreciated

@Jaldhar Thank you for the advice. Yeah he isn’t offering equity, nor do I think he would be willing to if I asked, and even so, there’s nothing that guarantees the startup will succeed. I will just take your advice, muster up the courage and tell him that I’m simply not willing to work for free. The experience will most certainly come from my current study path, and I too am sure I will find legitimate opportunities when I finally start applying to jobs.

You generally shouldn’t be working for free. And in this case it looks like this “person” is just trying to bootstrap his startup on cheap. Of course if someone offered you to work in Google or Facebook or Microsoft for free for the experience I would say go ahead, but this is not the case.

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Yes, sounds like he’s just after free labor. If he really values your service/input/contribution, then he should give you a %/equity of his startup. But that seems out of the question, so just say No.

If you’re after experience, approach a non-profit (church, organization, school, etc) and offer to make/re-design their website at no cost, in exchange for being able to use them as referrals and the website in your portfolio.

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@jenovs @owel Thanks for the input guys. Now I just need to find a way to tell him that I won’t do it if it doesn’t involve money. He says that once/if the startup takes off, then I will be receiving a salary normally, but only god knows how long it’s going to take, that’s considering it even succeeds in the first place.

Have him put all of this in writing, because if not, you will be out of luck on the salary. Have him pay you at least minimum wage for any work you do (part-time or full-time).

One extra note. If this person is an experience developer and wants to mentor you into becoming a better developer yourself, then you could always treat it as volunteer work, but only on your own terms with respect to hours you work per week and the ability to “work” remotely. Still, even if the person is a great teacher, if you are doing anything of substance for his business, he should be willing to pay you something. You could also structure it as a pay for specific tasks completed instead of by the hour. This would allow you to set your own schedule and know the amount you will be given once the task is complete. If you go this route, you will still want a contract and typically I expect either 1/3 or 1/2 upfront and the remainder upon completion.

Hell no. Really, if you want to work for free just for experience - offer your services to some non-profit organisation or something.

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This is a tricky situation and here is my advice for what it’s worth. I wouldn’t advise working for friends. It never goes well. Additionally, what type of public documentation will this project have? Can you put the code on github? Do you need to sign an NDA? What about a non-compete? Most of these types of things don’t get off the ground. Is he planning to host this thing on his own server? What if the server goes down? How will you prove you even did the work? Make sure you can upload the code or proof of your work somewhere if you want this project for experience. Personally, I wouldn’t.

I absolutely would not give my time and expertise for free to a for-profit company (regardless of whether they are currently making a profit). If I’m good enough to do work in a professional capacity, which is what you are being asked to do, then I am good enough to be paid for it. If I don’t have enough experience to get paid work and I believe that I must work for free, I will do so on my own terms by contributing to Open Source projects that I care about.

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Just saw it on twitter and it reminded me of this topic:

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Here are some questions I’d ask:

1 - Will I get a valuable, legitimate reference out of this engagement (e.g., working for Mark Zuckerberg for free is one thing and getting his reference is one thing, working for someone who has “an awesome idea” for free and possibly no credibility with a potential hiring manager is quite another)?

2 - If you just want the experience, can you limit the scope of time you’re working for free and then perhaps graduate to at least some level of pay after a certain time (please get that in writing), assuming you think the engagement is a valuable learning/experience? @owel’s suggestion about non-profits is another good avenue for experience IMHO.

Basically, i should get 1% or 10 % (whatsoever ) of the biz to work for free.

If the work was just part-time and really interesting.

Thanks a lot for the advice guys.

I’ve decided not to do it for free. I’m not sure how I’m going to tell him though, after having told him that I’m after the experience and I don’t mind working for free for a while. For some reasons these things are a bit difficult for me.