I decided to start working on some project, software company run by 1 person. By now, my contribution is pretty big and from the beginning, I told him, that I don't want money (as little as there was).

Right now the condition has changed. There is a moderate amount of money and I kind of want some. Is it ethical to even ask for it at all?

EDIT: It's time consumption is just too big and growing and the thing has grown lots

EDIT2: There is no contract or signing, the owner owns everything and I just have been contributing

EDIT3: Not money for previous work, just further work. Also the general timeline is a year from me starting and 9 months of "actually" working every few days few hours, first months were emailing basically.

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    Has the conditions changed because something in your personal life changed that you want money now, or would you always have wanted money if the company became successful? For future reference, the latter case is exactly what shares, shared ownership and contracts / agreements are for - all of those things can be done in a way that avoids immediate spending while giving you a share of the profits if the business ever becomes more profitable. Jul 8, 2017 at 6:59
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    From the point of view of the other person, it looks like a foot in the door scam to me. It is not much different from a salesperson badgering you to try out the "free sample" and asking you pay for it later because "he has to meet a certain sales target".
    – Masked Man
    Jul 8, 2017 at 8:05
  • @MaskedMan-仮面の男 I think OP does not intend it as "foot in the door scam", but you are right that it can come across this way. I think they just discovered that the project was more successful than expected and want their cut - a bit like giving someone a lottery ticket as present and then discovering that it actually won something. The reaction is understandable, but, indeed, not very nice. Jul 8, 2017 at 13:21
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    I get a sense that people are assuming a lot and reading too much into the awkward translation here. Can you clarify whether you're talking about: being paid for past work / being paid for future work / receiving stock options / getting a payout from an angel investment / something else? And can you give us a general timeline?
    – Lilienthal
    Jul 8, 2017 at 20:26
  • 1
    This is exactly why you should never work for free for a commercial venture.
    – Ant P
    Jul 10, 2017 at 11:29

9 Answers 9


You could always request some money, I would not be surprised if the owner turns you down. You would be better off trying to contribute more to project with some agreed upon compensation. The current ship has almost definitely sailed.

Edit to address edits to the question: You could definitely request/require money for any future work. You are free to change your going rate at any time and after the company starts getting income is certainly a good time.

  • All the OP has to do is state "Now that the project is going well, it would probably be best that I was compensated for that first round of work, so that everything is on a business footing going forward, what about $1,250? Now regarding the next thing you need done..."
    – Fattie
    Jul 8, 2017 at 15:15

Let's overlook ethics for a second. Perhaps it was unwise for you to volunteer unlimited effort into a project without a definite scope. So the real issue here has nothing to do with money. Instead, it has everything to do with you failing to exercise healthy boundaries. Look, I joined the Army years ago; I'd never have signed a contract that read, "Work me for as long as you need me!" But it seems that's the type of situation you agreed to.

So you're frustrated. Really, at this point, you have a few choices:

  1. Pull out of the project, cold-turkey, whether you are finished with any current unit-of-work or not.
  2. Announce that at the end of the current unit-of-work, you're done.
  3. Announce that at the end of the current unit-of-work, you need to get paid at a rate that is worthy of your time and experience. But you only get to do this ONCE. Don't get greedy. Don't go in demanding part ownership, and don't accept part ownership in lieu of payment.
  4. Do nothing and become more miserable over time.

Obviously, there are consequences to each approach. Hopefully you'll make choices that are more mutually beneficial.

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    Actually, you kind of did. The army reserves the right to call veterans back up and/or lengthen enlistment times in time of need. Jul 10, 2017 at 3:03
  • I'm not sure if I interpreted it the same way as you. To me it seems more like a "yeah, I have some time; I can help you out with that" beginning. He's now in a situation where the person (I'm not even going to say client here because this sounds more like informal arrangement) is now becoming more successful, and therefore has a larger amount of tasks for OP, who is helping them. I do not see this as any binding agreement of work or anything. More someone needing help with an early startup; and they've now reached a new level, but haven't changed their structure yet.
    – JMac
    Jul 10, 2017 at 21:02

No, it would be breaking your agreement, and therefore unethical. You may want to ask for a share in future profits though or part ownership perhaps.

  • Regarding the first sentence, the whole (say) finance industry runs on bonuses paid after the fact. Regarding the second sentence, I'm afraid that makes little sense - if you're asking for a bonus after the fact, it makes absolutely no difference if you ask for cash or shares.
    – Fattie
    Jul 8, 2017 at 14:19
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    @Fattie - the whole (say) finance industry runs on bonuses that are part of your contract of employment. If you sign a contract that says you don't want a bonus, that's exactly what you will receive. The fact that the OP made a verbal contract for zero renumeration and no bonus doesn't make it any less of a contract. Jul 8, 2017 at 14:55
  • Hi Lac - it is ubiquitous that, after a project is finished, the final price is (in a word) changed, renegotiated. (Indeed in either direction.) "sign a contract that says you don't want a bonus", you may be mistaken, the OP did not sign any such contract.
    – Fattie
    Jul 8, 2017 at 15:10
  • It's worth noting that such a contract would be conceptually meaningless. Say I built you a house for 100k. So we have a contract "there can be no change in the price of this contract at the end". Say we both agreed that I had to be paid an extra $7500 due to the garage roof. All that would happen regarding the bizarre contract is, that 7500 would .... not be part of that contract! (Same if the price discrep. was the other way - it turned out I didn't need to do the water boiler, so you get back 9000: ok, the "requirements changed".) The contract you describe is not meaningful.
    – Fattie
    Jul 8, 2017 at 15:14
  • i kind of have a part ownership, since We 2 are the only "perament" workers, tough he was first and owns everything in legal terms Jul 8, 2017 at 15:36

I don't think you should ask for money for what you already agreed to do for free.

On the other hand, it sounds as though the time commitment is continuing, increasing, and exceeds what you expected at the time of the original agreement.

I suggest discussing that aspect with the business owner, with a view to either limiting your time commitment to what was originally expected, or changing it to paid work.


So I have an app that is unlikely to make much money, but that is quite interesting and will help some people, and that's why I created it.

And you agreed that it's interesting and will help some people, and you want to help me, and since I can't afford to pay you, you agree to do some work for free.

And suddenly Microsoft decides to buy my app for $10 million.

Is it ethical to ask for some of that money? Absolutely. Do you have a legal right? Absolutely not. Would I give you some of the $10 million? That depends on my character, my legal situation, and on the value of your contribution.


My immediate answer is that it wouldn't be ethical to ask for money for your past work if you've already agreed to work for free. There are, however, some alternatives you could explore.

From the sound of it, it seems that this 1-employee company is leaning on you to do a lot of the grunt work, and at no cost.

I suggest you speak to your boss about the situation. I'm sure he or she appreciates the hard work you've done so far and wouldn't want to lose you. I believe its best to set some boundaries so that if he doesn't want to compensate you, or only wants to provide a small stipend, you don't end up on this project for months and months. Another option is for your boss to lighten the workload by having another volunteer join the team.

Something to keep in mind is how long you want to stay with this company. Was this always intended to be a one-time deal or do you believe in the product and see it growing, and you growing with it? If the latter is the case, I'm sure you know that your dedication right now is not going unnoticed, and you could start a conversation with your boss about being hired as a paid employee once this project is complete.

If money is a serious concern, I also don't think it would be necessarily unethical to leave. Your time is valuable, and you could be spending it doing work elsewhere while being compensated.


The edit 3 information is really the biggest point here. It's not okay to ask for compensation for work already done under the current agreement but you have clarified that this is not what you are asking about.

It is totally fine to ask to start being paid for future work. It is also fine to stop working unless you are paid, provided you give some notice and tie up loose ends should you opt to stop working. Your time is worth something, just because you have consented in the past to do free work does not put you under significant future obligation to continue to do so.


It would be NOT ethical : you first said you did not want money, so stick to your word.

When you decide to help, you do it for whatever your reasons are at that time (help a friend, learn new things, improve your skills...), but you should not expect anything in return from others...

As a employee, I never expected to get paid for help when I offered it, either it was for a colleague or a boss. As a manager or (very small) business owner, I always tried and manage to give/offer something after a fair amount of help/work. It can be anything from schedule change in timing, lunch, free time off, and so on... A kind reward for a kind help.

If the company owner is smart, maybe he'll ask you if he can do something to please/thank you. He can do it in various ways (offering money maybe ?), or not. If he doesn't, don't be disapointed, as it was you who said 'no money' first.

You've been nice to me, I'll be nice to you doesn't always work the way it should, but you never know...

  • I am mystified by these answers. I'm not sure we have ever done! a project where, at the end, there wasn't a discussion about how much extra client has to pay for one reason or another (spectacular financial achievement of the project, extra work done, wildly changing software milieu, whatever).
    – Fattie
    Jul 8, 2017 at 14:21
  • I have done that... I spent soooo many hours working for 'free' once (project was my idea), got only management say 'great job' but project was then canceled. Few months later, got a nice raise on x-mas paycheck, and when I asked, was told I had put big effort in the early project... OP is not about being paid for a job, it's about asking after, changing his mind :)
    – OldPadawan
    Jul 8, 2017 at 14:47

It's ethical if you want to inform them you no longer want to work on this project, whose scope is not what it was when you made your first informal agreement, and it's ethical if they want to offer you compensation for you to continue doing so. In the future do not join contracts that inevitably cause ethical conundrums. You might agree on how much work you are doing pro bono over how long.

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