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?