3 min read

Free works.

At the desk, 7:51 a.m.

It's really popular now to say: "Nothing's free. I don't work for free. You don't work for free. You can't eat free." Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.

There's a lot of verbage but it all comes down to their work is impressive and you should pay for it.

But you know what, free's always worked for me.


I was eleven when I started my first business. I saw an advertisement in the Claremont Courier that if I joined a youth business club, I could get free ads in the paper. I joined the club and advertised myself as a house cleaner.

Yes, it was my first read-fire-aim business. I had no way to get to anyone's house. I had no supplies. But I was willing to work and I really needed the money.

And I was eleven. Even as a tall, fit kid, no one wanted to try me. So I gave away a housecleaning for free.

Soon I had more clients than I had time to fill. I spent my summers riding my bike from house to house in our small town. In my parents house, I had to pay for most of my keep. I needed the money.

The entire six years I owned and worked that business, I always gave away the first housecleaning for free. Some people had me back to work for them. Other people didn't. That was all right with me.

I felt a lot of shame about how I made my money and the fact that I lived in this fairly wealthy family yet I was so very poor.

The business was also really good for me. I got out into other people's homes. I saw how they lived and what they were like. I saw how they talked to each other and cared for their children. I had a surrogate grandmother who would make me lunch after I cleaned her house and talk to me for a while. One client who gave me old books and would ask me questions about them to make sure I'd read them.

I see now how truly blessed I was. All of those blessings came because I was willing to give away the first housecleaning for free.


I fought and struggled my way through college because I believed it would bring me a better life. Imagine my shock when, having graduated in 1986, there weren't jobs for graduates.

I went to UC Berkeley, graduated with a degree in Biochemistry, and could not find a job. No one could.

Desperate, student loans breathing down my neck, I called a professor. He told me that he knew a guy at UC San Francisco who had big labs and was always looking for an intern. The job would be unpaid, but if I played my cards right, I'd probably get a position on a new grant starting in January.

I took the unpaid internship. It wasn't easy. I worked full time at UC San Francisco and cocktail waitressed at night. I slept about 3 hours a night and lived mostly on caffeine, cigarettes, and the Cure. The work at UC San Francisco was as difficult as the personalities and I truly hated cocktail waitressing (that's a blog post in itself).

Six months later, I had a job as a lab technician at UC San Francisco. I was the only person I knew, the only person in my graduating class that had a job in my field. Within a year, I was a named author on research papers; I'd had a chance to work with AIDS and HIV patients in the middle of the epidemic; I'd met and worked with some of the most brilliant people I'd ever meet; and I'd moved into a different lab.


When I started the Denver Cereal in 2008, everyone said "You'll starve! Don't give it away for free! Are you stupid?" Can't you see them - waving their hands in the air like a muppet?

Well, it's been four years and I'm not starving.

Giving the Denver Cereal away is a way for people to try my writing. Giving away free eBook copies of the Denver Cereal and the Fey gives people a chance to enter the series and see if they like it. Some people like it. Some people don't. That's fine.

I also give books to waitresses, people who'd like to review the books, people at bus stops, friends, doctors offices, the mailman, neighbors... and... It gives people a chance to see what I write. I've created quite a few truly loyal fans this way.

I've had well meaning mentors look at the sheer number of books we've given away, calculate what we might have made, and clicked their tongues at me. I've lost a bajillion dollars giving those books away - and gained a career instead.

Sure, at this point, I could probably set up a paid subscription to the Denver Cereal or start a paid subscription for the new secret project or... And sure, I'd lose some readers and gain some others.

But honestly, I don't think I'll give up the free thing.

It's always taken me exactly where I need to go.