Want Talent? Pay for It!

I have to wonder if the person from the Huffington Post who thought Wil Wheaton would publish for free actually knew who Wheaton was. Wheaton has quite the following and doesn’t need any help getting the word out there when he wants to — he is an established superstar who commands enough clout to demand pay.

Interestingly, however, a prodigious number of companies seem to think that future superstars are going to get that way by volunteering and being underpaid. While folks like Damon Brown point out that working for free can create exposure under certain circumstances (and right he is!), somehow this got inappropriately extrapolated to startups and companies. I grant that startup founders may need to go without a salary for a while, and some people might be able to afford to work for equity, but I am continually amazed at the number of startups who want top talent and think it’s going to waltz in on a volunteer basis. In a similar vein, most people can’t believe what universities are paying professors these days, or what K-12 schools are paying teachers. Companies play games with salaries in the hopes that they can get good people for less money, but they do so in the hopes that high performers don’t figure out what they’re worth (and guess what happens when they do!).

The whole idea of doing work for less-than-full pay is a calculated risk, and it has to be a situation where the rewards are realistically worth the gamble. Going on Shark Tank without getting paid actually makes sense, because the presentations are all of vetted ideas that got past a few rounds of application/audition, and a business can consider the TV appearance as having paid for a high-exposure infomercial (and hence is part of the marketing budget). Joining a startup solely for equity can also be a very profitable venture, if the business model is viable and the equity is high enough, and in that case there is an expected payoff with reasonable odds of success. Cases like these are more like barter than working for free, and there are clear terms for what is being exchanged and what the payoffs will be. (Even in those cases, make sure the talent can pay for room and board — a small salary may be necessary.)

But, far too often, the value of the work being performed is far greater than that of the exposure, equity, and the like that are promised in return. If your startup wants a bizdev person to volunteer for a paltry commission because (s)he believes in the mission of the company, don’t be surprised if (s)he lacks the time to net you a lot of business. If you want engaged students, then you need engaged faculty, and they’re not so engaged when they need to rely on spouses and second jobs to make ends meet. If you want a crackerjack programmer, and think (s)he’ll work for an enhanced github profile, what you’ll get is messy code that no one has time to clean or comment upon. Lousy pay, lousy work!

When companies try to pay as little as they can get away with, employees respond by doing as little as they can get with. When less gets done, employers want to pay even less, and we end up in a race to the bottom. Firms that are unwilling to value the people they have and pay them accordingly are opening themselves up to having their talent poached. And when it comes to freelancers, those who don’t want to pay fairly might want to take to heart the story of the [apocryphal] famous freelancer who didn’t get paid. If we want to pretend that things like exposure and equity are worthwhile all the time, sooner or later some underpaid, pissed-off pied piper will march our future to its death.


Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.