How not to work for free

When aspiring freelance writers ask me for advice about how to get started, here’s what I always start out with:

Don’t do anything that other people are willing to do for free.

So if you love writing about politics, or the foibles of your pet cat, or how lousy Saturday Night Life has become, don’t expect to make a lot of money at it right away. Many people — some of them much, much better writers than you — are already covering those topics

The same advice — don’t compete against freebies — applies to virtual worlds as well.

Next month, the website OS Avatars promises to start offering free  downloads of avatar hair, shapes, and clothing. OpenSim Worlds already lets you download full OAR region backups — for free.

Hypergrid inventor, UC Irvine professor and OpenSim core developer Crista Lopes offers a giant OpenSim inventory backup, also known as an IAR file, that has been downloaded more than 2,100 times. For free. She’s best known for her Diva Distro distribution of OpenSim, which, by the way, is also free.

ReactionGrid and JokaydiaGrid have nice freebie stores full of business-friendly and education-friendly avatars and outfits. Folks looking for more… risque… content can find freebie stores on pretty much any other social grid.

Freebie store on the Scooter region of JokaydiaGrid.

As OpenSim continues to grow, the possibilities for distributing free content will multiply. Entire regions and inventory archives are just the beginning. Expect to see entire grids packaged up and distributed.  Say, for example, if you’re a teacher who builds a multi-region simulation of a Moon surface and permanent habitat — complete with astronaut avatars, clothing, lunar rovers and interactive experiments — you can package the whole thing up, slap a Creative Commons license on it, and let any other teacher who wants it get a copy. In fact, there’s probably someone out there putting one on a USB stick right now.

Which reminds me — you can get a free Sim-on-a-Stick version of OpenSim here.

So what do you do if you’re in the business of renting land when people can run their own land for free? What do you do if you want to sell clothing or hair — and free options proliferate all around you?

Land: You get what you pay for

The more services you offer that your customers aren’t likely to want to do for themselves, the more you can charge for the land rental.

Sure, they can download the OpenSim software and run their own regions, and there are people who would find it fun.

And that assumes that they  have enough hardware and bandwidth to support the use they plan to put their regions to.

But there are plenty of jobs that few people would not want to do if they had a choice.

  • Getting up in the middle of the night to reboot a server is no fun. If you’ve got other people visiting your region when you’re not around, and your cat turns off your computer, your region goes down. It’s worth it to pay someone money to take care of this job for you.
  • Figuring out if an upgrade has features you need — or if it has bugs that are going to cause you trouble — is extremely time-consuming. New versions of OpenSim seem to come out daily. Few people are going to want to spend time testing new releases as they come out, and then migrating the database to the new versions of the software if the updates are worth it.
  • Training users can be a chore. Renting a region on a grid like ReactionGrid or JokaydiaGrid that offers training and support can help reduce the burden.

Make it better than free

Writers and photographers struggle with this issue every day. There are amateurs out there who are more than happy to produce endless amounts of work for nothing more than simple recognition, a pat on the back, or seeing their names in print. And then there are academics who need to be published, stay-at-home spouses just trying to keep busy, and marketers and consultants distributing free content in order to promote their companies.

Virtual world content creation is no different.

Students, educators and activists are making stuff and giving it away. Hobbyists and amateurs. Even professional content designers are giving away their out-of-season goods, or giving away promotional items.

Making money in this environment requires that your commercial products be better than the free alternatives. Better designed, better programmed, better packaged, better marketed, better distributed, and with better support and customer service.

You don’t deserve to be paid

You don’t deserve to be paid simply because you spend a lot of time and effort on something.

I watch a lot of TV, read books, do Sudoku puzzles and I don’t get paid for any of it. I don’t get paid for writing this blog. (However, I am very grateful to our advertisers, who cover our hosting fees and allow us to pay some of our freelance writers.)

I do it because I get other things out of it — enjoyment, education, relaxation, inspiration, personal satisfaction. And I do Sudokus because they help me fall asleep almost instantly. I write this blog because I enjoy it, because I learn a lot, because I love meeting folks who are building the future, and I also get ideas for my day job, as a paid technology journalist. More and more of the publications I regularly write for are now running articles about virtual worlds and OpenSim. And I also enjoy it very much when people write me emails thanking me for my work. That’s very satisfying.

If I no longer got anything out of it, I would stop doing. As long as I’m doing it, there’s something in it for me.

The same goes for all the folks who are offering free virtual content. They’re getting something out of it. They enjoy it. That enjoyment is enough to cover the cost of their time and effort.

Sure, some people get paid to do what they enjoy. I enjoy the technology writing I do during the day, and I get paid for it. I used to be a foreign correspondent, and I liked that very much as well.

I also do things that I don’t like. I don’t like cleaning the bathroom. I don’t like grocery shopping. I don’t like doing my taxes. I don’t get paid for any of these things. I do get paid for doing other things I don’t like, however. For example, I once had a job answering calls for an insurance company. That was a very, painful, unpleasant job, but I did because I needed the money. My worst job ever was dressing up as a giant bear at my college bookstore. The bear suit was hot and sweaty and smelly and heavy. (Clearly, I would never make it as a furry.)

The point is that whether or not you enjoy something and whether or not you get to get paid for it are not necessarily related. It’s nice when they are, but you can’t count it.

And you don’t deserve to be paid for something just because you were paid for it yesterday. Things change. Your customers might no longer need your products. Or something better may have come along.

You get paid when someone wants your stuff or your services more than they want to keep their money. That’s the basic premise of our capitalistic system and I, for one, am a big fan of that part of it.

If you start telling your customers that you deserve to get paid for your work, even when they don’t want to pay you for it, you’ll just alienate them. Find out what they want to pay for, and give them that, instead.

Free clothing for OpenSim. (Image courtesy OS Avatars.)

Dead-end fields

If you’re in the business of making commodity goods or offering commodity services, maybe its time to start rethinking your business model.

Commodity land rental: If you’re simply renting large blocks of land from a vendor — like Second Life, or one of the OpenSim grids — subdividing it, and renting out smaller patches of it, you could be wiped out overnight at any moment. Your hosting provider might decide to bypass you and start offering smaller parcels themselves, or eliminate setup fees. After all, why should they let you keep the markup that comes with subdividing? Or prices could drop to the point where your customers might as well just get a full region as part of one.

There’s only so long that prices for technology can stay artificially high.


  • Offer value-added services. Rent out finished houses and office buildings instead of bare land. Provide custom design and building services. Offer in-world support, communities, activities, games, dating, clubs, shopping, sports, or roleplaying.
  • Become vertically integrated. Run your own grid — it doesn’t take technical skill these days. For example, PioneerX Estates specializes in setting up “white label” grids for people. But, again, expect to offer a bit more than bare land. Folks can get that anywhere, starting at $10 a month.

Commodity goods: If your product line is popular and useful, but hasn’t changed much over time, it’s in danger of becoming a commodity. And that means that some selfless person out there will reverse-engineer your product and release it for free into the world just to be nice, or for personal satisfaction, or for any of a million other reasons.

It’s going to happen. Everything, everywhere, eventually turns into a commodity. Drugs go off patent. Books come out of copyright. Designers knock offs come out almost as soon as the fashions hit the runways.

In the real world, of course, there’s a limit to how far prices will fall — that limit is the cost of the underlying physical materials. After all, if a product was distributed in quantity below that cost, then someone would buy it all up for the raw materials. In a virtual world, though, that bottom limit is zero. There is no material cost to prims. You can’t take a virtual car apart and sell it for virtual scrap metal.


  • Innovate. Fashion designers, Apple, and celebrity chefs stay ahead of the commodity curve by inventing, creating, and innovating. Of course, saying it is easier than doing it.
  • Branding. I can’t taste the difference between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi or diet generic soda. But I’ll only buy Diet Coke. I love Diet Coke. I crave Diet Coke. When I buy anything else, it doesn’t taste right. But when I get it in a restaurant, and don’t know what brand it is, it all tastes fine. Plenty of people are like me and pay extra for the brand name label.
  • Raise prices. If I was a guy buying a diamond engagement ring, I’d want a nice expensive one — even if there was a cheap man-made diamond that was absolutely indistinguishable from the natural one. The high price is a symbol of value. If I’m walking the red carpet at a movie premiere, I’d feel different with $50,000 worth of diamond necklace on my chest than with a $50 imitation — even if nobody but an appraiser could tell the difference. Owning a $500 pair of Jimmy Choos means something. Even medicines work better when they cost more — even if it’s the same exact drug.
  • Lower prices. Yes, there might be a free version of the same product somewhere else, but if it takes too much effort to find it, your customers might as well just pay a little to buy it from you.
  • Own your distribution network. If you have the most popular chain of stores — or own your own popular closed grid — you can pretty much set your own prices.
  • Improve the packaging. There are plenty of people — including me — who will pay extra for a product that’s packaged in an appealing way. There are a lot of badly packaged products in Second Life and OpenSim — plenty of room for improvement here. And if your strategy is to sell your commodity product by increasing its price, then nicer packaging should be at the top of your to-do list.
  • Advertise. That’s how Diet Coke got to me. The ads speak to me.
  • Mark it as “on sale.” There are people who will buy anything when it’s on sale. I am one of those people.
  • Bundle. Sell convenient collections of commodity products, or include them as incentives for other sales.
  • Give up and just give them away. Use them as promos, freebies, prizes, incentives or lures to get people in to look at your other products.
Maria Korolov