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Help Now, Win Later — Why Working for Free Can Pay Big Dividends Far from selling yourself short, helping now — without the expectation of short-term reward — will enable you to win big later.

By Maha Abouelenein

Key Takeaways

  • With these four tips in mind, you can create unexpected value and demonstrate your worth in ways far beyond what a mere business proposal can ever attempt.
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It sounds counterintuitive, but the most financially lucrative business deals I've ever made have been the direct result of doing work for free. Don't believe me? Here's why the strategy works and four tips on how to make working for free pay off for you.

Why work for free?

If you're like most people, you struggle with the idea of giving away your work. I get it. No one ever wants to feel like they're opening themselves up to the possibility of being taken advantage of or worry that they're wasting the most valuable resource they have — their time.

But what many people don't understand is that if you have confidence in the value you're able to provide — and you should! — the best way to maximize your opportunity, in the long run, is to demonstrate what you can do, even if it costs you upfront. With more than 30 years of experience in the communications industry, I've learned that a good client, boss or hiring manager will be smart enough to realize how much you're worth and reward you — and if they don't, that tells you everything you need to know about whether they'd ever appreciate your value, and whether they're the right client or organization to work for.

For example, recently, I was at a film festival and met the CEO of an international company I was certain my team could bring value to. The company wasn't doing much business in the U.S., but I knew that if their story was told in the right way, the floodgates would open. After a first meeting, the CEO made no promises, but I sensed that if I could impress her, I'd win her business. Without much to go on except our intuition, my team and I architected a complete communications strategy that demonstrated our unique way of thinking, spending hours on it. You might be thinking we were wasting our time. But that's the wrong attitude. Even if it didn't work out, I felt confident that it was worth the risk.

I arranged a second meeting with the CEO and presented our plan, and it turned out we brought so many ideas the client hadn't even considered that she was happy to give us not just the business we had originally hoped for but even more.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying to be naive and open the floodgates. Do your due diligence and make sure the other party is trustworthy and ethical — but I promise, proving yourself to be someone who can create value is the hard part. Once you do that, getting paid is easy. It's a strategy I call "help now, win later," and it's the secret to landing the jobs, gigs, and clients you might only be dreaming about right now.

Related: Here's When It's OK to Work for Free

What it means to give value first

Giving and delivering first shows people that you intend to serve them. This builds credibility and equity, gives someone the opportunity to get to know you, and forms a relationship. It establishes trust, which is the currency of business throughout the world.

In the end, you achieve far greater rewards than you would receive if you insist on formalizing a relationship with payment upfront. Whatever someone would have believed you were worth gets multiplied once they see you in action. Yes, it can be a risk, but it's the kind of risk we should all be eager to take to level up our professional lives.

Related: Your Reputation is Your Currency. How Are You Investing in Yourself?

How can you create the kind of value that makes people eager to reward you in the end? I have four principles to guide you:

1. Know your strengths

What can you do that others can't? What doors can you open for the person or organization you seek to help? What's missing in their business right now, and why are you the right person to fill that gap?

2. Be the first

I like to be the first to show a potential client a new city or introduce them to a new event or experience. They have nothing to compare it to, and chances are they will never forget their first visit. Along the same lines, be the first to open someone's eyes to a new opportunity, a new business idea, or a new way of reaching an audience — and you will own that channel in their mind, and it will ultimately pay off.

3. Sell your vision

It doesn't matter how good your idea is if the other party doesn't understand its value. I have made myself a self-appointed ambassador for doing business in the Middle East. There are tremendous opportunities for U.S. companies and brands to work in the region, but before most entrepreneurs invest time and money, they have to understand what I do. A big part of my job is making the case that their investment can pay off — and pay off big. Whatever your unique vision of the world might be, if you can articulate it to potential clients and employers, you can open their eyes to what you see and generate tremendous opportunities for yourself in the process.

Related: Don't Be a Waiter — Be a Creator. 5 Ways to Create Opportunities for Yourself In 2024

4. Anticipate needs

Value creators know how to anticipate needs. If you anticipate the needs of your client, you bring enormous value. This requires being an active observer and noticing what others are missing. You need to be a patient and proactive problem solver. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your target and surprise them every step of the way.

With these tips in mind, you can create unexpected value and demonstrate your worth in ways far beyond what a mere business proposal can ever attempt. Far from selling yourself short, helping now — without the expectation of short-term reward — will enable you to win big later.

Maha Abouelenein

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Digital & Savvy

Maha Abouelenein is the CEO and Founder of Digital and Savvy, a global communication consulting firm with offices in the US and Dubai, and a member of the Global Board of Directors for The Associated Press. She hosts Savvy Talk Podcast and her book, "7 Rules of Self-Reliance," releases in 2024.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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