Do You Work for Free? When Should You?

I don’t know what it is about certain times of the year, but as the gift-giving season comes around it seems everyone has “gift” or “free” on their minds. Those of you who read this blog know I love to give. Giving is my passion and that’s why I give freely on this blog, my YouTube channel, social media and other sites I write for regularly. But I’ve also had to realize there comes a point when people stop appreciating gifts and start expecting them. And unfortunately, I learned the hard way that when you give everything away, there’s nothing left for people to purchase and they move on elsewhere. This does them a disservice as they don’t really value what you helped them with, and it does you a disservice when you can’t pay your electric bill. And unlike you, the electric company isn’t usually as understanding and will turn off your lights if you don’t pay them.

This morning I was asked to do something for free by three different people. I’m not talking about answering a quick question, but more an in-depth strategic plan that would take a lot more of my time. I’ve learned to draw a fine line in the sand between free and paid services. That’s why I added coaching services in addition to our done-for-you services for book publishing. And what I’ve found is when people pay for my time to give them answers to their questions directly instead of spending days (and I mean days) researching everything they can on the “free” internet about the topic, they appreciate the time they’ve saved and appreciate me more as an expert. And that leads to a great client/service provider relationship.

Now this is a hot topic and a lot of people get upset when I tell them I don’t work for free, so I reached out to my friends on Facebook for their thoughts on this topic. My friend MJ Schrader of Media Guard Group commented on my post with what I normally tell my coaching clients regarding their self-worth. When you’re asked to work for free, especially if you already give a ton in free resources and information on your website, social media, YouTube, etc., and you start to get that little ball of tightness in the pit of your stomach, answer these questions:

  • How much did your training cost you? Did you pay for a college degree or advanced training at conferences? Do you invest more each year in your own education? People are astounded when I inform them that I can’t give them everything that’s in my head for free as I invest about $20,000 each year in my own education, beyond what I paid for my college degree.
  • How much time have you spent learning what you know? As entrepreneurs we often forget our time is valuable. If you were a low-wage employee learning at a company, your time would cost your employer about $10 per hour. If you spend several hours a day reading articles and books on your industry’s latest trends, it quickly adds up to hundreds of dollars. And let’s face it, most professionals make more than $10 per hour.
  • How much have you invested in yourself to be able to offer your services? This can include advanced certification programs, mentorship, business coaching, life coaching, conferences and seminars, books, home study courses… the list can go on and on. If you kept track of everything you purchase to better yourself and the service you can render to your clients, what is it worth?

When should you think about working for free?

I’ve done pro-bono work for non-profits and regularly donate a portion of my company’s gross income to several charities. As my friend freelance writer Beth Douglass Silcox says, “Philanthropic cause is great, but pro-bono work should not be expected by a business or individual that wants you to increase their potential income by donating your time and talent.”

One of our “21 Ways” series authors, Grace Marshall, says, “I like to be generous, but I know that if I give everything away I’ll have to pack up my business and that helps no one! So in the spirit of generosity, I give away some of my expertise on my blog, free reports, speaking gigs and teleseminars. It’s part of my marketing strategy and a way I can serve people who aren’t ready to pay for my services without taking time away from those who are.”

Tricky Balance

Therein lies a tricky balance to maintain. When do you offer your services for free, and when do you point prospects to paid programs? Another of my good friends, freelance writer Jenna Lang, says it well, “One thing that can help keep our frustration down is to recognize most of those who ask for free service are new entrepreneurs–they’re ‘babies’ in this strange new world. You would never snap at a baby for not knowing as much as a toddler. My experience is that it’s the newbies who haven’t thought the process through.”

Keeping this in mind, we can help newbies in business see how yes, the internet is full of “free,” but free shouldn’t become a habit. (Thanks to Phil Anderson of Anderson Social Media Solutions for that notation.) As several of my Facebook friends who run full-time businesses said, “You get what you pay for.”

I think my raw food coach, Natalie Wheeler, sums this balance up nicely, “By paying for someone else’s services, you are not only showing that you find value in what they have to offer, but it also shows that you value yourself by investing in yourself. It’s an energy exchange and both sides need to feel that value.”

What I’ve found in business is, especially as a newbie, someone may not be able to afford what they so desperately need. Another out-of-the-box way to help those people is to barter with them to mutually benefit both parties. Note that a barter system only works well if both parties feel they’re getting a fair deal and each person is getting into the relationship equally what they’re “paying” out in services. Another option for those who won’t fit the barter mold is to offer lower investment items to help the new client without giving away a high-end ticket coaching program. These lower investments can usually benefit those clients more because they’re probably not ready for a bigger investment item.

In my own journey, I started out bartering to work for networking events in exchange for a membership. In those groups I learned the basics of networking, built relationships, and grew my business one dollar at a time. Eventually I was able to barter for higher ticket items like one-on-one coaching from business and life coaches. Coaching for coaching is a great barter, by the way. 😉 As my business grew I began a budget for training and started investing in attending conferences. Since starting my business in 2004, I’ve grown it to the point I can regularly invest in my own training, and I’ve learned that I value what I pay for much more than the content I get for free. Even if I pay for it with a barter, I’m still paying something. My friend and fellow entrepreneur Jeff Herring sums it up best, “If you want people to take action, charge them.”

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Photo courtesy Shutterstock, smspsy

Leave a Comment

  • Mark Trueman
    March 5, 2013

    Hey Kristen,

    Unique post. A lot of businesses and freelancers fall into this trap of offering too much for free.

    I throughly enjoyed reading the article. Great post 🙂

    – Mark T.

  • Herby
    December 27, 2012

    Great post, I think a lot of new tech companies make that mistakes. Specially using a freemium business model. Some of these companies give you so much for Free its not even worth it to upgrade or pay for it. Great read. 

  • Heather Stone
    December 27, 2012

    Hi Kristen,
    Very cool post and very true! People become accustomed to expecting things for nothing. The idea of offering some benefits for free should not turn into a devaluing of all your products. Was glad to see your great post shared on the BIzSugar community.

  • Sharon Rose Gibson
    November 29, 2012

    LOL about how the electric company doesn’t understand. Great point.
    This post is full of great insight from all. I like your idea of bartering Kristen and I like the idea of matching energy and investment. That’s important.
    My favorite new insight is what Natalie Wheeler said about how paying is valuing the other person and valuing yourself. What a refreshing viewpoint!
    I’ve not had a good response when I’ve given away my writing course to those who wanted to help. Only one person did some on it so I’ve stopped offering it. I still want to help someone  occasionally who is in need but I decided if I do from now on, I’ll just send a portion and see if they take action before I release more. Or as you suggested, Kristen maybe barter with them so they have some investment in it. I agree you do have a tendency to value something more if you invest something in it.

  • MJ Schrader
    November 28, 2012

    Beautiful post!!  Yes, it’s hard. But it’s not just free that becomes troubling, it’s the people who say “This person charges less” but we both know our skills are unique.  You pay each year for training that advances your skills.  Your knowledge of publishing is far different from what most people teach and is a lot more valid…  This alone is worth the value.
    Free information that can land you in legal trouble can cost far more!  I’m so glad I got to meet you and hope to see you again soon!

  • Phil Simon
    November 27, 2012

    Nice post, Kristin. I face the same issue on just about a daily basis. There’s no simple answer and, among all of my friends, you do probably the best job of making me understand when we’re on the clock.

    Information may want to be free, but that doesn’t mean that we should give away our expertise. After all, what other currency do most of us have?

  • Natalie Mason Wheeler
    November 27, 2012

    Awwww! I’m honored to be included in your post. This is in such alignment as to what I have been feeling lately. Trading value for value is so important. 

  • Shelley Webb
    November 27, 2012

    I think that because I’ve been a nurse for over 30 years, people expect me to be “helpful” and offer my recommendations without compensation.  One of my niches is eldercare and I frequently receive e-mail containing what I call SOS letters.  “Mom’s in the hospital.  They’re kicking her out because her insurance won’t cover her any more and I don’t know what to do!.  Please help.”

    As a geriatric care manager, my charge for an assessment and written report of “what to do next” is $250.00.  But I find it SO difficult to advise struggling people to seek the help of a local GCM and usually end up spending time trying to help.  And I KNOW this would be an easy call for physicians. 

    I have an easier time with my social media clients but still struggle with saying “hey, I just happen to have an e-book covering that subject.  It’s only $17.95” 

    I completely agree with Jeff though.  When you don’t charge what you are worth, people don’t value you.

    Thanks, Kristen!

  • Jeff Herring
    November 27, 2012

    Nice post Kristen, and I appreciate your including my comments…

    It took me a few times of trying to help friends and relatives as a favor for me to learn:

    1) When you don’t charge, people don’t take action
    2) When you don’t charge what you are worth, people don’t value what you offer
    3) When you do charge what you are worth, people highly value what you offer at the highest level and take action at the highest level

    Thanks for what you do Kristen – cya at NAMS9 soon…

    ~ Jeff