Book Review:

Recession-Proof Graduate by Charlie Hoehn is a good book to read right after graduation—although, the author argues that college isn’t that good of an investment in the first place in one section of the book.

Basically, this is Charlie Hoehn’s blueprint for getting a job. He starts out by explaining why the traditional way of looking for a job is virtually futile and gives you the alternative, which is free work. He made a really good case for why free work is a good way to get your foot in the door and then went on to detail how you should do it—he even revealed his own email template for contacting companies.

Book Summary:

The following summary of Recession-Proof Graduate by Charlie Hoehn is meant to be concise, reminding me of high-level concepts and not trying to recreate the whole book. This summary is basically a bunch of notes and lessons paraphrased or quoted directly from the book and does not contain my own thoughts.

• The economy is NOT preventing you from creating your dream career. What’s actually holding you back are conventional job-hunting methods.

• To be a Recession-Proof Graduate means:

  • The economy won’t dictate what kind of job you think you can have.
  • You aren’t forced into soul-sucking work that causes you to hate your life in your early 20’s.
  • You can work with people who are a lot smarter than you and actually continue learning and growing.
  • You can work on projects that you truly care about.
  • You’ll have greater control over what type of lifestyle you ultimately want to create for yourself.

• Most people considering grad school would be far better off reading books, then practicing all the things they learn.

• There are good jobs. In fact, there will always be good jobs. You’re just looking in the wrong places.

• Career BuilderMonster, and Craigslist are the sites most graduates use to search for jobs. And, what a shock, none of the job listings sound very appealing. That’s because these three sites are where mediocrity thrives. Anyone who expects amazing career opportunities from these websites is an idiot (admittedly, I was one of these idiots for a few weeks).

• Not only are you battling against all the other college grads whose “skills” and “experience” are virtually identical to yours, but you’re also competing against older people who are willing to take a cut in pay and have 10+ years of experience.

• In terms of rapidly advancing your career and doing work that you actually care about, there is one option that stands above the rest. That option is… FREE WORK.

• An internship is usually just a menial job without pay. You have to apply for an internship, the same way you apply for a job. You send in your resume, do an in-person interview, and if you beat all the other applicants, you’re given low-level work from 9:00a-5:00p. Also, there are no guarantees for a fulltime position after the internship ends. So all the mindnumbing work you do might not lead to anything.

• Free work allows you to work in whatever industry you want, on any projects you’re interested in. But unlike an internship, there are no dead ends.

• While free work is great, and can quickly advance your career, there’s another component to this equation. In the beginning, your free work should be done virtually (a.k.a. remotely), so you can work with people who live in other parts of the country/world. This removes nearly all of the perceived risks for the potential employer.

• Employers worry about wasting their time and money whenever they hire someone. With free work, you obviously remove the risk of money, but with virtual free work, you remove the risk of wasting their time. If you’re not in the same office as them, they don’t have to spend a lot of time training and managing you – they don’t really even have to think about you. And if you actually do quality work and stick with them long enough, they’ll want to continue working with you (and, eventually, hire you).

• There’s something extremely remarkable about a person who can consistently and quickly complete projects on their own, when they’re in another state/country, without the looming pressure of a boss a few feet away. From a psychological standpoint, free work is extremely powerful. This is because the employer’s expectations are always going to be really low:

Unproven college grad + Working remotely + Zero pay = Really  low expectations

• The goal of free work is not so much to become friends with the person (although that can happen) but to build a healthy relationship and earn their trust. It’s really hard to do that if you’re asking them to put you on payroll right away.

• You can mitigate your risk by doing virtual free work for several clients, instead of just one or two. And trust me: you’ll want to work with a handful of clients. One of them may not work out, but most will pay off if you stick with them long enough. Plus, if you realize that one of the arrangements isn’t a good fit, you can walk away. No contracts broken, no money lost, and you’re right back where you started.

• Most people flare out after one task or a single week’s worth of free work. They lose interest, fail to see the long-term benefits of developing relationships, or they just feel safer applying for low-paying jobs.

• The goal of free work, though, is NOT to be making money immediately. At this point, you’re just trying to build a foundation that will justify you making a lot of money over the course of your entire career, all while crafting the lifestyle you desire. Understand that it can take time to build that foundation. Even if you aren’t making much money right away, you will eventually.

• For some reason, we delude ourselves into thinking we must first go through a year or two of working in a job we hate before we can magically catapult ourselves into the work that we really want to do… someday. But that’s not how life works. Someday never comes because you didn’t start with the work itself; you started with money. Instead of fulfilling your fantasy of transitioning to the work you want to do, you find yourself buying more and more things, paying bigger bills, and trying to keep up with your social circle. Over time, your purchases and financial obligations look more and more like a cage that you’ve trapped yourself in. Then one day, you’re afraid of leaving that cage behind. So you decide to keep doing the work you hate, just so you can keep paying the bills and making your cage better.

• There are many benefits to free work that make it worth temporarily passing up a paycheck. You get access to unbelievable opportunities, you can work with people who are far above your level, you’re challenged with incredible learning experiences, and you discover the work that’s meaningful and intrinsically rewarding. Most importantly, free work forces you to be honest about how much you actually enjoy the work. Is it fun and fulfilling, or not?

• You might be shocked to discover: I’ve met several millionaires, and one billionaire, who openly admit that they do free work on a regular basis. They occasionally work for free, because it leads to hugely lucrative deals, or they just want to do it. And amazingly, these people still manage to keep their self-respect.

• Free work is just a tactic for you to get your foot in the door. Neither you or the employer wants to commit to a formal arrangement yet – you both want to get a feel for what this could be like if you upgraded. If the free trial period is excellent, your employer will conclude that paying you is worth it.

• Never propose a free work arrangement that you’re not willing to commit to and see through to completion.

• Guess what happens when you invest, rather than spend? In a few years, the returns are compounded, and you become wealthier. Free work is an investment in you. You are working toward becoming a professional who creates value and offers new channels for people to funnel money into. And as more people decide to invest in themselves, our world changes.

• Entrepreneurs, artists, inventors, and makers are the ones who create value in our economy. They enrich everyone else’s lives by opening up new jobs and businesses that solve our problems and make the world a better place to live. Free work allows us to maximize the results of our most successful creators, while directly passing along their skills and wisdom to the next generation of workers.

• When you design your own free work program, with specific goals on what you intend to gain from the experience, you’ll walk away from the arrangement happy.

• Some people have bad experiences doing free work. They’re never handed the reins on fulfilling projects, or (in rare instances) they’re completely taken for a ride and left with no quality experiences, skills, or contacts to show for all their hard work. That’s why I recommend doing free work for more than one person.

• Never put all of your eggs in one basket, especially when your career is just starting out. You need to mitigate against the risk of one of your choices for free work not panning out. Mistakes will be made along the way, so plan for them and quickly move on whenever they arise.

• There is no right way when it comes to your career; there is only what’s right for you. You might not make much money initially, but you should always be striving to live life on your terms.

• One of the main reasons young people have it hard is because we were all encouraged to pursue the exact same credentials within the exact same system. We are all replaceable, and very few graduates have developed the true competitive advantages that employers look for when hiring (such as relevant experience, in-demand skills, and intrinsic motivation).

Step 0. Stop Acting Entitled

• Most graduates assume they deserve a big paycheck simply because they have a college degree. They feel as though they are worthy of a great, high-paying job the second they throw their graduation cap into the air. Perhaps it’s because we’re used to getting trophies just for showing up. Or maybe it’s because we spent a lot of time and money working toward a degree, with the implied promise of a “better future.”

• We are not all winners, and we don’t deserve to be treated as such simply for existing. Great careers and big paychecks require work. They won’t be handed to you.

Step 1. Pick a few Industries that Interest You

• A lot of us get out of college and realize that we majored in something we don’t really care about. Because we’ve been labeled with that major, we feel pigeonholed. That doesn’t have to be how it works, though.

• You can sidestep your way into almost any industry if you meet the right people and work with them. And at this stage of your career, you should be open to experimentation.

• Be willing to check out a few industries, just to see what they’re actually like. Who cares whether you majored in those fields or not – you’re not committing to anything at this point. You’re just testing to see whether the work is actually fun and fulfilling for you.

• The bigger challenge is figuring out what kind of lifestyle you ultimately want to create (Active? Creative? Social?), in addition to what fields you are genuinely interested in. Those two areas should overlap because you’re probably going to be miserable if they don’t.

• If you need a steady paycheck and structure in your workday, then you shouldn’t be a freelancer or entrepreneur.

• Stay true to yourself, and be mercilessly honest about what you really want. If you know the career path you’re walking on will eventually squelch your interests, your desired lifestyle, or your ability to have fun… then create a better path for yourself. You only get one life, and you are far too young to succumb to misery.

Step 2. Develop In-Demand Skills

• You need to have actual skills that are both in high demand (in your desired industry) and difficult to learn. You’ll be extremely valuable if your skill is both scarce and in high demand.

• You don’t have to be an expert in one particular area – you just have to get really good at a few things.

• Think in terms of what skills your desired industry values, and then start your learning.

Step 3. Build up Your Online Showcase

• If you’re just going to wait around until someone tells you to start working, then good luck! You’re going to be waiting for a long time. You can either pray for great work opportunities to fall in your lap, or you can go out and create them. It’s your choice, and it always has been. You can start practicing the work you want to do, right now… or not. You can train yourself in any field that interests you… or not.

• I know countless people who are renowned experts in their fields. They don’t have any formal credentials or degrees; they just started teaching themselves, practiced their craft, and shared what they were learning online. Over time, they gradually built up a fan base that loved their work. A segment of their audience was willing to pay for their products and services. Opportunities to make money grew, and they started turning a portion of those fans into paying customers.

• You have to give yourself permission to get started, to have the courage to put yourself out there and share what you’re working on. Having an online showcase is absolutely essential to your career success. It can also be critical to your survival in the modern world, because of this simple fact: You will be Googled.

• There are a lot of ways to control your personal search results, but my favorite method is blogging. You can use a blog to write about what you’re learning, or jot down your ideas, or post travel pictures, or share videos showing off the latest project you’re working on. There are no rules to what you can put on your blog.

• If you decide not to have a blog, you still need to have an online showcase where you can share what you’re working on. Whatever platform you decide on should be:

  • Enjoyable and relatively painless for you to use;
  • A social network where like-minded professionals and clients can discover and share your work;
  • Appropriate for your chosen field.

• Your online content establishes trust and authority before employers and clients ever talk to you. In other words, it’s the pre-interview that helps them decide whether you’re worth hiring.

• If you want to use your blog to get employers interested in you, I suggest you write about things that they’ll find valuable and relevant. You can write about your past work experiences, things you’re learning about, current projects you’re working on, etc. Just be honest and don’t over-inflate your accomplishments.

• It’s not important to post new content every day, or even every week; you just need to make building up your online showcase a regular part of your routine while you’re searching for work.

Step 4. Pay the Bills, Cut Costs

• For people who want to pursue the free work route, I recommend working a day job to pay the bills or finding ways to make a lot of money in sporadic bursts. At the end of the day, you just need to find some means of making enough cash to cover your expenses.

• Even if you have a boring day job, you can earn extra income on the side by using your skills and resources.

• If you decide to pursue the freelancing route right out of college, then you better brace yourself because it’s not easy. You have to cut down on nearly all of your immaterial costs because there might be weeks, or sometimes months, where you won’t make much money at all. Big clients will unexpectedly bail on you or decide they don’t need your help anymore. That can be devastating if you don’t have a bunch of other clients lined up. You will have to hustle, make phone calls, and sell people on your services. In
other words, you’ll need to work hard to stay afloat.

Step 5. Pick Your Partner

• Choosing the right person to do free work for is arguably the most important step in this whole process. They must be someone you’d like to learn from and emulate, someone who’s doing awesome work that you want to be a part of.

• Here are some questions you should ask while deciding on your ideal partner:

  • Does this person have a history of quality work and meaningful pursuits that resonates with my values?
  • Would working with this person help me grow into a better version of myself?
  • Will my association with this person have a positive impact on my reputation?
  • Would this person give me access to priceless experiences and amazing people that are currently out of my reach?
  • Does this person have the financial resources to compensate me fairly if/when we transition to a paid working arrangement?

• The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you want to aim high. Find people who are seemingly unreachable to a recent college graduate, and go after them.

• You’ll have a higher success rate if you approach the “high-hanging fruit” that no other graduates are going after. Less competition means a better chance of you getting work.

• A person taking the free work route should try to work for a successful entrepreneur who is still on the upswing. There are many reasons for this:

  • Entrepreneurs tend to move at a breakneck pace compared to the corporate world. They are not interested in pushing papers; they want to get things done fast and make change happen. They have very clear priorities (validate, sell, grow). You want to be around successful entrepreneurs as much as you can because you will begin to absorb their business savvy, optimistic attitude, and strong work ethic.
  • There are a lot of entrepreneurs but only a small percentage of them are successful. When you work with an entrepreneur who has already achieved success and now has their sights set even higher, you’ll have a much better chance at being involved in a future success of theirs.

• Everyone I did free work for was 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 researched them extensively to figure out what problems they were facing. Then I came up with ways that I might be able to help them, so they’d want to teach me how they started and ran their business.

• Where does one find successful entrepreneurs? Think about the products and services that you love and use regularly. Think about all the companies that you buy from repeatedly throughout the year. Entrepreneurs created those businesses. You can do research on them and figure out which ones might be easy to approach and receptive to the idea of free work.

• If you’re having trouble finding successful entrepreneurs, just look on Amazon. Click on some of the bestsellers in different product categories, and you’ll see a bunch of great products being sold by companies you’ve never heard of. Entrepreneurs built every single one of those companies. Or check out AngelList where you can take a peek at some of the hottest tech startups in the world.

• Another great place to find up-and-coming entrepreneurs is on Kickstarter. Kickstarter projects that receive over $100K in funding — or get 200%+ funding — clearly have proven demand. The people who are running these projects are onto something big, and they are likely freaking out about having to fill all those orders. 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 intelligent, ethical, and appear to know what they’re doing, then you can contact them and offer to help.

• Before you reach out, you need to do a ton of research on them. I’ll often spend several hours researching a target before I start writing my proposal, just so I can be absolutely certain that our values are aligned and a work arrangement will be harmonious. This is why I tend to choose partners who have an extensive online presence. I can discover so much about their needs just by poring over their Google results.

Ask yourself these questions while researching your ideal partner(s):

  • What are their primary sources of revenue, and how can we leverage them without damaging their brand?
  • What areas of their business are the strongest? How could we enhance those strengths and improve their results with my skill set?
  • What areas of their business appear to be weak, or sources of stress? How can we use my skills to reduce or fix those problems?
  • What challenges are they facing over the next 6-12 months? How can I help them implement practical solutions to overcome those challenges?
  • What are their competitors doing that they are not?
  • What are three products we could make and sell to their customers without damaging their brand?
Step 6. Pitch Free Work

• The way to contact your target is to simply email them. Here’s a sample pitch:

SUBJECT: I want to work for you, for free

Hi [NAME],

I’m a long-time fan of your work, and I really believe in [DESCRIBE THEIR MISSION]. I have some ideas about how we can further that and make it even easier for you to [INCREASE REVENUE, ETC]. Your work is important, and I believe I can help you get to the next level.

Here’s my idea: I would love to [PROJECT YOU CAN COMPLETE REMOTELY], which will ultimately help you [INCREASE SALES / REDUCE COSTS / MAKE CUSTOMERS HAPPIER]. I am an expert in [YOUR IN-DEMAND SKILL SET]. I’ve worked with [CLIENTS OR COMPANIES YOU’VE HELPED] and helped them achieve [RESULTS]. Here is a sample of the quality you can expect from me: [LINK TO YOUR ONLINE SHOWCASE, OR SAMPLE OF YOUR WORK]

I don’t normally discount my rates, but I’m willing to do this project for free. I’ll send you a few brief updates on my progress for the next two weeks. If you don’t like my work, you can scrap it and move on (no money lost, and no hard feelings from me). But if you do like my work, I’d love to discuss a few more ideas for helping you with your business, and the potential of a more formal work arrangement.

Would a discussion on how to help you [ADVANCE YOUR MISSION] be of interest? If so, let’s set up a call. Does next Tuesday @ 1:30p or 3:00p EST work for you? I can be reached at [PHONE #].

• Whatever project you propose should directly benefit the person you’re emailing, and conveniently require your skill set. Explicitly lay out how your proposal will improve their efforts, and why they need your help.

• Make sure to pitch projects that are valuable in their terms. Don’t just say “Hey there, I’ve got these skills, you should pay me for them!” Instead, ask yourself: “How can I frame my services in a way that will be super valuable for this person?” Very few job seekers take the time to actually put themselves in the shoes of prospective employers.

• If they don’t respond, don’t worry. They’re probably very busy and buried in emails, or they might just be wary of your offer. Follow up every 4-7 days with this:

Hi [NAME],

Just a quick follow up on my previous email…

Would a conversation on how to help [ADVANCE YOUR MISSION] be of interest?

If they’re still not responding after a few of these follow-ups, either call them or move on to pitching another prospect with your ideas. There are plenty of great entrepreneurs and businesses out there that could use your help. Don’t get too upset if one of them isn’t interested.

Step 7. Transition to Paid Work

• Before you set up a long-term deal, you ought to set a tentative deadline for when the “free work” transitions to “paid work.” If six weeks is your limit, say that you’d like to either transition to paid work by then, or ask them to help you move toward more challenging and lucrative opportunities by referring you to people in their network.

• It helps to set these expectations after you’ve done enough great work to gain the person’s trust and approval. Otherwise, you’ll condition them to expect free work indefinitely.

• Be appreciative at the opportunity they’re affording you, but make it clear that you’re also in a financially tight spot. Let them know that, at some point, you’ll need to switch to some form of reimbursement for your hard work.

Here’s what you can say:

Hi [NAME],

We’ve been working together for [NUMBER OF WEEKS] now, and I’m thrilled with everything we’ve accomplished. Since we first started, we’ve [RESULTS YOU’VE DRIVEN, IMPACT YOU’VE MADE]. The whole experience has been invaluable to me, and I really appreciate you giving me a fair shot.

My free trial run is coming to an end, but I would love to keep working together. Going forward, I’ll continue working on projects that will move you toward your goals and bring your business to the next level. In fact, the next project I’d love to tackle is [ANOTHER IDEA THAT WILL BE VALUABLE]. The only change, of course, is that I would be charging for my services from this point forward.

Are you still interested in working together on a paid basis? Please let me know what you think. Either way, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity, and I wish you all the best in the future.

• Assuming you’ve done a great job so far, they will want to keep you around. You’ve proven the value of your work, they trust you, and they know it will be a hassle finding and training someone else who can fill your role (after all, great help is hard to find). Either way, you can add the work experience and their testimonial to your online showcase.

• People won’t take advantage of you unless you let them. Be assertive and don’t get into a long-term deal with someone unless you’re both comfortable with the agreement. If you’re reliable and do good work, they’ll have more to lose by not paying you then you will by working for free.

• Free work is a great way to launch your career and move into the job of your dreams. However, there are a number of scenarios where you’ll want to avoid doing free work completely:

  • They suggest you work for free: Free work is your proposition, not theirs. Your client can give you projects to work on, but if they’re the ones insisting on not paying you, you should probably switch to someone who’s not a freeloader.
  • They say it’s “great exposure.”: Unless they’re going to repeatedly put your name and work in front of hundreds or thousands of dream clients, “great exposure” pretty much never pans out to anything.
  • They aggressively try to sell you on this “amazing opportunity.”: Desperate people are desperate for a reason. They view you as their only option. And if you’re a total beginner and they’re trying extremely hard to seduce you, you should run for the hills.
  • You’re fairly certain you will gain nothing positive from the arrangement: The purpose of free work is growth, learning, gaining experience, and building relationships with awesome people. If the opportunity doesn’t offer any of those things, then you should either not do it at all, or you should be getting well compensated for your time and effort.
  • You strongly suspect your client will never be able to pay you.
  • Your client says they’d rather pay you “a little money” than have you work for free: Sometimes your client will try to change your free work offer to a low paid arrangement, and this might make them mentally associate your work as “cheap.” Politely tell them that you’d hoped to demonstrate your value first, just to see if this could be a good fit for a longterm arrangement. If they’re unwilling to compensate you later on for the value you’re creating for their business (opting for cheap instead), then just go your separate ways. People who try to get you to sell yourself at a low price aren’t worth your time.
  • You suspect the work is going to be a nightmare: If your gut is telling you that this arrangement is going to be a major pain (e.g. the client is a jerk, the work completely drains you of energy), you need to gracefully make your exit as swiftly as possible. And if you’ve already made a long-term commitment, or you’re halfway through a major project, DO NOT CUT AND RUN. This is a horrible thing to do to the other person. Instead, take a few days to create your exit strategy. Lay out all the things they currently rely on you to do, and figure out the exact steps they’ll need to take in order to replace you in the least amount of time.