When Should I Work For Free?

February 27, 2013


Over the past 10 years I’ve ‘worked for free’ on a number of occasions:

Social enterprise: together with a colleague, I recently helped set up and promote a series of acoustic music cafes as an ‘experiment’. They’re linked to an internet radio show so there’s some innovation involved. We agreed to work on zero budget, so we had to do all the ground work ourselves. All the musicians involved gave their services for free (over 15 of them) and a graphic designer helped out as well. Assuming it’s viable, the aim is to set up a self-sustaining community-based enterprise that helps emerging artists in this genre, both musically and business-wise. We’re still in the exploratory phase for this one.

Volunteering: I’m a volunteer for a local conservation charity and I setup and run the blog (which has done really well). I’ve done similar work for commercial organisations and got paid for it (of course) although the work for the charity is naturally done for free. The benefit is giving something back to the local community which is good on it’s own terms but you do have to be clear about boundaries and commitments.

Business development: when previously working for a large company, after we’d developed some novel offerings in knowledge management (that evolved in-house), we wanted to test them out on other organisations. So we did some work for free (to SMEs and a charity) as ‘starter’ projects to develop credibility and widen our experience. This was certainly cat-and-mouse – they wanted us to do more (as it was free) and we wanted to do less – so negotiating (and keeping to) a happy midpoint was an important early step.

This issue of  ‘when or whether you should work for free’ can crop up quite easily and has various pros and cons to it. In particular, it’s a fairly staple question for many freelancers, especially when starting up.

Anyway, if you’re in this situation, this fun site may help you decide – Should I Work For Free?

After I’d written this I noticed that Seth Godin has just written a post on the same topic, which ends via:

Here’s the heart of it: if you’re busy doing free work because it’s a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work, stop. When you confuse busy for productive, you’re sabotaging your ability to do important work in the future. On the other hand, if you’re turning down free gigs because the exposure frightens you, the same is true… you’re ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.

Picture credit: here.

Writing For An Imaginary Reader

February 25, 2013

I’m writing a book on various aspects of innovation and currently I’m doing some research on the different approaches you can take.

As part of this, I came across an interesting piece of advice from John Steinbeck (it’s one of 6 tips he gives on writing):

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Learning From Procrastination

February 21, 2013

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” – Jessica Hische (illustrator)

Innovation: Giant Leaps Versus Marginal Gains

February 19, 2013

Tim Harford at WIRED2012

There was a journalist’s strike at the BBC yesterday, resulting in some programme changes. In particular, on the morning radio, in place of the customary news and interviews, there were a number of really inspiring audio documentaries.

One that really caught my attention was a talk by Tim Harford. The content was similar to a talk he gave at Wired2012 (see video above). His theme was success in innovation and two key types: giant steps and marginal improvements. In fact, this general topic was the original motivation for the title of my blog: Steps & Leaps!

Most innovations are marginal improvements that produce clear-cut short-term gains. They can be easily understood as they build on what’s already there; they refine the landscape. Giant leaps take you to places you don’t even recognise as the landscape has completely changed. Both types are obviously important for progress but for different reasons (and timescales).

Marginal Gains: He illustrates this via the winning ability of the UK cycling team in the 2012 Olympics – they even had a ‘Head of Marginal Gains’, Matt Parker:

A sports scientist who now runs a team of 15 Marginal Gains specialists, ranging from experts in biomechanics to nutrition to physiotherapy, so far 28 major projects have been completed in the last two and a half years. Some, like the work they will do on bikes and kit, last up to four years – a full Olympic cycle, whilst others, like athlete development, stretch out of sight of London, time-wise.

Giant Steps: On the other hand, Dr Mario Capecchi, who pioneered gene targeting (which has transformed the study of key diseases), was thought of as a scientific outsider:

Not too long ago, the notion that scientists could manipulate genes to create animal models of human disease seemed virtually impossible, even to many researchers. Dogged research by Mario Capecchi and others made it a reality. Capecchi is credited with developing a powerful technology known as gene targeting. This technology has allowed scientists to engineer mice with conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and high blood pressure—a feat that has revolutionized the study of human disease.

Bearing both in mind, Radford then asks the interesting question as to how you can ‘organise for innovation’. In particular, how can you stimulate giant leaps but in a way that doesn’t require exceptional individuals to buck the system (as with Capecchi)?

One example of an organisation that successfully does this is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) which only funds big, bold steps – in fact it’s required there’s a substantial chance of ‘failure’!

At HHMI, the engines of discovery are powered by approximately 330 HHMI investigators who direct laboratories on the campuses of nearly 70 universities and other research organizations throughout the United States. By appointing scientists as Hughes investigators—rather than awarding them research grants—HHMI is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” Investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition—even if that process takes a very long time.

Through another initiative, HHMI identified some of the nation’s most promising scientists to receive support at a critical early stage of their careers. Each early career scientist has a six-year, nonrenewable appointment to the Institute and along with it the freedom to focus on his or her boldest—and potentially transformative—research ideas without having to worry about obtaining grants to fund those experiments.

It’s interesting that they focus (the emphasis above in bold is mine) on the two key aspects of ‘time’ (for lots of ‘failures’) and ‘boldness’ (if it works it will make a substantive difference).

It’s really good to learn that the terms ‘organisation’ and ‘series of giant leaps’ can actually go hand in hand!

Keep A One Sentence Journal

February 7, 2013

Until recently I’ve never kept a journal, either for business or personal reasons. I’ve often tried – usually starting with a short burst of energy which then fizzled out fairly soon. However, in an attempt to find out where all my time was going, I’ve kept a daily journal for over a year now (without even a day slipping). It covers all aspects of my life.

I use bullet points rather than sentences and I use Circus Ponies NoteBook (I’m on a Mac) as the outlining feature is very handy for this (there are lots of other products of course).

As I do about 3-5 things a day, this amounts to well over 1,000 items in a year. In hindsight, and skimming through, some were important and others not. However whilst I’ve found the journal indispensable for daily and weekly work, it’s not been so successful when viewed over longer timescales. Dealing with such large numbers of items is cumbersome as well as time-consuming and structure can often evolve in complex inter-connected ways!

To make more progress, and being realistic with my aspirations, I’ve now decided to write one sentence a day on the most important ‘thing’ that happened. This might be a task, an insight (on anything), a feeling (about anything) or a significant meeting/event. The simple point is that it forces me to think through, on a daily basis, whether something of note has happened (physically or emotionally) and then summarise it in a catchy manner (a skill in it’s own right). It’ll be interesting to see what this produces longer term and how it compares to my standard ‘task’ list.

When I worked full-time, in a large and fast-moving company, I always thought I had no time to take daily notes. I had Outlook and I used this to collect (in a rather random way) the usual oddball collection of contacts, tasks and events. When I left I thought it might be useful to take this file with me but I was surprised to discover just how unhelpful it was (information wise). I realised (a little too late) that most things were in my head, coupled with a fuzzy memory of details the further back I went.

It would have been fascinating to have these one-liners to illuminate me on what I’d done and when and how I felt about things at the time. Even the decision on what I wrote on a given day would be enlightening – things at the time and in hindsight are often quite different. I can’t think of any reason why I couldn’t have found the time to think about and then write just one sentence (more is allowed of course, if the opportunity arises). I’m sure I would have got better at it in time as well (as it’s not as easy at it sounds!).

In a way, the one-sentence journal is an attempt to see some simplicity in the complexity that usually surrounds me, even if it is misleading or a little naive at times.

Anyway, I’l let you know how it goes!

I got the idea for this from a variety of quite different sources over a period of time. Here are two of them:

Day One

A desktop Mac application that also has a synced iPhone companion, so there’s no excuse not to write! There’s also a handy reminder function. So at 6 pm everyday a little box pops up encouraging me to write my line! I still have to do the thinking/reflection of course.

Notebooks (1970 − 2003) by Murray Bail

I found this book a number of years ago in a small, local ‘reduced price’ bookstore. Murray Bail is an Australian writer. The book is a collection of snippets collected along the way, presumably for use in future books. It’s quite tantalising, and gives an interesting insight into a writer’s mind. Here are some typical entries (most are longer; there are over 2,000 of them)

From London June 1970 – November 1974:

‘Tossing his head, he laughed like a horse and kept on slapping his thigh to keep galloping.’

‘The only exercise he took was shaving.’

He makes an observation and then translates it into a short memorable phrase. Out of context this might seem a little strange but it does work!

The Book Of Dreams

February 3, 2013

‘Dreams are illustrations… from the book your soul is writing about you.’ – Marsha Norman (playwright)

Invention Means Taking Risks

February 1, 2013


Ah, the one wheel motorcycle, now why didn’t I think of that? Google this to find modern versions, the idea hasn’t died…

Interestingly, this photo one of the most popular downloads from flickr in The Commons category, so it certainly strikes a bell!

Less risky (and less imaginative) is the amphibious bicycle…


Everyone has a dream, what’s yours?

Picture credits: top and bottom.