“Screw the karma, give me cash!” Why free labour is the unfair fuel of the startup scene


The startup scene relies on free input and goodwill. But should we start to question this model? Yes, argues Berlin Startup Academy founder and regular (free) speaker Christoph Raethke. Here’s why…


In some ways, the Campus Party five-day conference two weeks ago was unique – the sheer scope, the number of attendees, the massive involvement of main sponsor Telefonica. In one way, however, Campus Party was like most, if not all, events and conferences in the startup scene. Content-wise, it relied on scores of people holding workshops and keynotes without being paid.

Unpaid involvement = a thriving scene, right?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per se – that’s how we roll, right? It’s what distinguishes the startup industry from others; we’re much more about our passions, we love sharing, we love mentoring and we’re certain that all our efforts will eventually pay back in the form of outreach, self-branding, serendipity, and – of course – good karma.

We’re so certain and proud of this that the issue of wanting to be paid for one’s involvement in value-generating conferences and programs is hardly ever talked about. After all, most community-organised meetups, mentoring sessions and conferences couldn’t take place if organisers had to pay speakers and mentors. What’s more, many professional, commercial enterprises couldn’t, either. First and foremost, that includes my own company, Berlin Startup Academy. Without the unpaid involvement of 50+ people, all of them specialists, serial founders, investors – in other words: people who could easily charge in excess of 1000 €/day for doing consulting – I couldn’t do this. Neither could any other accelerator program out there.


But we need to talk about limits

So there is no doubt that a general understanding about why it’s justified and even desirable to make ambitious events happen through volunteer work is positive and necessary. The question, however, is: are there limits to this? The fact that the startup scene takes for granted that in everybody should be willing to pit in unpaid work for a good cause – is that universally right? Is there a point when collaborative efforts for a good cause turn into a bad deal?

And can we even speak openly about this without being accused of narrow-mindedness, selfishness, cheapness and a severe lack of community spirit?

Why are speakers nearly always unpaid?

Take Campus Party. Arguably, during those five days in August, the large majority of speakers – many of them recruited from Berlin startups and organisations – were the only people on the Tempelhof premises who went unpaid (apart from the thousands of tent-dwelling attendees, of course). From the security staff at the entrance to the Wayra service personnel, from the food sellers to the cleaning women to the team of organisers, I assume everybody received a paycheck from Telefonica. Everybody but the people who came on stage and delivered the content that the event was about.

Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that this is necessarily unjust. My feeling is that everyone speaking at CP enjoyed the opportunity to tell their stories at such a grand event. I myself spoke at the Startup Weekend “hackathon” that had over 20 teams rally around ideas that they had to subsequently work on for 54 hours straight, and for me, it was worth every minute. I’m just stating the obvious here: of the (possibly seven-digit) budget spent on Campus Party, close to nothing ended up in speakers’ pockets.

instant karma

Good karma won’t pay expenses

Here’s another example. In October, a German university, located somewhat in the boondocks, holds a sweeping three-day entrepreneurship conference for over 1,500 first-semester students. The concept is wholly commendable: to introduce students to the opportunities of starting your own business early on, showcasing alternatives to studying just to eventually start a career at Deutsche Post or Volkswagen like your parents wanted you to.

Now – since this takes place in the provinces, the organisers rely on inviting entrepreneurs and experts from all over the Fatherland. And who wouldn’t want to be in on this? Teaching the young, trying to get them excited about entrepreneurship – it’s an honor to be part of it! Major good Karma beckons!

My enthusiasm turned somewhat sour, though, when I noticed in the cover letter the absence of any hints on subjects that don’t run on Karma, like travel and accommodation. When I enquired, it turned out that the organisers are ready to pay the grown-up industry experts they need to make this happen the one-off fortune of €400. For three days. Including expenses. As a bonus, the four hundred include VAT (so the amount speakers receive is 19% less, in fact), and the organisers implored me to gift any money that I don’t explicitly need for expenses back to them.

As I understand it, at German universities, the staff is paid a salary which comes from the taxpayer, i.e. people like myself. It’s quite possible that over the course of a year, this salary is higher than what I and many other Berlin startuppers are making. So I’m putting this question to you: Is this still an honest, mutually beneficial deal? This being first-semester students, they’re not even possible Berlin Startup Academy candidates anytime soon. Could I, should I, say no to it, despite the good cause?

peanuts lucy

No money? Give something else instead

Arguably, Campus Party at least lives in the same world as its speakers, having run for 16 years as a community event, much of it on a shoestring. But when public institutions and commercial corporations that exist in a world of substantial and regular salaries assume that in cases they need access to startup expertise they will get if for free, too – is that OK? And, more generally – is there an understanding of what any event organiser should give back to his speakers if he can’t afford to pay them?

Because there are quite a few options for that. Many occasional speakers I know are happy to have professional footage from their event appearances, footage they can use on their homepages or social media outreach. Event PR that introduces speakers to a broader audience is also welcome. In fact, any effort is welcome that shows that organisers appreciate that they’re profiting from highly qualified people who sacrifice time and money for somebody else’s cause. For example, outlining which potentially interesting industry contacts can be made and how the organiser will help them make them. Or inviting speakers to exclusive pre-conference meetups.

metal cat

But what if things don’t change?

I have no clear answer to that, but my perception is that the number of events in Berlin that are built on people chipping in work for free is large and growing. I believe that event organisers should know that they can’t build sustainable offerings, something that’s more than a one-off shindig, purely on other people’s unpaid labor. It’s like with a startup – if your business only works if it runs on twisted commercials, like employing interns only, cheating your partners, and evading tax, you don’t have a business. Besides, if you don’t have any tangible benefits for your speakers, you’ll have to take in anybody who can hold a microphone, ruining the quality of your event comprehensively.

With regards to that university event, I’m going to be there – for me, the thrill of working with others on their ideas is enormous; it’s one of the best things one can do with his life. But… a sting remains. Or is that just because I’m stingy?

What’s your take? Have your say below…


The failure of Freemium – why premium-first is still an equitable business model