For many years in the beginning of my career I’d been more than happy to work for free or even at a loss as long as the work was interesting. I was so totally in love with computer programming and the feeling I got from making something work and then seeing that creation be used by other people that I completely lost sight of the value that I was creating.
This set me up for a series of relationships that - retrospectively - I can only classify as abusive. Passion is great, it is motivating force, a driver to learn and practice and hopefully eventually to excel at something. But at the same time it is an Achilles heel. It allows the unscrupulous to take advantage of you, it means you will work for compensation well below its actual value and it means that you will do so to your own detriment, up to and including your health. I’ve blogged a bit about this in the past, I’d be lying if I said that was the only time that someone managed to take advantage of me because of my passion, there are several more instances of similar stupidity until I wised up and started looking out for myself.
When you’re young and passionate about something it’s such an easy trap to fall in to. But taking into account that the biggest lever you have at your disposal is compound interest over as long a period as possible those early years that are easily lost when it seems there is no end to your energy and productivity are in fact your most valuable years. So don’t let your passion take you for a ride, channel it and make sure that you get at least a substantial fraction of the true value of your work returned to you, refuse to work for free or too little compensation.
Tricks that will be used to get you to work for free or with very little compensation:
Do this job for nothing and we'll give you *another* job at full pay
Only, that other job never materializes and if and when it does the pay will be the same as the previous one (but of course there is yet another job in the pipeline…).
This job may not earn you much but it is good for your experience / resume / whatever
That may be so, but you could gain that experience just as well when you’re working for a company that does compensate you properly, and your resume would not be much worse or better if it contained this particular company or any other. It’s the work that you do that makes the difference (though it doesn’t hurt to have some F500 company on your resume, but as a rule pay there will be roughly market rate).
The pay may be lousy but the free lunches are great and if you work overtime (unpaid, of course) there is free pizza
You can buy a ton of food if you’re properly compensated so then you don’t need to rely on hand-outs to stay alive. Make no mistake, you already paid for that lunch and that pizza many times over.
The company is going through hard times so we're paying very little but in the long term we will make up for that
Ok, so put that in writing, and if it doesn’t materialize look for other options. The company going through hard times is more often than not a sign of bad management rather than a sign of external factors and since neither of these are under your control you are not in any way obliged to contribute towards a solution, just as you are most likely not going to benefit from the company success in a direct way.
We pay you peanuts but you have stock options so you're part of the company success
The correct valuation of stock options (and even most of the stock!) in a tech start-up is ‘0’. Yes, some people got wealthy through their options. But for the most part stock options are not worth anything because of a variety of reasons including taxes, uncertainty of success, lack of a market for the stock if and when you are ever in a position to exercise the option and so on. They’re just another form of golden handcuffs, you think you have something valuable that aligns your goals and incentives with those of the company but in fact the gain is mostly on the other side. The better deal to negotiate is instead of options to just be given stock, but even then trading that stock is still subject to all kinds of rules that are outside the scope of this article. The easiest formula to remember is stock options are worth ‘0’.
You can't leave, we need you
That one really happened to me (see link above), where the company paid me a crappy wage and was abusive to boot, then when I finally had enough (in spite of loving the project and my co-workers) they played the pity card that it would destroy them if they left and so I would have to continue to work there (forever?). Of course I got accused of extreme disloyalty when I did leave (and I never got any of the promised compensation for the crappy wage, the company assets were sold soon after I left).
In the end it’s all the same story, you get nothing or very close to nothing and meanwhile the owners of the company will get the product of your work and will make bank on that. To them you’re a cost. So be careful, don’t let your passion be your enemy, let the fire burn if and when the rest of the conditions around your employment are favorable, if they are not then better look for a place that does put an accurate value on your worth.
After reading the HN thread on this article I would like to pick out one comment in particular that is bothered by the ‘us vs them’ mentality in posts like these. I’ve seen a lot of companies from the inside over the last 30 years and if there is one divide that is clearer than any other it is the employer vs employee one, with - as a rule - the employer having the upper hand in that relationship. I’d love for companies to be on a more even keel and a more fair relationship in their relations with their employees and I’m honored to be an investor in a company that has been very busy to achieve this, but unfortunately they are the exception. For the most part, employers can and will use any and all means at their disposal to get employees to deliver the goods at as low a possible cost to the company as can be achieved. I don’t begrudge them that they do this, but as an employee you should be aware of this and act accordingly. “Wouldn’t it be great if everybody was just nice to one another” is a great sentiment but it is disconnected from the harsh reality of the vast majority of employer-employee relationships.