“Who should I work for?”

I get this question a lot from people who have read Recession Proof Graduate. Most of them have no clue what type of person they want to work with, so they usually do one of two things:

  1. Send offers to work for free for every company in their industry (HORRIBLE idea)
  2. Approach authors with free work


#1 is idiotic. You should not approach anyone unless you’re intimately familiar with their business, and are a genuine fan of their work/products. Doing free work isn’t about doling yourself out for slavery; it’s about selectively working with pros who can grant you hands-on learning and invaluable experience, in a field that’s meaningful to you.

#2 is also ill-advised. Even though approaching authors worked out for me and Ryan and Ben, I generally don’t advocate targeting the author niche. Writers are interesting people, but they typically don’t make much money. Most of them won’t be able to pay you once the free work comes to an end. Unless it’s an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there are better uses of your time.

What I suggest in the e-book is approaching successful entrepreneurs. No matter what you’re interested in — photography, architecture, cooking, fashion, etc. — the people in your field who are earning the most are all successful entrepreneurs. They were all able to turn their skills into viable businesses, and have found ways to make their passion profitable.

It’s fine to work with a brilliant inventor or a gifted artist, but if they know nothing about sales or marketing or running a business, they are going to have a really tough time sustaining their hobby. And you will run the risk of never making money with them. You need to get your foot in the door with people who know what the hell they’re doing. And if they’ve already achieved some degree of success, they’re more likely to be successful again in the near future. Not a bad idea to hitch yourself onto a rising star. 

Every person I’ve done free work for has been a self-made entrepreneur, because that’s what I wanted to become. I was a genuine fan of their work, knew all about their past projects, and had done enough research to figure out what problems they were currently facing, and how I might be able to help. The fact that a bunch of these people were best-selling authors was somewhat incidental.  

Another reason I suggest working with entrepreneurs is because they are interested in changing the world at a fast pace. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their work ethic is much stronger than your average employee at a big company. You will not regret the decision to expose yourself to their work process — you’ll absorb some of their DNA and make it your own. Even if you don’t want to become an entrepreneur yourself, you will still gain a lot from the experience.

# # #

So… where do you find successful entrepreneurs?

Think about the products / services you use regularly and love, or the companies that you buy from repeatedly throughout the year. Those businesses were created by entrepreneurs. You can do research on them and figure out which ones might be easy to approach and receptive to free work.

Of course, that task might seem too broad or difficult. And if you live in the mid-West, the only companies you can think of are Wal-Mart and Best Buy, so you’re out of luck there.

If you can’t think of any entrepreneurs, take a look at Kickstarter projects* that are ending soon.

[*In case you’ve been living under a rock: Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform that allows people to raise money for creative projects. The site is three years old, and in 2012, they helped artists and entrepreneurs raise over $319 Million for their projects, from more than 2 million donors in 177 countries. KS is pretty awesome, and it’s very effective.]

Kickstarter projects that have received over $100K in funding — or get 200%+ funding — clearly have some level of demand. The people who are running these projects are likely freaking out about having to fill all those orders, and are wondering how they’re going to pull this off. Many of them are under more pressure than they’ve ever dealt with. The sweet smell of opportunity is in the air…

If you find a project that you love, and the people running it seem like genuinely good folks who know what they’re doing (do your research- Google them!), then reach out and offer to help. First, tell them why you love what they’re doing (and don’t B.S. this part, it’s a waste of everyone’s time), and the potential you see — what you think it could become and how it could change the world in some way.

Then make them an offer: say you don’t normally discount your rates, but that you truly love what they’re doing, and think you could add some value. Say that you’d be willing to do ______ (sales, marketing, customer service, web design — whatever valuable skill you have) for two weeks at no charge. Lay out exactly why you’d love to do it, what you plan to do (give them a sample of your work), and how it will specifically benefit them. Then say if they like your work and you enjoy working together, then you can all discuss a more formal arrangement at the end of the two weeks. If they don’t like your work, they can scrap it, dismiss you on the spot, and there will be no hard feelings on your end.

You might balk at this and wonder, “Why on earth should I offer free work to an amateur entrepreneur / artist?”

For one, a lot of them are doing really cool stuff. I hear people complain all the time about not wanting to work for a soul-sucking boring company. Well, Kickstarter is a huge community of creative people working on things they’re passionate about. Some of them raise a TON of money, but are too inexperienced to pull it off, even though they might have a viable business on their hands.

If only they could find a talented partner to work with…

Why not figure out what their biggest problems and stumbling blocks are going to be, then reach out with an offer to help. If you can actually DELIVER what you’re promising, then they will have more to lose by not paying you than you’ll have to lose. They will want to keep you around.

I’m not making this strategy up. I’ve had a handful of friends reach out to total strangers on Kickstarter, and successfully find themselves working on stuff they loved. My buddy was sick of his 9-5 job at Wells Fargo, so he reached out to a filmmaker on Kickstarter. He ended up traveling around South America for a month, shooting footage, and ended up as a subject in the documentary. He said it was the best decision he’d ever made.

# # #

If you really want to work on something unique and meaningful, Kickstarter is a great place to find those opportunities. The web makes it so unbelievably easy to connect with like-minded people — it still astonishes me that so few of us actually take advantage of it! If I was able to connect and work with best-selling authors and successful entrepreneurs all around the country — from Colorado — then anyone can do it, from anywhere.

The goal is to work with people who can step up your game, help you develop skills that you want to master, present you with experiences you crave, and connect you with more folks who are just like them.

If you’re a young person who’s not sure what to do with their life, get off of Facebook/Reddit, and make a move towards doing something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be a long-term play — it just has to be a step in the direction you want to go. Because once you’ve taken that first step, you’ll be able to see the second step. And then the third step. And eventually, you’ll have momentum, and you’ll have made huge progress. But you can’t climb a mountain until you take that first step…

And if you have to offer free work to take that first step, don’t hesitate — DO IT!

By Charlie Hoehn

18 comments on ““Who should I work for?”

  1. Charlie,
    Love this post, been a big fan of yours since 2009 (we’ve emailed a few times). I’m doing this sort of thing right now, but I’m probably doing a few things wrong, and I’ve kind of wondered what you’d think about it. Ill be quick:

    I recently walked away from a two year career on Capitol Hill to do what I’ve always loved doing: video production. I started working with a media production company in northern Virginia and am learning fast – everything from production shoots to casting actors to editing video, even helping out w side projects (documentaries and such). But its a bonafide 12 week internship, unpaid, and no real prospect of being taken on full time when its done. I’m learning the company and the industry better than I ever could from the outside, but the money Ive saved up wont last forever.

    Since this is what ive always wanted to do, I’m willing to tend bar at night to pay the bills. But after reading your site and posts like these, I get the feeling theres a better way – I.e., eventually work with this company full time, even though theyre not expanding any time soon, by doing things like adding clients or whatnot

    Would be happy to hear your thoughts, Ive got a pretty good plan in place, but I get the feeling I could be doing more. I can elabore more if need be through email.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work


    • Thanks Harry! Video production is one of my favorite gigs in terms of flexibility and variety in what you get to work on. It’s also perfect for being able to market yourself — the skills you learn equip you with the ability to impress everyone.

      Some questions to ponder (I don’t know your exact situation and there’s no “right” answer), hope these help:

      If you love the work you’re doing, how can you keep doing more of it after the internship comes to an end? Do you need to be working with them, or can you gain more of these experiences on your own?

      Will this company provide a lot more wisdom, skills, and notches to your belt (i.e. awesome projects that you can add to your portfolio) by the time the internship ends? How can you make the most of it before it’s over?

      Are there contacts at the company you want to stay in touch with for years to come?

      Do you love the company? Is your loyalty to them justifiable? Is it profitable and being run by competent people? (to help answer if they’re a good long-term move)

      If yes to previous, what can you do now to prove you’re a valuable person they need to keep and pay a competitive salary?

      If no, what can you do now to prove you’re a valuable person with skills that other companies need? Or how can you start your own thing once the internship is over?

      Congrats on doing something you’ve always wanted to do — enjoy it while it’s here. But start thinking about your next step. Can you put together a portfolio or highlight reel that showcases what you learned on Youtube? Something that other companies will see, send around to their friends, and ask “Who put this together? It’s awesome!” I know a number of people that this has worked for: Adam Patch and Charles Phillips, to name two.

      • Thanks so much, these are great points. I don’t have much of a follow up, other than I am pretty much set on this course of action already. This position does in fact give me the ability to create a robust portfolio and a body of work, as well as build on the skills and knowledge I already have, which opens the door to freelance work in the future once I really get the hang of this. That’s what I’m striving towards right now.

        The overall sense I get from your career advice is to be constantly thinking of ways to add value to something you already enjoy doing. For me, getting there is going to take time because my skills and experience just aren’t up to par yet, but the ball is already rolling fast in that direction. I’m lucky that the people I work with are so passionate about what they do that they love talking about it and sharing what they know.

        And I’m familiar with Adam Patch, delved into his work after the 4HB trailer came out. The guy’s a real pro, I’ve thought about reaching out to him.

        Thanks again, if this takes off I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Hey Charlie,

    Great post, I agree that the best way to go about getting experience is to work for an entrepreneur. They tend to not have established internships, and they’re more likely to respond to tenacity.

    One strategy for finding entrepreneurs that has worked for myself and my clients is browsing through the Inc. 5000. Simply click on the industry you’re interested in, then browse through until you find a company that is doing great work you’re passionate about.

    Alternatively, if you’re geographically bound, clients have had success using LinkedIn, and sorting for companies with under 100 employees that are in their area.

    • I’m actually out here right now man! I was at the Rio the other night for a fundraiser and almost hit you and Rachel up, but ended up going back early. Let’s get together, eh?

  3. Charlie,

    As you know from our occasional past emails since your Ted presentation in Pittsburgh, I am well outside your customary demographic. That said, I still follow your postings because if someone thinks about what you are writing, you have a lot to say to anyone of any age who is in job search, career definition or redefinition mode. In fact, I’ve recommended quite a few of your suggestions to friends in the way over 40 crowd who, as a result of the job market since the financial meltdown, are facing many of the same problems as recent graduates and people in their late 20’s to early 30’s, although for different reasons. So, if you and your fans don’t mind some comments from someone who has been there, failed at that, and tried again and again, here goes:

    Regarding item #1 in your post: Blindly shot gunning unsolicited offers of free employment – If by chance one of the companies answers, the odds are just as Charlie says: a multi-week period of near office slavery doing little that has anything to do with what you want to accomplish for your career. One reason is that for larger companies subject to state and Federal wage & hour legislation, they are not supposed to have work done by unpaid interns that is or was or should be done by paid staff. If they get caught at it, it means some stiff fines. Smaller companies have a little more leeway, but may not have the staffing requirements or money to convert your unpaid internship into a paying job afterward. Result, if you get that kind of internship, you are likely to end up doing work that won’t advance your career goals.

    @harrygillen – It seems that you’ve found a great opportunity. However, the result seems to be that you have stopped looking long range, big picture. Unless you absolutely have to stay in the Washington, northern VA area and cannot relocate under any circumstance, then you should consider looking beyond this company. Use your accomplishments and the references & recommendations you’ll have to get something you want at a media production company in another area where you might have always wanted to live. If the execs of the company where you are working are connected in the industry, toward the end of the project when you have delivered successful results, ask for referrals to people they know in other companies. That could accomplish two things – (1) you are more likely to get the job you want at the other company, because you’ve been recommended personally by someone they know and trust OR (2) the company where you are working may offer you a job because they have to immediately face the prospect of losing you. Many times, busy execs and business owners don’t think about that until it is too late. Also, because you are working as an unpaid intern on a limited time project, asking them for a reference for work elsewhere as the project comes to an end doesn’t carry the stigma that a paid employee would face if he/she went to the boss and gave the “employ me/promote me or I’m leaving” ultimatum. If you have to look on your own, try networking with the film and media development offices of city & state governments around the country. Trying to attract movie and TV productions to shoot in their locations is a major effort that is happening in almost every city in the country. The people in those offices know which production companies are actually doing something and which ones are all talk and no action.

    @Matt The Self Made Renegade – Your idea of researching the Inc 5000 list is fantastic. It is one of the primary places I go to in searching for new consulting projects. If you look in the companies from about the 25th percentile up to about the 90th percentile in terms of revenue, many of them are growing, need staff, have interesting work available, and can pay. The point that both you and Matt made is critical. You have to research the company, its business activities, its work environment, the owners/founders, and the key execs. If someone doesn’t do at least enough research to be able to identify the person inside the company to whom the free work offer should be directed, then that company should not be contacted. For anyone not familiar with researching companies, a good place to search, in addition to the Inc 5000 information, is the Lexis-Nexis database, or similar databases, accessible through university library research departments. If you don’t have a student connection, you may have to network with students or the library research staff to get access, but it is well worth the effort because of the huge amount of information that is available on both publicly listed and privately owned companies.

    I don’t know if the new Inc 5000 list will be fully searchable and sortable when it comes out. In the past it has not been. The Inc web site had some limit filtering functions, but not enough to really produce a precisely targeted list of companies. The Inc web site only displays either 50 or 100 of the companies per web page. However, it shouldn’t take more than 1 or 2 hours of copying and pasting into Excel to create a completely searchable and sortable flat file that allows someone to target companies by industry, state, revenue size, and # of employees. A couple of hours of routine copy and paste is a small price to pay to have that data available in fully searchable form.

    Final comment and then I’ll get off the soap box. I hope everyone takes advantage of Charlie’s thoughts and experience and the opportunity you have to exchange information and network with like-minded people facing similar career situations. I wish I had this kind of forum to go to and learn from in my 20’s. It would have saved me a lot of mistakes and having to learn the hard way in my late 40’s and early 50’s the same lessons that each of you are providing for all the others in this forum. Wishing you all success.

    • Hey Richard,

      Thank you so much for the nice comment! Really appreciate all you said, and that you’ve recommended my stuff to your friends :) And I definitely welcome your input so don’t hesitate to share in the future.

      Thanks again Richard, love the comment!


  4. Charlie – great post. I have a question that might be a little off topic. In your brief bio at the top right of this blog, you say you’re a “marketing strategist for..start-ups.”

    I’ve also seen Ferriss and Holiday refer to themselves as start-up advisers. How are you able to make this transition and sell yourself as someone that can make a big impact at a start-up? It’s a big leap to do something like editing video/books or graphic design to advising a start-up on their business and marketing approach.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • Hey Dennis- Good question. You basically have to offer definitive proof that you can add enormous value to a company — so much that they’re willing to give you equity. Tim has an unbelievable network and a huge platform, so he can make fast connections, dole out free marketing throughout the year, and bring in tons of loyal customers. Giving him a percentage is a no-brainer. Ryan can drum up TONS of press and attention, and the number of books and articles he’s read on nearly any given subject is unparalleled. Both of these guys have proof that they can deliver. They have rare skills, knowledge, experiences, and connections that are invaluable to a company. You have to be able to prove you can deliver. You don’t just become an adviser or strategist over night!

  5. Thank you for such a wise and well written article. I need every strategy I can get as I’ve been out of the job market for a long time. This sounds like a great way to meet the right people and build an impressive portfolio of projects in a short period of time. My employment situation no longer looks hopeless to me. Again, thank you!

  6. Great stuff! This is exactly why I need an interview with you for the Career/Passion section of my upcoming site!

  7. Kickstarter is probably a very effective place for people great at implementation to plug in – a bunch of very excited people that now face a very difficult fulfillment and productions problem ahead. Perfect for the first finance hire or operations manager.

  8. Great article. My personal strategy is finding all of the people whom I am interested in knowing more about or working with and looking at all of the blogs, media and corporations that I follow. It’s a bit more difficult to find corporate E-Mails vs individual E-Mails but if you have LinkedIn you can find anyone that you want provided you have not been blocked then you will have to know their E-Mails. I would also suggest that if you want to find who is doing something innovative then subscribe to Fast Co, Inc or Entrepreneur. Whether or not people will actually reply and or want to work with you is a different story entirely, however, it has not stopped me from offering anyhow. Persistence always overcomes resistance. Anything is possible in the world of technology, but as Tim Ferriss stated these types of things are easier vis a vis.

  9. Yo! Using Kickstarter to source interesting entrepreneurs for free/paid work is brilliant.

    Please add this (and other creative strategies) to the next version of RPG!

    The more I look at it and read comments on your blog, I was just extremely lucky with my free work outreach and jobs. Went 3/3 and networked to find paying gigs. It should not have been that easy…

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