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  • Work For Free. It’ll Grow Your Brand.

    Over dinner recently, a smart and successful friend of mine made this comment:

     “If I had an 18-year-old son, I would tell him this: ‘You can go to college if you want.  But if you want to be 25 and successful, go find a rich person and offer to work for them for free.  Learn everything you can.  Make yourself indispensable to them.  Say they can start paying you whenever they think you deserve it.  The experience, connections and money you’ll eventually come into will give you a momentum in life that most can’t match.  Especially your buddies going to college this Fall.’”

    I loved that statement, because I completely agree.

    It seems we’re in a time where more and more young people are jobless, sitting at home in their parents’ basement clutching a Bachelor’s degree.  The path to stability and a career that degree was supposed to provide is now blocked.

    How should you market yourself as a job candidate?  How should you build your personal brand?

    photoAn aside about hiring people

    As someone who hires a lot of 22-year-olds right out of college, here’s what I see right now:

    • Every job ad I put out there has 50 responses in a day.
    • The applicants are all similar – degree in hand, no experience, unsure of what they want to really “be.”

    Honestly, I don’t look at resumes.  I Google people and try to uncover things about them.  I try to differentiate who seems entrepreneurial and who doesn’t.

    A blog is a great way to differentiate yourself.  It doesn’t matter if it’s about dog grooming or accounting.  If you have picked a subject, delved into it consistently and produced intelligent thought and commentary around it that shows me something.

    Back to the point

    But back to the quote from my friend.  Why is his advice something you should take to heart?

    One reason is the job market, and the flood of people like you in it.  If you offer to work for free just to learn, that shows:

    • You are confident in your commitment to do valuable work.
    • You acknowledge your lack of experience and are willing to gain it before asking for a big salary.

    Plus, it’s interesting.  Why wouldn’t an employer consider that offer?  There’s little downside.  If you prove yourself, I’ve just won another great employee.

    If not, no big deal.  I may have lost a little time but in this scenario I haven’t lost a dollar paying you either.

    Another reason this is good advice is it’s precisely what a lot of successful people I’ve met did, one way or another.  It’s never, EVER the stuff you learned in a classroom at the U that makes you a millionaire at 30.

    All the self-made millionaires I know (this is probably pushing 50 people) did it by learning on their own, often from a mentor.

    There’s a misconception about overnight successes as much as there is about individual successes.  Too often people think it’s these guys off in a basement just pecking away.  Most of them have mentors.  It’s never the work of just one guy, things pouring out of his head.

    The old college friends

    I look around at people I was friends with in college.  Most have jobs paying $40-55k/year now.  It took them a few years to even get those jobs.  They used their degree specialty as a starting point to go out and find a career.

    I went another way, made my money, and now own multiple companies.

    We used to be in the exact same place, my buddies and me.  Except I lucked into working (cheaply, for years) for a mentor who has a lot of successful businesses and a lot of money.

    It didn’t mean a thing to my mentor how old I was, what my major/degree was, or if I was in the honor’s fraternity.  It mattered that I worked hard, worked smart, asked a lot of questions and knew the $11/hr I made was what I deserved at the time.

    Share in the success

    Over time, you begin to share in the successes of the person you work for (hopefully).  You make them money, you help grow their company, and boom – now that’s a success you can point to too.  This matters for your personal brand moving forward, for the day you strike out to do your own thing.

    If you truly do find a mentor and follow this advice, and all goes to plan, you’ll end up with:

    • Invaluable experience
    • A respected advocate who can pay you a big salary, invest in you, or recommend you to others
    • Connections to your mentor’s network
    • A success you can point to and say “I helped that happen”

    At least that’s been my experience.  It’s not difficult, really.  The hard part is finding the right person to work for and the right situation to dive into.

    Finding your golden star

    My friend’s advice to “Find a rich person” isn’t off-point, but it isn’t very specific either.  But finding the right fit is just as hard or harder than finding the right job.

    Remember, this is an interesting offer – to work for free.  Scouring blogs, LinkedIn and places like the Inc 500 list to find companies or entrepreneurs you might like is easy enough.

    Send some “feeler” emails and work up the courage to pitch your chosen targets.  Tell them you’ll work your ass off and prove yourself, no matter how long it takes.

    Then get to work.


    Nathaniel Broughton is a veteran internet entrepreneur and investor.  Dating to 2002, he has helped produce 3 Inc 500 award-winning companies.  Nathaniel owns Growth Partner Capital, a venture fund that provides SEO consulting, premium link building and online reputation management services.  He is also owner of SuretyBonds.com, a nationwide bonding agency.   Previously he served as CMO of VAMortgageCenter.com, a $65 million nationwide mortgage bank which acquired his marketing firm Plus1 Marketing in 2008.   A resident of San Diego, Nathaniel often writes from his experience as an investor, marketer, and advocate of “networking like Paris Hilton parties – Nonstop”.  Follow him on Twitter – @natebro.

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    7 comments on “Work For Free. It’ll Grow Your Brand.
    1. avatar

      I hate to say it, but I could have gotten WAY BETTER advice when I was just wrapping up school. I did like NO socializing at all. I was way way way too busy and even lived off-campus, so I have like a handful of friends from College (most of my friends are from High school, or in my new city). College was this very dark time when I was just working like a machine. Ugh. So thats when I should have been meeting my geeky friends and creating companies? Damn 😉

    2. avatar

      I have this conversation every week. I obviously did an entire decade in college. If you need a license to legally do what you want to do, such as a doctor, you will need to jump through some school hoops. If you simply want to know, then you can learn everything you want of the basics on places like the Kahn Academy, and wikipedia, then for insider information, you will need to connect to the ones who are successful. That is why I (and I know you do too), spend a lot of our efforts connecting with those in the know.

    3. avatar
      Brandon says:

      Awesome post, Nate. I would add that students/young people should take advantage of their student status if they do go the college route. When you’re a student, it’s OK to beg and grovel to meet up with someone and a successful person is a lot more willing to take time of of their day for a student than just some young person (speaking in big generalities here).

    4. avatar
      Kevin says:

      Thanks for being my mentor 🙂

    5. avatar

      Nathaniel, as you pointed out, the job market is saturated. The option of working for free could be something easier to attain while still growing a personal brand and gaining experience.

    6. avatar

      This is a fantastic post. This is the angle I take with young people I work with. Choosing companies that you would like to work for for free allows you to strategically position yourself for future employment.

      Mentoring and coaching is critical to career success. Research on success people shows that they have one or more mentors/coaches to support them to achieve their goals and career success.

    7. avatar

      You have positioned a very tempting request considering the value and flattery that follow pursuing top notch companies and individuals. The problem that arises from pursuing those multi-million dollar companies is that everyone is pursuing them for free or otherwise. I think it’s a modest proposal—offering to work for free, but your suggestion in finding a mentor is a wiser move. Internships are invaluable and it’s true that a bachelor’s degree does not signify that you’re worthy and qualified to work sans experience.
      I also find it interesting that you Google employees rather than looking at their resumes. Sites like Vizibility help companies and individuals grow their online presence by creating a personalized SearchMe links and QR codes which hosts your top five verified search resulrts. This can be one step that an applicant can take to demonstrate their assets and qualifications.

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