The Only 2 Good Reasons to Work for Free
If you’re like most entrepreneurs you get hit up to work for free. Someone wants to pick your brain (yes, if the contents of your brain usually have a price tag higher than a cup of coffee, then coffee a good brain picking is working for free,) or they want you speak, consult, design, troubleshoot or otherwise provide your products or services for charity, for the exposure, for the good-will or just because they don’t want to pay for it.
As many reasons as there are for people to ask you to work for free, there are only two good reasons to do it. They are equally good reasons, but you should never use the first to justify the second.
1. It’s marketing.
Every business should have a marketing budget. Benchmarks vary by industry, but let’s say you decide to budget a minimum of 5 percent of gross revenue. That may not be much money, but a lot of entrepreneurs don’t spend even five percent on their marketing efforts.
What do they do? They network, they use social media, they take their clients to lunch and ask for referrals. They avoid spending money by leveraging their two other resources, time and energy, to make up for what they aren’t investing in dollars.
That's great, so long as they follow the same principles for their time and energy investment as they would for a monetary investment. Which means having a clear strategy for their efforts and an eye on their return.
So if doing the work for free fits your marketing strategy, and you believe the investment represents a reasonable expectation of return, then it might be well worth saying yes. Your guidelines may differ, but here the questions I ask before investing time and energy instead of dollars:
If I were spending money, how much would I be willing to invest?
Let’s take a conference, for instance, at which I've been asked to present for free. If I had to pay for a sponsorship to get in front of that audience, I’d be weighing the potential return against the investment. I’d be asking questions like, “How closely does this audience align with my most profitable niche?” and “How much impact will this exposure allow me to have on the audience?”
Based on my conclusions during that line of inquiry, I’d decide if I was willing to invest marketing dollars to promote my business at that event, and if so, how many dollars I was willing to invest. Once I know that, I can do a pretty fair calculation of how much time and energy I should allow myself to put into presenting in exchange for exposure. That raises some questions.
Do I have the time and energy to invest?
If I plan to invest dollars, I have to make sure those dollars are available without putting other financial obligations at risk. The same is true of time and energy. If doing a project is going to stretch me too thin to take care of other obligations, then I’m either going to spend money paying someone else to take something off my plate, or I’m going to short-change someone in my business or personal life. Unless this is a huge opportunity, it isn’t worth that. If it is a huge opportunity (see above) it may be worth it to pay for some assistance so that I can take the project on, even if I’m not getting paid.
Will I have to invest money as well as time and energy?
Depending on the type of product or service I’m being asked to provide, there may be hidden, or not so hidden, monetary costs as well. If I’m being asked to speak I may be expected to provide handouts. Or pay my own travel costs. Or, as I mentioned, I may need to pay additional staff to cover tasks I won’t have time or energy for if I take the project.
Is it something that aligns with my personal values and my brand?
This should go without saying, but it’s actually my first question. If the answer is no, then the other questions don’t matter. So what do I do if I go through my checklist and conclude that it just isn’t a good marketing investment?
Then there is that second good reason to work for free:
2. Just because I want to.
That’s right. Because the project is in my heart space, it gives me joy.
I hope you never work for free out of guilt. And I hope you never fool yourself into thinking you did it for the marketing when you really did it “just because.” But if you have the time, money or energy, feeling good is reason enough to invest it in anything or anyone you choose.
Ever since she was a little girl, Dixie’s least favorite word was "can’t." It still is. She's on a mission to prove that anything is possible, for anyone, but she's especially fond of entrepreneurs. She's good at seeing opportunities where other people see walls, navigating crossroads where other people see dead ends, and unwrapping the gifts of adversity and struggle. Dixie also contributes to Huffington Post and is a senior managing editor for The Good Man Project.