What Do You Do For Money Honey?

I’ve read a few things recently focusing on the subject of money and if/when it is acceptable to do work ‘for free’. Does free have any value? What does it mean in context for a paid employee versus a small business owner? What does asking for freebies and doing freebies say about your brand? I think it’s an interesting subject and I’d like to share a few perspectives with you.

Not For Profit?

Susan Avello sparked my thinking with this comment on Facebook, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of running my business as if it’s a non-profit :)’ The resulting conversation was funny and informative. I shan’t repeat it all here but the threads ranged from ‘I got so sick of this expectation that I went back in house where at least I know I’m going to get paid’, ‘the myth of “exposure” is bogus’, ‘surround yourself with people who value what you do’, ‘swim in less crowded waters’. I hope no one in the conversation feels misrepresented but I read the general consensus as free has no value, so don’t do stuff for free. My own comment in the conversation was ‘I’m always careful of absolutes. There are occasions when I perceive value in ways other than raising an invoice…sometimes’.


A few days prior to the discussion Susan started, I was sent this email by Matt Cheuvront:

One of the best regular emails I receive comes from Ramit Sethi of iwillteachyoutoberich.com. Recently, Ramit shared some thoughts on when you should (and shouldn’t) work for free. As someone who’s been faced with many opportunities to do pro-bono work, I wanted to share his poignant thoughts on the subject:

It’s not always bad to work for free! I’ve done it many times. The key is (1) working for free strategically, and (2) always communicating why you’re doing it.

  • You work for free to build your portfolio so that when you charge, you’ll have something to show prospects. Ramit’s judgment: Good
  • You work for free because you think that later you will magically be able to charge the same client $100. Ramit’s judgment: You are dumb
  • You work for free because you know that the person has a huge network, and if you impress him, he will introduce you to all his friends. You make this explicitly clear up front. Ramit’s judgment: You are very savvy

Working for free CAN open the door to some amazing opportunities – but it can also open the floodgates to anyone and everyone coming to you looking for a handout. My rule of thumb? If I’m doing free work, there needs to be something in it for me. Whether it be recognition, experience, or personal fulfillment, I’m always asking myself if there’s a win-win.

Where do you draw the line and what factors into your decision(s) to work for free?

I’m struggling with where Ramit and Matt are coming from here. I don’t know what you think, but it strikes me they are talking less about ‘free’, more about reciprocity and being clear about that.

Big Heart Days

Then I spotted this great post by Heather Bussing titled Big Heart Days. I thoroughly recommend you read it, and I’ve taken a small excerpt to post here:

‘So I’ve learned the hard way about big heart days. If I am going to give the gift of my time, attention and skills, I have to be willing to make it a gift, and not about me. I have to decide how much time and attention I realistically have to give away. Then give it freely.’

I think Heather has it right. Her post moves us away from something free, toward gifting. Free can be dangerous as many people perceive free as something with little or no value. Here are a couple of examples to help illustrate the point.

In January 2012 I was invited to give a talk for the Central London branch of the CIPD on Smart Use of Social Media for HR. In the run up to the talk I asked how many people they anticipated would be turning up on the night. ‘We have around 100 registrations and we expect around 40 people will show up’, came the reply. The charge for attending the event? £0. The turnout was a little healthier than the estimate, but I felt this was an ineffective and potentially wasteful way to tee up a live event. And what about the people you may turn away because ‘we’re full’ only to discover you have rows of empty seats on the day. What does that say about how you value each other?

At the Facilitation Jam I helped to run in January 2013 we agreed to levy a non refundable deposit of £50 for the event, with the balance payable on the day. Everyone who paid up showed up. I took the decision to let one person pay on the day and shortly before the event – you guessed it – they cancelled!

So the next time someone asks you to give something, and you decide to do it, then give it freely, with no expectation. Otherwise it’s not a gift….is it?


Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

15 thoughts on “What Do You Do For Money Honey?”

  1. The trouble with free is that JUST occasionally, it produces a massive warm glow and lots of referrals and other opportunities Doug.

    MOSTLY, it produces a request for more FREE work and degrades your brand.

    The trouble comes when the marketplace is populated by people who are doing a similar job as a hobby and who don’t therefore seek to be paid.

    I just tendered for a piece of work with a group of others at a large intergovernmental agency. The price ticket for the project was Euro 30 000. We got the deal and our leader was called to say we’d got it but, and I quote, another group, who THEY said were rubbish, offered a much cheaper price. We were then asked by their procurement people if we would do the work for half the price!

    Unfortunately our leader is not keen on negotiation and was keen to capitulate. I had to spend an hour on Skype to Germany to sort the negotiation strategy out. result, we are back nearly where we were but have had to sack some people from the project, which prejudices their goodwill for the future. Slightly off piste of this, they are spending upwards of 50 000 Euro to do the work at a fantasy park with 200 bedrooms over 3 days. They have not seen fit to trim the budget for food and entertainment. I always wonder when Maslow’s basic needs are more highly valued than the ‘work’! 🙂

    I understand the idea of being competitive, but some of the practices on both sides of the buying / selling fence are just appalling at the moment. The answer is NOT to make it worse by joining them of course 🙂

    Tomorrow, I speak at PPMA. They asked me to speak for free when Capita / Penna etc are paying for logos etc. I said no and asked for a range of ‘in kind’ benefits to make good the ‘free to air’ aspect of this. We’ll see if the benefits materialise. My wife is doubtful 🙂

    On a lighter note, are you tweeting up next week my man? It would be good to see you again and compare notes with a master of their work.

    Rant over 🙂


    1. Thank you for such a fulsome rant Peter. I think the crux of what you have written about spins around the difference between free and reciprocal. I think the piece in the blog I included from Matt Cheuvront leans strongly into the reciprocal space and I also think it is a potentially interesting place to play. It requires us to come from a place of trust and abundance, and to seek to understand what each party hopes to gain from the interaction.

      Sadly – although I have been promoting the LnD Connect tweet up next week, I am not able to attend. Have fun and hope to see you soon.

      Cheers – Doug

  2. Yes, I realise that Doug. I think the trouble with what we do is that, in reality, the boundaries between free, reciprocal and paid for are often blurred. Of course, the antidote is to make sure they are not blurred.

  3. Hi Doug

    I put my full response in the Interimity Group on LI. Suffice it to say, you got me thinking again.

    Here it is:

    I have been ‘accused’ of ‘giving it away for free’ for years – Usually by spending hours on the phone or via multiple email conversations with someone who just wants to ‘pick my brains’ for a few minutes. I have always viewed this as part of the pay it forward philosophy and as essentially a marketing exercise.

    The other area we ‘work for free’ is conferences and events. Many of us have spoken at conferences with the dangled carrot that ‘you will make great contacts and get loads of business, if you just spend an hour here speaking’. The good organisers will pay your travel and may event give you a small gift as a token of appreciation. Most will not share the delegate contact info and are uncomfortable if you should remotely ‘sell’ yourself on the day. Yet, we still do it, again in the sharing knowledge and learning from others mode.

    Are these examples actually Working For Free? I think so. What I think it says about me is that I am willing to share knowledge and experience. It does not mean that I will undertake a project for free on the ‘just because’ basis.

    I wonder, though, about the long term value of any ‘work for free’ scheme. (Internships spring to mind). If the individual’s contribution has enough value that someone wants it, then surely it should be rewarded by some compensation?

    Some good thoughts (as usual) in the blog, and, like you, I rate Heather’s points.

    By the way, blogging, engaging in social channels, contributing in LI groups – all are ‘working for free’ 🙂

  4. Your story is very familiar Alan – I too get loads of calls and ‘can you just do this requests’ and tend to err on the side of seeing this as ‘paying it forward’. My wife points out that most of this does not get reciprocated and she is right when she says that if I rebalanced my time away from some activity, we would have time for a holiday etc.

    The trouble comes when you don’t know whether reciprocity will occur and Ramit’s list is helpful.

    As a general rule of thumb, I have come to treat phrases such as you will make great contacts and get loads of business’ with some suspicion 🙂


  5. Doug, This is an interesting question and pricing is a large subject in its own right. I believe unreservedly that one needs to protect the value of one’s brand, but I would add two things. Firstly you have to build that value in the first place and secondly that you may not understand the true value of your brand, perceiving it as too high or too low.

    I have listened to a number of US proponents selling “Information products” over the internet with ebooks, webinars, etc. The message there seemed counter-intuitive in that they advised giving away your best bits as that would then build the interest to buy the rest. If you only gave away your lesser pieces then why should they believe the unseen rest is worth paying for.

    As a consultant contractor I found this interesting. I have subsequently talked and tested the idea with a number of small business people and found a spectrum of views. Some would never work for free while others see it as really positive way to create opportunities.

    My personal conclusion is that a balanced approach is best. To never do anything unless you are paid the value “you” place on the work can be successful if the demand for your “product” is high, but means you may miss some great opportunities and leaves you open to a competitor undercutting.

    In a world where supply is greater than demand, unless you want to race to the bottom of the rate card, one needs to compete on a different level or levels. This can include pro bono work, but remember that while this may be free to the client…..it is often not free to you as it prevents you doing something else that could include earning money.

    Personally I am building my brand and “giving away” a lot of thoughts and ideas for free in my blog and while networking. That is certainly generating interest and opportunities in areas I would not have expected. While some are looking for more “free” work, others are paid and offer better longer term prospects. I try value all the dimensions of an opportunity and “right price” the financial element on the back of that.

    I should say that I am also prepared to decide when it is time to stop investing in an opportunity(and explain why).

    At the end of the day I have to earn enough to make it all worthwhile. Pro bono and discounted work is certainly part of the mix, but has to be used intelligently and honestly (with yourself if no one else).

    1. Hi Ian – thanks for your time and your contribution. I particularly like this, ‘I am also prepared to decide when it is time to stop investing in an opportunity(and explain why)’ and I think I can learn a lot from that. Things change and what seemed a good idea at the time may not do now, or in the future. We do ourselves no favours if we just push on because….

      Cheers – Doug

      1. Explaining why is a valuable part as it may be that the other party did not understand your expectations/needs from the interaction. Explaining why you can no longer invest gives them the chance to re-evaluate and may take you both to another, better level.

        Good luck.

  6. Doug,

    I love this post and was on that thread Susan Avello posted on Facebook. I have to admit I have struggled to strike a balance between what is gifted and what I should be compensated for. Luckily life will show you the way via trial and error and as such I have learned some lessons.

    The first of which is my gain must be either equal to or greater than the experience or initiative I am participating in if I am to do it for free. I will work for free if it is contributing to some greater good even. All other scenarios require some remuneration and that is not limited to dollars and cents. Sometimes you have to burn to learn.

    Rant over! : )

    All the best,


  7. Thanks for sharing my Facebook update 🙂 I look at it like this, if I don’t pay for a gym membership chances are I won’t go. But if I pay for it and invest my money – I will show up. Now, not everyone sees it that way and a crapload of folks join a gym everyday and go the first money and then waste their money the rest of the year and never go. Steve Browne and I discussed this after I wrote the post “The Problem with Free” > http://hrvirtualcafe.com/2012/08/14/the-problem-with-free/ and he agreed that sometimes when we give stuff away the recipient doesn’t find value in it. I know myself, when I offer up free Webinars (which take a boatload of my time to research and get together) folks have no problem signing up for them but showing up is another story.

    1. Hey Susan – thanks for your comment and blog link. And absolutely – the free = no show maths, I get that, what a pain! So there’s where Heather’s gifting thinking kicks in, and I think I and maybe others need to move to that place. If I call it ‘free’, or preferably a ‘gift’, then I give it willingly, or not at all.

  8. Oooh, such a difficult subject – and the prevailing wind at the mo is all about giving it away, especially content, so I am pulled up short when someone says that’s not on. However, it is really worth thinking about.

    My particular dilemma is that I get a lot of requests to help people who have lost their job and think I can find them one. Usually quite senior people who could become ‘buyers’ in the future. I have been very low key – but over the past few weeks have decided that yes, as Ramit says, to be more savvy and say – can you help me as well? It’s worked in terms of an understanding and openness. Let’s see if it works in reality.

    I am now going to go back through the people I have helped in the past and see how open they are to an approach from me. I suspect that they will not welcome it as it might remind them of a difficult time and a period of vulnerability – AND I never made my expectation explicit. Perhaps it’s around being a combination of brave and a grown-up!

    1. Thanks Julia. I probably wasn’t clear on this – I am personally a big fan of giving stuff away, and I’m learning a huge amount both from writing the post and now absorbing all the feedback. So yes – Ramit suggesting that savvy is about ‘can you help me as well?’ – I’m with you and him there I think – and what I’m trying to get straight in my mind now is how much I gift and to what extent do I cocreate value through reciprocity? No hard and fast answer but for sure I feel a lot better informed and comfortable compared to when I first started putting this post together.

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