Should I offer free services at first?
I would never suggest offering free services unless I knew more about your business. I'm not a fan of business owners trading their time for free.
But, here are my recommendations based on the two likely scenarios:
1. You have experience but want to get your business off the ground. In this instance, I would recommend offering a free report, white paper or e-course about a hot topic in your industry via your website based on your area of expertise. This will effectively showcase your experience and position on the topic and once you create the free item, you won't have to 'give away' any more of your time. If you request your website visitor's contact information in exchange for your freebie, this will also help you to build your in-house mailing list - an invaluable tool when starting and growing a business.
2. You have no experience and want to get your business off the ground. Here I would recommend taking on two or three pro bono or reduced fee projects. Be sure to be judicious in the types of companies you choose to work with for reduced or no fee arrangements. Since everyone wants something for free, people tend to not place a value on products and services that they can get for free. Some clients may begin to take you and your expertise for granted or worse - take advantage of your courtesies. I suggest that in the same way they are considering working with you, you should 'interview' them as a potential client.
Some questions you might want to ask are:
How critical is this project to your company's growth?
Have you ever worked with a [insert your professional title here] before? If so, what were the results?
How long have you been considering moving forward with this project?
Are you willing to provide testimonials, references and be a case study if I do a good job?
The client's answers to these questions, coupled with your own, will tell you whether a client is serious or not. Most serious clients have some idea of how they want to start the project - even if their ideas are a bit off base. Start here and you'll have your first paid client in no time.