7 Occasions When It’s OK to Work for Free (and Why It’s Worth It)

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 3.44.58 PMThere is a time and a place for everything—including working for free. Yup. I said it. I didn’t say “never get paid.” Trust me, I charge for what I do. But I do believe that giving strategically without compensation is a key way to grow your business for a few reasons. And you don’t have to look far to see people doing it. When you nickel and dime at every turn, you don’t make money. Not the kind you do when you demonstrate value in a bigger, more strategic way.

It’s not a favor
By “gratis,” I don’t mean that you do it as an act of charity. Volunteer work is wonderful but a different thing altogether, and doesn’t belong under this umbrella. What I’m talking about is work you do that you get paid for in other ways besides cash, in that it opens up doors, creates opportunity. Here’s the one rule: It has to be your choice, not a favor you do begrudgingly. You should want to do it.

I’m very strategic and highly selective about what I do for free. I also turn down the ones where I don’t see the potential for a greater gain. You’re not in business to do favors; you’re in it to grow and expand, and giving is part of it.

1. You want to test someone out on your terms. Maybe you want to get to know someone. Maybe it’s your first time working together, and you want to both test and nurture the connection. The fact that you don’t collect payment for it means that this is on your terms, and it’s key when you’re feeling someone out. Keep it small scale, and perhaps on spec—meaning, if they decide to use what you create, they agree to pay you for it. But because it’s gratis, you call the shots and set the limits.

2. You value the opportunity more than they do. Could this free work help you prospect for clients or grow your network? Could it lead to a speaking opportunity? Will it add value to something you’re already offering, like a workshop or event? Will you learn something from it? Weigh the cost/benefits there. Some opportunities are worth it. But not all of them are.

3. You’ll gain credibility. Snagging a positive testimonial from an influential person might indeed be more valuable to you than a paycheck. Also, when you can give away some of your time and talent in a controlled way, it creates an appealing sense of abundance, both for yourself and others.

4. You’ll gain access. Maybe you do a webinar for a colleague or guest speak at an event. If the opportunity gives you access to a group of people, an audience, influencers or big deal folks that you wouldn’t have met otherwise, it may be worth doing. And make sure you clarify if you’re allowed to follow up with participants. If it’s a free blog post, make sure you can include links to your site.

5. You want feedback. Say you have new material you want to work out, or you’re tweaking something for a new audience. When you look at it like a research effort, to help hone and craft what you do for a specific audience, that feedback could be worth its weight in gold.

6. It’s a discrete, stand-alone project that won’t cost you much. You’re not an hourly employee, and time is the most limited resource you have, so again, use it sparingly. I’m very specific about what instances and time frames in which I’ll agree to meet with someone or take on a small project for free. I maintain a few slots on Fridays. Maybe you reserve an hour of time a day or week to explore these kinds of opportunities.

7. To maintain control. When you work for free, you call the shots. If someone isn’t paying, they don’t get the same say. And so if you want to do some free consults for example, you determine the when, where, how. If you want to do a weekly webinar, blog posts, etc, you get to decide how you want to do them. And you’ve also gained some social capital, because they appreciate what you’ve done and may be willing to return the favor. If they want more from you after that initial call? Give them a quote.

Whatever your reason, you need to be clear early on about what you are getting for the work if it’s not money. And figuring that out can be fun! Maybe they’ll share a link to your site in their newsletter. Maybe you’ll do a podcast interview swap. Along that line, make sure the other person knows what this work is worth. Letting them know what you’d normally charge for this work keeps the arrangement and the value very clear.

What if they steal my ideas?
I hear this fear from my clients a lot. They can’t steal what you give them. Give it, and give freely. Be the drug dealer of brilliant ideas. Offer a little hit; they’ll be back for more. Because a person can have all the great ideas in the world, but if she can’t execute them? She’s got nothing. She needs you.

Ideas aren’t particularly original. Your value comes from your ability to deliver and execute the ideas, and people can’t get that without you.

Check out this episode of  #PowerLunch, the free, weekly, bite-sized business and branding webinar that I do every Thursday at 12ET, where I tackled this whole issue! (Missed #PowerLunch? Leftovers here.)