In the hardcore world of the capitalist West, it is virtually unheard of to suggest that anyone should ever work for free. We operate in a what’s-in-it-for-me society and anyone who tells you differently is either selling you a lie or has spent a little too much time at Burning Man Festival.

Metal Potato has used the strategy to great effect. Last year we increased profits by 350%. In the first three months of 2014, profits are up by nearly 800%. And while I would never suggest that you should give your work away for free all the time, everyone can benefit from doing a free gig or two. Here’s why:

Gain valuable experience

Maybe you want to pursue a new line of business but no want wants to hire you because you have no experience in that field. You may even be honest enough with yourself to admit that you are not yet ready to undertake the kind of projects you want and are looking for a learning opportunity.

What do you do?

You can offer your services for free to a likely company or client. You suggest that you will complete a project at no cost to them and you get the benefit of their valuable feedback. They are secure in the knowledge that there is little financial risk involved.

It’s called a win-win situation.

Once you have completed several such projects you suddenly realise that you now have that all important – and high value – portfolio.

Demonstrate core values 

Building your business is often predicated on the core values you demonstrate to your clients, customers and employers.  This is a two-step process.  First you have to believe it, then you have to act.  Two of the most important values in business are commitment to getting a job done and a strong work ethic.

You can demonstrate both by doing work for free. If you’ve been working a day job to pay the bills and doing free work in the evenings and on weekends in order to build your portfolio and skill set, prospective clients will sit up and take notice.

Flex your muscles

Perhaps you did some design work at university but in the years since graduation you have moved into project management. It’s been a while, but you are keen to get those creative juices flowing again. Still, your skills are rusty and you’re not ready to sell them to the world.

A design project taken on in addition to your other duties or in your own time may be just the sharpening stone you need.

The freedom to fail

One of the most important advantages of doing work for free is that it creates the space most people need to come back from failure. Being able to get messy and make mistakes – without risking a valuable contract or client relationship – can release untapped creativity.

It also encourages resilience, that all important quality of getting it wrong but getting back into the ring again anyway. A strong core of resilience can mean the difference between playing big and going home.

When not to work for free

None of which is to say you should always work for free. There are plenty of reasons not to, especially when you have the talent, skills and experience that deserve regular compensation or when someone is trying to take advantage of you.

So if a client or employer is devaluing your abilities, making you resent the work, or is practically blackmailing you into submission (work for free and we may choose to hire you/let you keep your job) then the compensation plan needs to be revisited.

And that’s the crux of the issue: making working for free work for you is all about who is in the driver’s seat. If you are in control of the compensation plan (i.e. you can stop when you want and are not being coerced in some other way), it can be a great way to build your business and your career.

In these circumstances working for free can open up a world of new opportunities.

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