“Did I mention I’m a complete psychopath? Didn’t need to, didn’t need to, got it.”
— Jonathan Bales, “Should You Work for Free?”
In case you’re wondering, I’m about 92 percent sure Bales — a FantasyLabs Co-founder and my direct boss — isn’t a psychopath. He’s a high-functioning sociopath.
- Yes, I stole that line from BBC’s Sherlock Holmes.
- At least I’m not exploiting pre-2014 freelance internet writers with my plagiaristic act.
If you haven’t read “Should You Work for Free?” on Bales’ personal blog, you should. He wanted to publish it on FantasyLabs, but I (as Editor-in-Chief) wouldn’t let him because he used phrases like “for f*ck’s sake” too infrequently. F*ck that. When you write for Labs, you bring your expletive A game, muthaf*cka.
Anyway, I just wanted to clarify: Bales is not a psychopath. He’s almost certainly only a high-functioning sociopath.
You’re Reading This Piece
Over the last month fantasy Twitter has hosted an intermittent debate about whether writers in the industry should be willing to work for free in the hope of eventually monetizing their content.
Matthew Berry shared his thoughts . . .
To break into fantasy I started writing for free @Rotoworld in 99. Wrote 4.5 years for them, never made more than $50/column. Would do again https://t.co/2KrPIfbW4m
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) January 27, 2017
. . . as did the douche for whom I wrote my first fantasy piece:
The best way to make money as a fantasy writer is 1) start writing 2) start giving handjobs and charging $5/handjob
— Fantasy Douche (@FantasyDouche) January 27, 2017
By the way, I used “douche” there as a term of affection. I love the Fantasy Douche.
Not satisfied with expressing his opinion in 37 characters a few weeks ago . . .
@LeoHowell8 @RealMattCassell @MatthewBerryTMR @rotoworld @timjkavanagh I still write for free. Always will.
— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) January 27, 2017
. . . Bales has recently published his piece on the topic:
Should You Work for Free? https://t.co/7CRjjsCGE8 (h/t @MatthewBerryTMR) pic.twitter.com/IVeeHBZf4f
— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) February 13, 2017
In the piece that you’re currently reading, I want to consider the topic of compensation for fantasy content. I think it resonates with daily fantasy sports.
Of course, I think everything resonates with DFS, so you get what you pay for . . . and by “you” I mean “Jonathan Bales,” because he’s the only person reading this article who’s actually paid for it.
By the way, I actually have some concrete thoughts as to how this topic directly applies to DFS — but by the time I get to the end of the article it’s possible that I will have forgotten them. In fact, I’m kind of planning on it.
My First Piece
A little over four years ago, Fantasy Douche essentially transformed his personal blog into RotoViz. Douche put out a call for writers, and for some random reason I inquired. I still don’t know why I emailed him. My logic can probably be summed up best as “For f*ck’s sake, why the f*ck not?”
He responded to my email, and in 24 hours I sent him a 3,000-word treatise on T.Y. Hilton. Even before I was a real-life pretend writer, I was an overwriter. You can take the boy out of the Ph.D. program in British Renaissance Literature, but you can’t take the . . . you get the idea.
Indirectly, I got paid for my first piece. Sort of. Someone signed up for a subscription to RV after reading my piece, so I got a cut of that revenue. At the most it was $15. I think it was closer to $13. Everything considered, that’s probably about what I deserved.
Working for Almost Nothing
For the next two-and-a-half years, I wrote regularly for RV. Sometimes I would put hours of work into a piece, and I would get literally pennies for it. Other times I’d write a piece that had a sexy topic or title — like my argument for RBx5 (‘sup, Shawn Siegele) — and I’d get hundreds of dollars for a single piece because of the page views and subscriptions it generated.
In retrospect, I believe relatively little separated the RV pieces that made money from those that didn’t. Honestly, I still suck at knowing in advance which pieces of mine people will like and which ones they won’t. And I’m not even sure it matters. If I were to write more content with (relatively obscure) ‘popularity’ in mind, the content might suffer. Basically I have the same mentality now as I had then: Produce as much content as I can as well as I can — and then start giving $5 handjobs.
Eventually the RV handjobs paid off. After more than a year of writing for the site, I started podcasting. In the early days of the RV pod, I made less doing the pod then I did writing for the site — but I didn’t care. In fact, in my first year writing for RV, I made an unspeakably low amount of money. At one point I tried to figure out how much money I was (not) making per hour of fantasy investment — but I stopped calculating when I saw how many zeros were after the decimal point.
Also, I made an unspeakably low amount of money in my second year at RV — but it wasn’t quite as unspeakable, and at least I had more Twitter followers, more of a presence in the industry, and a position on the podcast. I was making progress. I was finding opportunities. I was maybe even creating some opportunities for myself.
That I was making a little money while wasting an unholy amount of time was just a bonus. It’s probably what kept my wife from thinking I was a total loser — although that’s debatable.
Working for a Little More Than Almost Nothing
I’ve written only one piece for free. And by “for free” I mean “with certain knowledge that I had almost no chance of ever getting any money then or in the future from the site publishing my piece.”
That piece was for Rotoworld.
At one point I realized that if I wanted to advance in the industry I needed to be more proactive. I needed to work on my half-*ssed #brand.
I emailed Evan Silva (RW’s senior football editor) and nonchalantly asked if I could submit a piece on running backs. He said something like, “Awesome, we can’t pay you, but yes.” If you’ve ever heard of the Workhorse Metric, it’s probably because I decided that I’d rather write one piece for free than write only for money. If you’ve never heard of the Workhorse Metric . . . I need to work on my half-*ssed #brand.
After that RW piece was published, an old friend from high school said, “You’re going to do this as a career.”
- It wasn’t a question. It was an assertion, almost a statement of faith or endorsement.
- It was the first time anyone had indicated I had the ability to turn my hobby into an occupation.
I was flattered, but I also thought he was ridiculous.
Exactly 11 months after I published that article, I started working at Labs as a full-time employee.
Diversifying Across the Industry
My first day with Labs was January 18, 2016. I’m convinced that I got the job because I didn’t sleep for the final six months of 2015. During that span I averaged just under one podcast per day and wrote weekly pieces for RV, Pro Football Focus, DraftKings Playbook, and Fantasy Insiders.
I made a concerted effort to write as much as possible for as many different sites/markets as possible. I got paid for my work — and I’m grateful that I did — but I wasn’t writing more content for more places so that I could make more money. I was diversifying so that I would have more opportunities, connections, and experiences . . . so that eventually I could make more money.
It’s Always About Money — and Not
I’m not going to say that it’s not about the money. It is. A lot of people — whether they’re aspiring writers or players — hope that they can one day support themselves with full-time work in the fantasy industry. To the extent that living without money is hard, almost everything is about money.
At the same time, it’s never about only money. When I started writing fantasy content, I never thought I’d actually transition to a full-time job in the industry. The idea of becoming a full-time fantasy worker never even crossed my mind. At best, I thought maybe I could eventually turn my hobby into something that made money on the side. And by “hobby” I mean “obsession” — and now we’re reaching the truth.
I didn’t write about fantasy sports because I wanted a job as a fantasy sports analyst. I started writing because I’m obsessed with 1) language and 2) fantasy sports. At a certain point, I couldn’t not write about it. I was compelled to write about it. I wish I could say that I had a baller work ethic — and, f*ck modesty, I do have a baller work ethic — but I’m also something of a pseudo-addict.
I write about fantasy sports because I must. The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter.
I didn’t put quotation marks around that last sentence, because if you can’t intuit that it’s a quotation then you don’t deserve the quotation marks in the first place.
Some Unsolicited Advice
If you’ve lived long enough you’ve probably had random people tell you that, when it comes to your occupation, you should do what you love. That sounds like wisdom — but for f*ck’s sake it’s not.
Love changes, and love hurts. Don’t do what you love. Do what you must.
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and unlawfully brought his army into Italy, he left himself with only one option: Win — or die. When Hernán Cortés was conquering (read: terrorizing) Mexico on behalf of Spain in 1519, he intentionally destroyed his own ships so that his soldiers would be entirely motivated to fight.
If you want to be in the industry, you probably never will be. If you must be in the industry because you ultimately refuse to do anything else with your life, then you might have success.
In college I majored in biology, chemistry, and literature. Why the triple major? Because I was a pre-med student who couldn’t stop taking English courses. I had somewhat randomly taken maybe five English courses before I realized that I was halfway to an English major . . . even though I wasn’t an English major. I thought, “Well, I might as well major in English too.”
Sometimes we predetermine the fates that choose us.
When I was in college and trying to decide what to do with my life — versus when I was in graduate school and trying to decide what to do with my life — I quickly realized that the advice most people give is often negative and bound by their experiences.
For instance, almost every doctor I spoke with said something like this: “Be anything but a doctor. Maybe be a lawyer.” Almost every lawyer said something like this: “Don’t be a lawyer. Have you thought about medicine? — or academia?” And almost every professor I talked to said a version of this: “Don’t be a professor. Be a lawyer or a doctor. Or go into finance.” And then every financial advisor I talked to tried to sell me a f*cking product.
I’ve gotten advice that is valuable and personal from maybe only 10 people in my life. Otherwise, I’ve found that most advice is bullsh*t.
My impersonal unsolicited advice to you is this: Don’t be the type of person who often needs to rely on advice from other people. Often good advice doesn’t exist unless you’re getting it from the person in the mirror.
Follow the Money?
I’ve written before about my college advisor. She was a professor of English and probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. She’s rare in that she’s blessed with an Einstein-level brain and also the ability to apply her intelligence in immensely practical ways. If she were in Game of Thrones, I’d bet on her surviving and eventually ascending to the monarchy.
She’s one of the few people who ever gave me personalized guidance that was always worthwhile.
Once I’d decided (against her counsel) to annihilate my future by pursuing a Ph.D. in English, she gave me probably the best advice I could’ve gotten at the time: “Go to the graduate school that offers you the most money.”
How do I reconcile her advice with Bales’ advice to be willing to work for free in the fantasy industry?
In established industries — like law, medicine, and education — I think it almost always makes sense to maximize money, since money is often a proxy for everything else that matters. If an institution is willing to pay someone a lot of money, the institution is also probably willing to support that person as an investment. The institution will want to foster the individual’s success. When stability reigns, money is the king’s currency.
In new/growing industries, however, it makes sense to maximize not for money but for opportunity and exposure. In other words, what matters in the fantasy industry is not whether you get paid now. What matters is whether you’re positioned to be paid years from now. When uncertainty is king, potentiality is the most precious commodity.
“That’s What I Do: I Drink, and I Write Things”
I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I happen to write about fantasy sports, but really I’m a writer first.
Most people in this industry are fantasy sports players/writers. I’m a fantasy sports writer/player. It’s not that I suck at fantasy sports, but my ability as a writer is my edge. Besides watching TV and dispensing useless trivial facts about ’90s rock bands, writing is what I do best.
In any industry but especially one that’s growing, the most important act anyone can do to position oneself for eventual full-time employment (in a good situation) is to become highly competent at a niche skill that can be applied broadly — and that most easily can happen if one is willing to work for free/cheap.
In the first couple of years in this industry success is determined by not the amount of money made but the skills one has refined and the opportunities one has created for the future.
Here’s something to ponder: What’s the real difference between working for free and working for pennies? About 95 percent of the time, the difference is pride. Don’t let your current pride stand in the way of future success.
Is There a DFS Point to All of This?
When I started this piece, I had a point that related to DFS — but I forgot what it was.
- Meaning is what you make it.
- We’re all apprentices until we’re not.
- Be better at DFS than I am at writing.
- If you want to be a full-time fantasy grinder but you’re not a Peter Jennings-caliber player, then you’ll probably need to be a competent writer to ensure you make regular money.
- I’m not sure why I chose a movie still from Ben-Hur as the featured image for this article, but I think it works.
And if you submit some written content to Labs, don’t be insulted if we pay you with opportunity instead of money.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.14, 109
This is the 109th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.