19 Things I Learned Giving Away 1.9 Years of My Life for Free

And wasting 19 hours of our founder

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Out of a core team of 30, I’m the only one to work for zero penny, even being the Chief Operating Officer now.

What’s fascinating about that is, I don’t feel it a pain.

When you do something for free, you do it for learning. But the opposite is true when you get paid for it: you become an employee — you do it for the paycheck.

Being an employee is always painful, right? You are blamed for a small fault and your credit is taken away when you do something good.

I never wanted to get that employee mindset or treated that way. I wanted to develop my leadership qualities and abilities and be free while doing so. And by free, I mean free to do everything.

I learned a few lessons doing that. Most of them were while communicating.

1. Take the Leap, Just Start, Lie (Only if Needed).

1.9 years back, when I started the conversation with the CEO and founder of our company, I lied (not actually lied, but I was overconfident about everything): I didn’t know anything about anything, yet I told I know everything about everything. I was just 15 back then.

For some reason, I had to do that. Turned out, I was blindfolded by the app’s core ideology: we teach programming in a fun way. I loved the value it provided to me so much so that I wanted to do something in return — the app was just 1.5 months old when I joined.

As a starter, I got a UI designing task for the home page. I was happy I got to do something but I didn’t know anything. I proudly told him: “I’ll be back with something in next 2 days.”

I despise 'Fake it till you make it' but I sure as hell believe in 'Try and you will make it.’ That’s what I did. I skipped my school homework, sat in front of YouTube the whole day watching UI designing tutorials. I finally shared a prototype on the 3rd day and it was just that — bad. But guess what? I was in.

What does this mean for you?

Starting before you know anything is very crucial. If you never start when you know nothing, how can you learn something?

Starting before you know anything teaches you a lot of things:

  1. You understand whether that is what you want to do forever.
  2. You get a little closer to your dreams and are a step ahead of everyone.
  3. You understand that you have got a lot to learn.

Just leap. Lie (if needed for a good cause.)

2. Be the Dumbest Person in the Room to Then Be Smarter.

I was only in touch with one person, the CEO and founder. I used to ask him a lot of questions. The conversations we had were too bad, from my side. I cringe when I see my messages now. I was dumb at the time. Unnecessary details, useless questions, unhelpful thoughts — I have done and shared it all. However, those dumb conversation made me turn into gold now. I was dumb therefore I was open for learning. I learned a lot. I improved a lot.

What does this mean for you?

Be the smartest in your head but be the dumbest in the room. You learn a lot that way. After all, who cares? And, you have got nothing to lose anyway.

3. Lead the Leader Because Nobody Else Is.

Being dumb made me become the leader’s leader. I used to guide him (no, not give feedback) with everything he did. Starting from his personal YouTube channel to blog writing to even time management (I now know he was a master at time management from the past 5 years). This helped me form a closer connection with him (because nobody else was even trying to help him improve at anything because they thought he was perfect) at the same time it improved myself too — I started becoming a better leader (I even got a few 'ok boss’ response from him) and a good human being.

I once even ended up saying him — really:

What does this mean for you?

Be dumb enough to question the leader and you’ll soon get his traits. Either he takes your advice, which means you have got something valuable or he explains to you why your advice won’t be helpful at the moment and you learn a lot that way.

4. Write in a Dumb Way to Improve Your Vocabulary.

I used to write this way: “This will be helpful (useful) for you.” “I am not happy (satisfied) with your response.” “You will be free/out of any worries/out of tension when you get this done.” because I was insecure about the exact use case as I am a non-native. This not only improved my vocabulary but also made me a better communicator, and writer now.

What does this mean for you?

Just be dumb. Use brackets or slashes to use another word while chatting and slowly improve your vocabulary and become a good communicator. Who cares anyway, right?

5. Keep Adding Value to Turn Invaluable.

I was active on our communication channel, Discord, 24 hours straight. I mean, I have turned the active button ON, never turned off my phone for a second and even restarting the wifi for 2 minutes was very scary.

I wanted to express our CEO that I care, show him that I am sincere, that I am always there. I sleep for 6 hours and I have school for 7 hours. The rest of the time I was actively active on Discord. Yes, I even took my mobile in the bathroom.

My agenda was: I have to reply to every question or query I get within 30 seconds of getting it. Later on, when I got to talk with other people in the team, they even trolled me for this: they called me Internet Nerd.

My mom once beat me when she thought I bunked the class when she saw my status on Discord as active.

As a team member, we try to avoid doing mistakes and make things perfect. But here I was searching for every mistake, every issue, every fault in our app, our website, our CEO’s Facebook page, website page and even Tinder page to then talk with him and showcase that I am sincere and always working.

I even worked on a few tasks together to get a “You are good at multi-tasking. Keep it up.” as a reply.

What does this mean for you?

Provide value and keep working and when you don’t even take paycheck while doing that, you have got something special and you turn invaluable — because everyone else is working for the damn paycheck but you are not.

6. Answer a Lot of Questions to Get to the Managerial Team Quickly.

I was always insecure. I was always biased and overconfident. I would answer a lot of questions by our CEO, with as many details as possible and by detail, I mean even how many tissue paper we threw in the bin today, along with how many plies it had — really.

This helped me get to the managerial team of the volunteers quickly because he saw me knowledgeable and curious to learn and explore.

Being in the managerial team means you are the leader and the decision-maker and you get to learn a lot while making that decision. This then compounds and you get to get into the head of the core team, which for me, was marketing.

What does this mean for you?

Show you are productive. Take a lot of work. Work smart. Don’t just plan it. Execute them quick. Don’t ask questions. Answer a lot of question by others. Be biased but answer. So that you can show that you have some good knowledge and you can lead.

7. When You Can Talk About Others, the CEO Will Talk About You.

Sure I was always insecure but I wanted to lift others too. When I talk with the CEO about the good sides of others — I mean other volunteers who worked for free initially, he gives me feedback on why I am better and what I can improve. This is motivating at the same time helps you improve.

What does this mean for you?

Lift others and you’ll be lifted.

8. Snatch a Lot of Tasks to Know Where You Are Bad at.

I took away every task I could by the CEO, from the CEO. I directly said this to him: “How can I reduce your load and make your life easier?”

Leaders are always open to handle their tasks to others (especially when you are working for free and they have got nothing to lose because you are working for free) and work on more important things. Doing all sorts of tasks taught me the things I am good at and the things I hate doing.

What does this mean for you?

Say a lot of yes today so that you can know when to say no tomorrow.

9. Occasionally Ask Personal Questions to Realize They Too Are Human.

I always asked personal questions to our CEO occasionally. His reply made me realize that he too is a human. He needs someone to talk to, sometimes. I wanted to know his frustrations, his goals, his motives, his missions, his dreams.

I even indirectly tried to know about him:

  1. I praised him to then know he hates praising human.
  2. I wished him ‘Happy Birthday' to then know a birthday is just another day for him but he takes wish and thanks.
  3. I gave him feedback to know that he agrees he has a lot of scope of improvement.
  4. I tried involving him in my sudden billion-dollar startup idea I got in the shower to know his actual goals with his current startup.

What does this mean for you?

It’s so awesome to know your CEO and his goals. It’s easy in the beginning. It could be hard later on, but you can know it indirectly. It inspires you or educates you and it’s always worth it. Try asking personal but unoffending questions occasionally. See what you get to know or learn. It’s fun.

10. If You Don’t Get Any Response, Ask a Question.

Being insecure, I was offended to not get any response from team members. When they know I am just 15 and working for free, it’s easy to get ignored.

I found out a special trick. Just ask a question so that others HAVE To reply to you. Otherwise, they can easily ignore by saying there was nothing to reply to.

For example, “This is the reason this is bad.” could be turned to “This is the reason this is bad. What do you think?”

What does this mean for you?

It’s simple: if you want to get an answer, you have to ask questions. Otherwise, nobody cares.

11. Evaluate Your Thoughts by Telling It Out Loud.

I always thought I knew the most. That I knew everything. That I was brilliant.

Most of the time I expressed out my thoughts and feelings to the founder only to realize he agrees with me. I was sad at that time but now I realize that’s what we need to aim for — getting approval from others that you are right.

Now I always have a closing line after I suggest or say something. No, it should be an opening line because it opens the door for feedback: “I am curious to know your thoughts on this.”

What does this mean for you?

Be open for feedback and don’t get offended when someone agrees with you.

12. Act Tensed to Then Get a Lot of Free Advice.

When our downloads had a positive impact due to continuous replying on Quora, the CEO praised me and asked to keep writing.

I said: “I’ll try. My reading time is getting sacrificed for that. 😢”

He responded to me with: “Your writing skill is getting better. It’s a trade-off. 😉”

I proposed the query: “If I don’t know anything, what will I write? Books give me that knowledge which I can share. If I only don’t have that knowledge, what will I share?”

He went: “So far your wrote 5+ answers...how many of them are from books?”

“Actually, I am getting addicted to Quora and losing the interest to read books ...which isn’t good!” I answered.

He then recommended me to block writing on Quora for 4 hours like he does for 2 hours and use the help of an app like him if needed.

A lot of similar recommendation and advice I got just by showing that I am tensed through questions, like how to convey our thoughts properly? or I get bored by reading, what to do?

What does this mean for you?

Acting, and I mean acting of the real issue is always good.

13. If You Care, They’ll Make You Smarter.

The CEO was willing to spend $300 on me even when our monthly revenue was just $650, after around 40% tax. He helped me with my time management, productivity and communication — almost everything needed for a career just because I kept working and got them results.

What does this mean for you?

When you add value, you get free value.

14. Be Fearlessly Clever Sometimes to Get a “Loved Your Reply.”

Once, our CEO asked me: “Did you get any load/pressure from Programming Hero?”

I replied: “I got pleasure.”

What does this mean for you?

It’s cool to sometimes be cleaver. Being free gives you the freedom to be fearless.

15: Free Is Contagious: Even the CEO’s Wife Talks (and Cares) About You.

One day, the CEO knocks me: “I shared our conversation with my wife. I shared most of the daily work with her. She was curious about your study too. She was wondering whether this work is hurting your study.”

What does this mean for you?

Free is contagious, man.

16. Deliberately Break Rules to See Your Worth.

I used to break a lot of rules. One of them was getting our core team involved with an external work by another team member, a content writer. There was a stop at this because our CEO says it reduces the seriousness of our main mission. I intentionally broke the rule, but there was a trade-off I was thinking about: As our budget is low, the content writer for less than he expected, so I wanted to give him a one-time help on his personal, external project.

The CEO explained to me why it’s bad for the team in two lines and he was done. No scolding, no firing.

What does this mean for you?

You get to know the true colours of someone in a bad situation. When you aren’t in a bad situation, make one up. It’s fun to know the true colours.

17. When You Talk About Work, You Also Learn How to Be Polite.

Our CEO is always calm in any situation. He handles everything politely. While working for free, I got to chat a lot, especially about work which helped me get his traits — being polite and calm.

What does this mean for you?

When you work for free, you get to talk a lot without annoying or bothering anyone, because you are not wasting your office hours, and you can get the reply whenever the other person is free. You easily get the other person’s traits while chatting.

18. It’s a Great Honour When You Invite Him in Your Sister’s Wedding.

I invited the CEO to my cousin sister’s wedding when we both were in our hometown, Bangladesh. He replied to me: “Wow..that would be a great honour for me. Unfortunately, I have to say No for this time. My wife is herself in Dallas. Also, my everyday activities are affected significantly. If in any case, my plan changes or I stay longer...will make it. Thanks for the invitation.”

I never knew it’s an honour to being invited to a wedding (spock eyebrows.) All my friends and teachers just accept it with a thank you but never takes it as an honour.

What does this mean for you?

Invite your CEO to your wedding to give him great honour and see whether he cares.

19. When You Work for Free, Your Voice Matters.

When I say something, the team cares. When I speak, they listen. When I question, they answer. Because they should. As I am not biased or trying to reduce my work or mark a task done — because I am not working for the paycheck, for a long time now. Nobody even saw my face yet. I use the same avatar I used as Medium’s profile picture on Discord. But my voice, which denotes me and my personality is invaluable.

Take This Away

Working for free opens up everything for you. You are free to work as much as you want, free to do a lot of mistakes and learn what you want to actually keep doing forever. This then increases your confidence in your other parts of life.

You are free to experiment and break the rules because you have got nothing to lose anyway.

When you work for free, you are an asset. In a startup or a business, as a freshman, it’s harder to become invaluable. But when you don’t charge anything for your time, you are valuable. You can then easily get the experience and turn invaluable. It’s a tradeoff — you are free to do anything and you get to learn a lot of things for free.

But then again, it was easy for me to work for free as I was a student and didn’t have to work for money at that time.

Working for free means getting the freedom to be dumb on purpose, fearlessly.

My story might not matter but it'll gently touch your interior and remind you how smarter you are. Google forced to include numbers: shajedul.karim.01@gmail.com

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