4 min read

Are you skilled enough to get paid?

A reader named Joe reached out and asked: “How good at something do you need to be before reaching out to companies for free work?" Good question. I’ll tell you my story so you’ll be able to put the pieces together for yourself.
Are you skilled enough to get paid?
Photo by Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

A reader named Joe reached out and asked:

“How good at something do you need to be before reaching out to companies for free work?
As a recent graduate, I feel unskilled in that I’ve only had two internships and feel nervous that I won’t be able to do a great job for these employers that I contact. When you first started contacting companies for free work, how skilled would you say that you were at marketing, video editing, and everything in between?”

Good question. I’ll tell you my story so you’ll be able to put the pieces together for yourself.

For marketing, I read books. I shared what I learned on this blog (go through my archives, you’ll see). Then I wrote about “free ideas” I had for companies and organizations to better market themselves. Some were good ideas, others were naive and a bit arrogant. Didn’t matter, I was just trying to show I could think. Then I did some work — free and paid — and wrote about my experiences. Suddenly, I had some level of expertise. I had a SHOWCASE to prove it.

I’d edited video as a hobby for a few years. I was self-taught, didn’t use any fancy equipment, and I shamelessly copied other people’s work. For instance, watch ESPN’s Images of the Century, then watch this football video I made.

This was the video that Ramit saw that convinced him I was worth hiring:

Again, shamelessly copied a winning formula. I can mentally chastise myself for not being “good enough” but that’s not how other people saw it.

Here was our exchange:

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 9.03.15 PM

In my eyes, this video was a fun little side project. Took me about an hour to make. I was curious to see whether combining two popular concepts (Apple + Obama) would result in a viral video (it didn’t). Then I shared it with Ramit, just to show him what I was working on. Notice I mentioned it was only “1-minute” (it wasn’t a big time sink for him to check it out), and that I wasn’t doing it to impress him or anything — I did it because I wanted to. That showed I had my own interests, I was working on my skills in my free time. And even though I personally didn’t consider this project impressive or original, I was still proud enough to share it. And that was enough to impress a person who was on the fence for hiring me.

The big takeaway here is that you need to SHOWCASE your skills. You don’t think your work is good enough? Fine, prove it. SHOW US, and we’ll decide. Create great work that people can see and share — something that can instantly reveal your level of skill — then put it on your online showcase, and let them judge. Stop trying to talk people out of the sale (“See the thing is, I’m not sure if I’m good enough…”); give yourself a shot and put your work out there. If no one thinks it’s any good, fine! Go back and keep working. Get better. Ask for an expert’s feedback on what you should do next time. Shadow somebody for a few hours, or watch Youtube tutorials.

Again, I didn’t think that my work was particularly great, but it was “good enough” to get Ramit to fly me out to San Francisco to make these videos, where I got to direct him throwing coffee in Noah Kagan’s face and have him pretend to stalk Suze Orman:

And those videos convinced Tucker Max that I was “good enough” to be one of two videographers on his movie tour, where we got to travel around the country for a month messing with people:

Which lead to Tim Ferriss thinking I was “good enough” to give a Canon 60D for Christmas one year, so I could be his on-call photographer and videographer:

And all these experiences with video inevitably lead to me being “good enough” to direct and co-edit a 6-disc video course called App Empire, which earned $2.6 million in less than two weeks.

That lead to me being a videographer for SXSW Eco, and blah blah blah…

Of course, I’m skipping a TON of other stuff — including projects I kinda screwed up or didn’t do a great job on. But you get the point, hopefully.

You can only experience the upside if you put yourself out there. And people can only determine if you’re “good enough” to be hired if you can show them your skill level. So show them.

I still don’t consider myself to be a great videographer, after all these years. That’s because I only compare myself to people who are AMAZING, like Jefe Greenheart or Charles Phillips or Michael Gebben or Lyn Graft or Adam Patch. Compared to those guys, I’m a beginner. But an employer wouldn’t compare me to them. He’d just watch some of my past work and think, “Oh, this guy is pretty good and he’s got experience. He can give us what we’re trying to make.”

Realize that you’re probably unknowingly comparing yourself to giants. No matter how tall you get, you’re still going to feel like you’ve got so far to go. I do the same thing with my writing and marketing — I still compare myself to friends and mentors who have sold millions of copies of their books, or make tons of money doing consulting. I’ve sold a few thousand copies and advised really smart people and great companies, which to the average person is AMAZING. But because I compare myself to some of the best in the industry, I feel like it’s not quite enough. But it’s more than enough, really.

I didn’t go to film school. I don’t have a degree saying “You’re this skilled!” I just hustled and kept sharing my work so other people could decide whether it was good enough for them. You should do the same thing.

One more thing: employers only really care about your ability to RELIABLY deliver some transformation they want…

  1. Make me more money
  2. Make me look good
  3. Reduce my stress
  4. Save my time

Can you do one of those things? Great. Emphasize the hell out of it, and give them the result they’re looking for. The skill is largely incidental.