Monday, April 04, 2011

Working for Free Can Pay. Sometimes.

I'm reading: Working for Free Can Pay. Sometimes.Tweet this!

Can I pick your brain? Many of my momblogging and social media colleagues field this request on a regular basis. Among my peers, this innocent (and admittedly not always so innocent) question has a variety of answers:

  • Sure, let's set up a call.
  • The first 15 minutes are free!
  • Okay, please note my fee is $ an hour; let me know when you'd like to talk.
In my experience, a friendly exchange or two often (but not always) leads to a deeper and more meaningful (i.e. paid) client engagement. Jessica Smith wrote a smart piece about the potential pay off for letting people tap into your wisdom for free.

Sometimes, a potential client merely wants to explain their project and assess your fit; they want to give you the background and feel you out.

Which is not to say that some potential clients aren't fishing around for ideas on the cheap. It happens.

In recent weeks I've been thinking about this as it relates to our house hunt. We've looked at many older houses that need serious, costly renovations. On more than one occasion, we've asked a contractor to stop in while we check out the house to share some thoughts on potential improvements and related costs.

We haven't paid these contractors any fees nor have we signed any contracts committing to work with them, but in the 30-60 minutes (they are often chattier than I expect) we spend together, I get a sense of their personalities, experience and professionalism, as well as their home improvement ideas. I feel out what it might be like to work together- does he listen to my ideas and needs, or is he trying to get us to build something that will look stunning on the front page of his website?

Once we find a home and decide what renovations are needed (kitchen and bath updates, raising the roof or ~gulp~ adding an entire level to the house), we'll seek a handful of competitive bids, meaning that several folks will spend a bit of time considering our project(s) and talking to us, but only one will actually receive a hefty payment.

It's the cost of doing business. For contractors as well as a variety of creative professionals and consultants it's a way of life. So yeah, sometimes I give it away for free.

That said, there are many factors that determine how much, if any time, I'm willing to put forth building a relationship with a potential client.

1. One is a simple gut check- is there going to be a worthwhile payoff? Sometimes the payoff might be a long-term thing (delving into a new niche, building your brand, or getting a foot in the door, for example) and sometimes it's in the here and now.

2. What is the ask? I've learned (well, am still learning) to provide enough information to demonstrate my competence and understanding of the client's needs without laying all my cards on the table.

This can be especially tricky and I know people who have been burned in the past by revealing a bit too much of their brilliance without a contract or non-disclosure to protect them. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free, right?

I might have once promised a potential client that I'd make no bones about calling in the lawyers if I saw them implementing my very specific and unique campaign idea. But the reality is, I'd only say something like that if I was uneasy about the relationship to begin with. In that case, I was. And I ultimately wasted several hours with very little payoff.

3. What is the time commitment? I'm typically up for a few minutes on the phone, but much less likely to show up for an in-person meeting without a signed contract already in hand.

Are you willing to share your ideas for free? What questions do you seek to answer before you open up your brain for picking?

Just for fun: Should I work for Free?

Want to talk social media with me? Check out the MomImpact Office Hour. On a few Thursday afternoons each month, I make myself available for free brain picking on all things social media and mombloggers. See the MomImpact website or Facebook page for details.

This Thursday, 4/7/11, we'll be talking about contract basics with blogger/attorney Sara Hawkins.


Kelly said...

As you said it's a tough balance. Trying to show you are competent and know what you are talking about without being specific is tough. I find that listening on that initial call and being clear about what I feel they are looking for (and if it's something I can offer). I usually offer a simplified session where I can be paid for sharing my ideas and then if they choose to implement them there's no hard feelings.

Unfortunately I think it's one of those things that we learn as we go,and sometimes that means we have to learn things the hard way.

Sandra @ Albany Kid said...

Isn't working for free also dependent on where you are in your career? As a former SAHM transitioning into the work force, I feel like I need to do a lot to prove myself. And it's always been in my nature to volunteer anyway. But I can see that as I get busier and busier, I'm going to have to make some tough decisions as to what I give away on speculation.

Jessica Smith said...

Thanks for linking to my post, Kim! I love how you connected the dots from freelancers and consultants to the home improvement contractor. This holds true for a lot of industries. There's a person in my community who always offers free computer advice on our community message board. He also keeps everyone abreast of known computer viruses and software updates. You can bet that when someone has a computer problem - he's the first one they call. Which is why he does it. Great post!

Naomi said...

It is hard to find a balance because there's always someone who will take advantage of your time and talent if you let them. Many women are reluctant to put a price tag on all they do, especially if they consider themselves "just a mom" with a blog on the side.

Lisa Noel said...

My full time gig is as a office manager for an electrical construction company and I deal with this there regulalry too. In some ways the comparison works, but in some it doesn't. When we are called for an estimate, which is free time, its a customer asking for more information on our pricing. Maybe they want to know about what other work we've done. But they aren't looking for creative input. I think it's harder when you are talking about a field where people you are talking creative plans. It becomes harder to feel that line of proving yourself and screwing yourself. However, I still work for free regularly. Not on the consultant side as I haven't done that sort of work yet, but on the straight blogging side. know people who say they are being paid $100 for posts I still do for free. I know this makes some bloggers crazy because they think that screws them over. But I'm still working to build my traffic so I do posts that I think will bring traffic as long as its a realistic fit for my blog.
Someday I'd love to be getting $100 for an hour of my time but I just don't think its a realistic expectation at this point.

Maris (In Good Taste) said...

I think it depends on where you are in your career. If experience is important to you it's important to give a little for future payoff.

The other exception is, most strong businesses do SOME pro bono work.

But in either case, if you feel like you're being taken advantage of you probably are. It needs to feel right.

Kim Moldofsky said...

@Kelly I know. It's a fine line. In the end I often default to the "nice" position. But as some have pointed out, that can serve you well in the long-term. Sometimes.

@Sandra Agreed. I think the more one feels she has something to prove, the more she might be willing to cut her losses and think about the big picture. Plus, one of the challenges of the momspace is there's pretty much always someone waiting in the wings eager to provide something for free even if you are not. Maybe as @Jessica points out, the "free" now will help you stay top of mind for when that client or their colleague does have a budget.

@Naomi Another good point. I think many do see moms as an "easy" crowd. I'm pleased to have found clients who have a great respect for moms in general and sharp social media moms, in particular.

@Lisa thanks for your comment and the shout-out in your Twitter daily! "Free" is really tough in creative domains.

In the end, much of what I sell is my ideas and I know if I share too many, or even just one with too much detail, a sleazy client may just take that and run with it.

Duong said...

I know that phrase, "Can I pick Your Brain" can get pretty old and can be abused. However, I've seen the benefits of people working for FREE pay off in big ways.

One ei: A friend of mine was out of work and offered a company her skills FREE for 6 weeks...she ended up landed a full time position w/amazing pay. Before the 6 weeks...well, she was unemployed getting zip.

If you can work that hard for an organization for FREE, imagine how much harder you'd work with a salary and opportunities for advancement.

I know where you are at in your own personal life, what your needs are and you are the controller of your life/destiny and if you choose to work for free. So be it.


Rachel Boldman said...

Thanks for sharing some of your brilliance with me :)

Michele Dortch said...

I tend to be a giver, so I will unconsciously offer valuable advice for free and talk myself right out of a client engagement. It's something that I've learned to manage well the longer I've been in business. It's definitely a tough balance. On the one hand you want to be seen as a helpful person, but at the same time you've got to keep the lights on!

My best advice, especially to those just launching a business or returning to the workforce, is really take stock of your talent (especially women) and its value. Too often we tell ourselves that we need to work for free to prove our ability or show a track record for success. I would start by assessing where you've already been successful and find ways to communicate the value of those transferrable skills.

For example, I could write a book (and someone probably already has) about the leadership and management lessons I've gleaned from being a mother of 3 and YES those dovetail perfectly into the traditional workforce. Similar to volunteer work. It drives me CRAZY when I hear mothers re-entering the workforce discount the leadership and administrative talent it takes to manage a PTA or other community group.

Every experience you have matters and has value. It's just a matter of articulating that value in a meaningful way and asking to be paid for it.

Oh man...I could go on for days Kim because I could talk up the other side of this too: there is definitely value in working for free -- sometimes. Just don't let it become your habit!

As always, thanks for bringing to light a meaty topic!