Last summer I spoke at Glen Mulcahy's RTE Mojocon on a panel entitled "Mobile Entrepreneurs". The panel icluded of a mix of people, each earning money from internet based media related businesses. Overall it was a really interesting experience and what was scheduled to start at 7pm and last an hour ended up going on until around 1030pm. Suffice it to say that making money from putting creative content on the internet is a really hot topic.
At one point the question of working for free was raised in the context of starting out. Actually a huge question for many talented creators at various points in their careers. I was surprised that the panel was a little split on this contentious issue. One of my fellow panellists said that it was totally fine to work for free. I argued that while it is never ok to work for free, that doesn't always mean that we need to demand monetary rewards for every project, provided that a value exchange does take place.
To explain this best I need to go a little further back the value chain. I'm also going to stick with video and photo projects for the purposes of this explanation. There are many ingredients that go into a creative process. For one person creating content, it could be argued that the following ingredients are core to the process: equipment, experience, training and talent. Other ingredients exist too, e.g., location and travel but let's stick to these core elements for now.
Each of these ingredients or inputs in themselves have a value. In other words, each of these ingredients have a cost associated with them. Some of these costs are much easier to measure and benchmark, e.g., equipment and training but some are much harder to measure, e.g., experience and talent. Starting out, one will find it a lot more difficult to price for the later, however, the former is much easier to calculate. Everyone knows how much an expensive camera or training course costs right?!
So why then, if we know that we paid x amount for a camera and y amount to be trained, would we be prepared to work for free?! Total madness! Moreover, if enough people started to go around working for free then why would anyone ever want to pay for anything at all? There is also the issue of working at too low a cost. The danger that this presents is that the value of the market could erode to a point where it simply wouldn't be sustainable to operate in the creative media space at all.
Unfortunately, not everyone is going to make money straight out of the traps, especially given the increasingly competitive landscape that most young creators now find themselves in. So how then can one gain experience and start building up a portfolio if there's so much competition and they can't work for free? We need to start by reframing this paradigm by rethinking our 'go to market' strategy or our approach to valuing and marketing ourselves.
Rather than thinking of things in terms of money start thinking of things in terms of value. What is your value? If you don't know then you need to figure this out. To help figure this out I will write a piece to help you determine your own value over the next couple of days and link to it here. The harsh reality is that you are always going to be more valuable when someone comes looking for you as opposed to when you go looking for them.
So what can we do to make ourselves, as content creators, more valuable to other people? We need to create value for others before they know they need it or, indeed before they know us, for that matter. The best way to achieve this result is to create a personal brand around oneself, and/or the topic one is most passionate about, supported by high quality content that you exclusively produce. This is a mission critical element of the personal brand building process that you can then use to showcase your creative abilities to a global market.
In time, if you can create enough value for others, via your personal brand, then those 'other people' (who will by then have become your audience) will come knocking on your door. I can say this with great conviction as this has been my personal experience since starting off from scratch with IrishStartUpTV (a media project where I video interview entrepreneurs to share their 'starting up' stories).
I must point out that I've never charged a startup entrepreneur to be interviewed because I was uncomfortable about doing so. However, this didn't mean I was working for free. The reality was that there was value to be exchanged through this project. I wanted to share the stories of the people I interviewed and those that I interviewed were equally excited to share their stories with me and my audience.
Setting up IrishStartUpTV helped me to learn all about video production from a base of zero experience. Becoming more comfortable with this process encouraged me to constantly up my video making game so that I was always learning and always improving my craft both in front of and subsequently behind the camera.
As I became more confident I started to make videos about startup events that I was interested in attending and which which were being run by volunteers on tight budgets. Within a relatively short amount of time my content started speaking for itself and I was getting calls and emails from corporates who wanted me to make videos to help them to better promote their events, products or services.
My advice for anyone else starting out with any creative endeavour is to first figure out how to value yourself. Once you've figured out your value don't ever forget it. Also bear in mind that that if you're working hard enough you're value will also be constantly increasing in parallel. Unfortunately, if you don't value yourself it is unlikely that anyone else will either.
Instead of working fo free, challenge yourself to come up with a way that you can help others without devaluing yourself. How can you ensure a value exchange even if no money changes hands? In my case it was making videos about other entrepreneurs but for everyone else it'll be different - or at least I hope it will be!
The world needs diversity and there are also a myriad of stories that are just crying out to be visually told every day! So go forth and create and, as always, please do get in touch if you have any questions or you feel there's anything I can do to help you to take the first steps on your creative journey.