I pretend to work & They pretend to pay me. It seems there is a rash of talented people who have spent years, time, energy and their own money to build their knowledge, connections and skills enough to provide value who are constantly being asked to transfer all those knowledge, connections and skills along to others for free. I know this because: a. many of them are friends and people whose work I admire and have spoken out, b. I am one of them.

Some who approach me even have the balls to say, "You'll get alot of Whuffie out of it!"

Um. That's why I built up my whuffie in the first place, dude.

I think it's useful to explain the process of how and why someone would work for whuffie and then at what point one gets paid in earth dollars and why (although the why should be obvious).

Why work for whuffie?

  • Your name isn't widely known and you need to build your reputation. By speaking or doing pro bono work, you will start to build up that valuable whuffie that is needed to get the paid work you need to cover your bills at the end of each month.
  • Your name is widely known in one vertical, but the conference or cause that has approached you can give you exposure in another vertical you are highly interested in building a name for yourself.
  • You really, really believe in the cause or the conference. It's something you are crazy passionate about.
  • In the case of a conference, you were 100% going to be there anyway (like SXSW Interactive).
  • You are good friends and you know that friend will have your back anytime you ask in the future.
  • Doing this could land you a gazillion more paid gigs (like speaking at TED or PopTech).
  • You are pretty much guaranteed of being compensated another way - selling books, CDs, seminars, etc. (but this one is tough - I've asked the conference to pony up for a minimum number of books to give away in lieu of a fee).

That's pretty much it. Free tickets aren't payment. I've actually been offered a free ticket only the DAY ON WHICH I'M SPEAKING, which means they are saying, "Sure, we'll let you in to talk, but then you need to pay to come back." Wow.

After you have built a name for yourself, you should be charging. And even if it's a friend's conference, they need to pay to get you there and put you up for it. Your friend should also buy you a beer or two and recommend you to other conference organizers (who will pay you). Really good friends will actually pay you. Money coming out of your pocket to help someone else's event (or business in the case of consulting or a workshop) rock is not sustainable. If you continue to do this after you've built a name for yourself, you have completely squandered the reason for you building your reputation in the first place! Really. If you will continue to work for free, why not just spend nothing and go nowhere? It's more sustainable.

Why? (and here is obvious part)

Because your landlord/bank won't let you pay your rent/mortgage with whuffie. The grocery store won't take whuffie either. Neither will your utility companies, clothing stores, universities for your kids, bookstores for your reading materials or the many other realities of day to day bill collections. At some point, you need to cash in on some of that whuffie and put some money in the bank.

So, the bottom line for me is: I will work for whuffie if I really believe in something, but I will work for cash if it is for your benefit. And I will do the same for others. I pride myself on making sure that people get paid when I benefit more from their labor than they do. And I won't ask if I don't think I can pay them.

And personally, I think that conferences that pay their speakers are better. The speakers feel valued and transfer that feeling onto the audience, who also feel valued. Very few exceptions exist and where there are exceptions, there are HUGE benefits to the speakers (not empty promises) for speaking there.

As a sidenote, I'm pretty sure that perceived value also works into the scenario of working for free as well. Once you say yes to it, you lose value in the eyes of the client or conference organizer. In the words of Don Draper: "I don’t think you’d be in the presidential suite right now if you worked for free.”