We are not exploitable.

A lot of people’s ears will perk up about this, but that’s exactly what should happen. I want you to read this article and spread it like it’s a manifesto or something. A manifesto of the creative worker, who says yes too often.

Have you ever been asked to do something for free?

In my experience, you either say yes because it’s a friend asking or you feel some sort of social pressure to do it. Or worse, you are “too nice to say no”. So you get all kinds of requests on a daily basis.

Can you do me a favor and re-tweet this?

Can you do me a favor and tell me how this works?

Can you do me a favor and give me some feedback?

Can you do my friend a favor and…

Pretty soon these innocent requests turn into something else.

Can you do me a favor and sketch me a doodle for that post?

Can you do me a favor and outline a sample campaign for this client of mine?

Can you do me a favor and write my thesis proposal…


And it doesn’t stop at small favors, which only eat your time a little. It goes much deeper, to the point where it starts eating your pride.

Where does it end?

A friend was once complaining that her employers made her work 5 times more than her co-workers, and that her salary was still on par with theirs. She left, of course, and good riddance.

Another friend said she frequently got requests to do free art for people who could afford to pay her, but would not. Wait… what?!

Let’s get something straight: Art is work. Writing is work. 

Are you seriously asking someone to do free work for you? Whatever your reasons, here’s my answer: I’ll do {this} for {this much money}. I could even throw you a discount if I like you. Take it or leave it.

And the thing is, I – like my friends – get flooded by requests daily. Questions, skype calls, chat requests, favors for friends. It all takes about one or two hours of my day, and time, as they say, is money.

Look, I would give a lot for my friends – my time, my energy, my life’s blood, but this is because we have a mutual contract – one we have forged in tears and blood and laughter – and it means that we have one another’s back. Friendship is a garden of flowers. It needs water.

And then there are the people who ask you for favors out of the blue. Or the people you don’t really know that well. Those people might somehow be expecting you to say yes, but why would they? If it’s because you’ve said a thousand yes’s before, it’s time you drew the line.


It’s up to you where you draw it, but it needs to be there.

Smart people know.

Have you ever gone up to a stranger asking for something? It might have been at the station because you’re run out of money, and you’re embarrassed to ask for assistance. It might be on social media – maybe you’re tweeting someone, asking them to take a look at your product.

Whatever you’ve asked, you probably know you’ll never talk to that person again. I mean, friendships and relationships are forged in all sorts of mysterious ways, but going up to someone asking for favors before even meeting them properly usually means one thing – you have zero interest to forge anything with them. You’re only looking to exploit them.

Smart people know that in order to have a mutually beneficial relationship, you need to be the one to give first. They also know that if you gave them something first, they should offer something in return. Not because they have to, but because that’s the decent thing to do.

Giving means you’re willing to invest in a relationship. Taking means you’re not.

(tweet it)

So if you’re getting requests from people who have no intention to give you anything – I mean, at least they should be paying you – then just tell them to sod off because your time and skill set are precious.

You deserve to be appreciated. Period.

Whose fault is it?

Every coin has two sides. If someone is asking you to do free work and you’re letting them, you’re as much to blame – if not more.

You need to stop saying yes because of pressure or whatever, and start giving people your price tag. For example, I have been asked to guest blog for a lot of places, and if I decided that “exposure” was not enough or I didn’t have the time, I would just assume they were offering to pay me. So the person comes to me, asking, “Hey, we’d love to have you write a piece for our blog!”, to which I would respond, “Great! How much do you pay per blog post?”

When you turn it around like that, people usually see it’s a bit silly to be asking you to write for them for free, so they go like… “Oh, sorry, we don’t actually pay for that,” then disappear quickly.


Thing is, when you do work for free, people start thinking it’s normal and more and more people do it, which prompts businesses to catch on and demand it more often. It’s a vicious cycle.

Now, let’s see what you need in order to say no:

  1. Determine how much you’re worth. Rule of thumb: If you think a particular price is fair, go higher, not lower.
  2. Tell people how much you’re worth. Put it on your blog, tweet it out, insert it in conversations, and don’t negotiate.
  3. Stand your ground. People will ask for discounts and hint that maybe you should ask for lower rates. Don’t believe these people – they’re the people who can’t afford to pay for your services.

Practice every one of these steps and saying no will soon be a breeze. I used to marvel at friends who had it down to a science, but now I know it’s all about self-esteem. Only you know how much you are worth and nobody can say any different. And only you can preserve your time and energy, and protect it from people who want to rob you of it and give nothing in return.

We are not exploitable.

You may be an artist or writer or marketer or designer or whatever you do, just say this with me:

We are not exploitable.

Say it until you believe it. At first I wanted to repeat “I am not exploitable”, but this goes beyond any one individual. This is a problem on a bigger level. There are groups of people with particular skills and personality traits who get exploited more often than others.

Artists – because “art isn’t work” and “it doesn’t take much”.

Women – because we’re more likely to empathize and want to help.

Young people – because they’re too idealistic and not materialistic enough.

I want to tell those people that I get it, and that I’ve worked for free for years because I used to have low self-esteem.

I convinced myself that I had no experience, no great skill, so I was grateful for every scrap of attention or feedback I could get my hands on. While other birds were off flying free in the country, I was fighting for scraps with the other city pigeons. And what’s worse: I thought it was normal.

I thought everyone did it and that’s how you’re supposed to start. I didn’t stop there, I created the habit of doing things for free even when I had the experience. Even though I knew my worth, I still allowed others to exploit me. Because it is exploitation.

I know you’re thinking you do certain things out of the goodness of your heart, but you need to stop and recognize that there is no good reason for asking someone to do work for free. And you need to realize that you’re probably embarrassing and cheating yourself if you’re the one who’s saying yes to this deal. I mean, are you really doing this for exposure? For the connections it brings? For someone saying “good job”?

I’ve seen exploitation on various levels – individual, community, and even societal, and every time it is masked by some kind of fake smile and a promise of things getting better for the community or society or you… but things only get better for the people you do free work for.

Put yourself first and stop saying yes to vampires. We all deserve better.


P.S. If you don’t believe me, try working it out in this “Should I Work for Free” chart. Thanks to Jean Lucas for pointing it out.

Also, check out this awesome talk by Mike Monteiro, called “F*ck You, Pay Me“, recommended by my friend Bernie Mitchell

23 thoughts on “We are not exploitable.

  1. Except, you make the classic error of equating value only with money. Artists should ensure they get value for what they do. Often – and quite possibly most often – that value comes in the form of cold hard cash. But not always. This is a really long piece and you missed the opportunity to add some nuance to the discussion.


    • Yep, I made it long and rant-y because I don’t want to list all the ways people get value. I wanted to remind people work should not be free, whatever payment is on the table. Money, connections, time. 🙂

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Robert!

      P.S. If the artist is starving, that value is worth nothing. There’s nothing romantic about being poor and struggling. Trust me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Y’know, I wish we taught this at a much younger age. I rarely accept free work from anyone, and even when hiring intern or someone to do one-off work, I usually start by asking them what’s a fair price and let them know it’s open for discussion. Even an incremental amount of $ or a fair, clear trade is better than free work.

    I think part of what happens is there’s a blurred area between what we’re supposed to consider giving back and what we’re supposed to get paid for. What a lot of people don’t realize is that they can occupy two different but complementary spaces of growth, emotionally and intellectually. Giving back has its own set of learning and fosters empathy that we need in order to run a startup, become good at our craft, etc. That’s a core thing and asking for money isn’t always helpful to that growth. But it’s a choice we get to make. The other space is: getting paid for what we do, assigning value to it. I have a lot of friends, as you probably do, who are artists / musicians / designers, and many of them charge less than what they are worth. Usually I try to do things to help them shift into a space of negotiation, because that grounded, owned place is where people get to truly decide what value they bring. Anyway, great post, sending it off to a few younger folks I know.


    • Yep, you’re totally right. I just thought this last night after I wrote this… what if there were courses in school or higher education where you learn how to manage your finances, your possible future sources of income, and even just managing your money or something? Just like mental health is lacking in education, figuring out how to manage your own affairs should be featured in academia. Thanks for adding value to the conversation, Joe! 🙂


  3. moving it on here, what if, you’re new? you need say some help, do you describe what you need then wait for the price or ask for the price first with less of a description? how does “organic” fit into all this? i agree things cost money, time, anything measurable costs money. the examples you mention (illustration of a poodle evolving from something prior) offer a contrast of what to avoid, how would you teach that in school? are you equating any favour with a task value or is it specifically for strangers? so this is a manifesto on social negotiation? i’m attempting to establish a product so any info to help me do it correctly not just thru e-learning, explainers etc is why I’m here I guess. Thanks for the read, first time reader of the blog


    • OK, so you’re new? For a person who’s new at doing something and they want experience, recommendations, etc., it’s good to form some connections, put a page up, start talking to people, see what they want.

      I’d say that networking would help you a lot more than free work, so just get in there and start meeting people. Nothing’s stopping you from doing small tasks for free here and there, but your main task is to establish yourself as someone knowledgeable in your field. Not sure free work will necessarily do that if you know what I mean. 🙂


  4. While I agree on the general conclusions of your post and tend to disagree on the intro.

    Giving and taking are both sides of the same coin. When you ask a favor at random (station example), you don’t look to enter any form of relationship, but the same is true for the person who gives you at that time. It’s a free gift, a real gift. https://meddle.it/content/8a546f544b51d27f014c15b4c9237f86/public It happens all the time in real life for those who asks and give and it’s good karma. Personally I’m a frequently on both sides. One day you ask A to X, the next one you give B to Y. A, B, X, Y being totally unrelated.

    When you do free work it is free + work. You don’t give the result of the work, you give your time doing what you expect making a living of. You expect X and Y being you, A is work, B is $ (something you can buy bread with). Again take the position of the one asking: If someone is asking everyone for free help and work, it’s more a kind of abuser then someone smart. So the question is not so much to work for free than the question to avoid abusers. It’s usually quite easy to spot them if the first thing you do is looking straight in their eyes and taking a look on who they are (what they show off in particular) and how they behave (with others in particular). One should first look at who is asking before even considering the work. Once you get rid of abusers then only look at the request and consider it. Is this gift one that will make a difference in your career. For this, it’s good to keep in mind you own value as you dream it and look for peers with the same value(s). We grow only by entering relationships with tweeps showing us better ways. It’s very much the idea of http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

    In the startup world there is no free work, just equity and agreed deferred compensations possibly based on target results.

    Now on the flip side we live in an economy of attention. We use tons of services (this one for example, but also twitter, fb, etc) which are offered free but pay themselves by attention (ads). If you don’t offer some free stuff you don’t get attention. if you don’t have attention, your value can’t be seen. If your value can’t be seen you can’t sell it. This schema was less true in the past, although companies have always used tons of interns for peanuts (I did). Now it became a rule.

    From there two options: Either you have already enough exposure to offer free stuff or you react to requests of free work.The second case is often easier for new entrants because they see an opportunity to be surely recognized and they need it. Once you’ve done it enough, you become confident on your value and you want to get a tangible value for your work. Seems you reached this point. Two options again: You look for a regular paid job and someone will sell and pay your work, or you become an entrepreneur and you know this will happen again and again until you reach a point you can get a very comfortable revenue.


    • Honestly, I would never agree to work for equity as equity of something that could be dead tomorrow doesn’t offer too much value, does it? Let us not forget that 90% of startups fail and it is that thinking – that offering something that is not tangible and likely to fail, is OK.

      I would rather think that founders should be smart enough to either invest in their own product or seek funding, rather than ask people to do free work.

      The same goes for internships, too. Employers have been long known to exploit young people’s eagerness to start anything because they didn’t want to pay them the money they deserve. That is why I think that internships should be paid, and thank God some are.

      Thanks for your input, Bruno. 🙂

      P.S. The only free work I think people should be doing is charity work. As a friend pointed out, there are cultures that encourage people to invest 30% of their time in helping out, and I’m not talking about helping someone realize their dream. I’m talking about helping people be safe and well fed.


      • I tend to agree w/you on this. Founders that agree on significant chunks of equity is a bit of a different situation, since it is in effect serious ownership agreement, but if you’re an early employee working for free or only for equity doesn’t make sense or if you have no equity. That’s just the reality of startups, you take all the risk as a founder you get to call the shots. If you don’t that’s ok but getting paid for your work is critical.

        Other thought that’s been bouncing around in my head since reading this post: never do free work. ever. do work for not a ton of pay + equity + trade of some sort, but never do free. I say that b/c I was thinking about the type of person who expects free work that I’ve dealt with, and a lot of them are weeded out by even small amounts of money. If someone can’t rally at least a basic wage + trade and/or equity, they aren’t worth dealing with most of the time. /rant


      • Yes! Also, if you’re underpaid, you definitely need to at least have some equity. But anyway, I agree with you.

        My dream place to work right now is buffer because they pay a lot, they give you perks, and they let you work from wherever. And they look so happy! They get it. 😀


      • #LOL Dream place to work for @Kneaver. No pay, no perks, 24/7/365 service but 100% equity, You can be a #DigitalNomad, 100% Happiness assured and great Tweeps


  5. Hello Violetta,

    Well, what can I say? THANK YOU! 😉

    I think we have all made the mistake of working for free at some point in our careers. And that’s why Fiverr and similar sites thrive. We are taught early on that some professions are not worth money, that you should do it for the love of it. But, as I often say, love doesn’t feed my stomach. And if I cannot feed my stomach, my brain won’t be able to function properly, and I will end up starving and eventually sick.

    There is a difference between working in exchange of something else, and one-way streets.

    For the last 3 to 4 years, I have had a services page on my website that spells out my rates. It has reduced the number of “free” pitches by 90%!


  6. Thank you for the great article! I noticed I have been doing more and more free work for people around me..Most of the time I feel shy to ask for any sort of payment because I feel I lack experience. Your article has inspired me to sit down and determine my worth 🙂


    • To be honest, I think people value experience too much. Yes, it’s great but you can do just as much if you learn along the way, if not more.
      Let’s not forget biases usually result from experience, not from someone who is just starting out. 🙂 Good luck!


  7. Great post, Violeta. This is the conundrum for anyone working in media, I think, and especially anyone working for themselves 🙂 I see it in every service that I offer to clients. For development, no one understands why it takes as long as it does, and don’t think the money is worth it (until they pay someone much less, get what they pay for, and then have to hire me anyway to fix it). For design and content, everyone seems to see the services as somehow intangible and thus not worth the price.

    I still offer my services for free on occasion, to different groups or occasionally friends because I believe in their cause and wish to help them out at a charitable level. I think that’s healthy to the soul. It’s a difficult balance to strike, though.


    • Oh, definitely. Charity is worth the sacrifice. 😛
      But yeah, if you’re expecting something for free, then you won’t like the results. Unless you’re exploiting interns, who want to impress you and don’t understand what they’ve gotten themselves into. 😛
      Thanks for stopping by, David!


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