Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
Your lack of budget is a you problem
We get asked to work for free all the time, so this week some thoughts on dealing with that.
It’s amazing how many salaried people will straight-up ask suppliers to work for their company for free. Would they do their job for free? Do they report to a CEO who works for free?
I have sometimes asked this of particularly shameless scavengers. They seem quite mystified by the question, like us doing free work vs them doing it personally are completely different things.
Because, in their mind, they are so great that any association with their brand is something everyone would want.
“We don’t have the budget for it,” they will say.
I’m sorry, that’s your problem, not mine.
I don’t have the budget for plenty of things I’d like, like waterfront houses or a single $4822 bottle of Bruno Giacosa Rionda Barolo and that’s why I don’t own them.
They don’t value that thing you do
The people who want you to work for free aren’t going to turn into a good paying customer once you’ve “proved” yourself or whatever.
What they’re really saying is that they don’t value the thing you do.
My old field of marketing is particularly cursed by this mindset. The number of times I’ve heard managerial types say: “We can’t afford to do this project, why don’t you get some marketing students in to do it for free?”
Cool idea, why not get some third-year accounting students to manage your tax affairs while you’re at it?
A helpful question to ask
If you’re starting out, you need the work and you’re trying to build a reputation. You can’t just lay down the law about what you charge. But it really helps to push back from the start.
Here’s a thing to ask people who want you to work for free: why did you approach me, rather than someone else?
It’s interesting to see if they come up with anything specific. Other than you seemed like someone who would work for free, a powerless, easy mark for their grift. (They won’t say those words, of course, but if they come out with a stream of meaningless words like we felt it’d be a great opportunity for you, that’s what they’re really saying.)
If they can express a concrete reason for using you — that they’ve seen your work and liked it, that they’ve heard you’re reliable, that someone said you were a great person to work with — that’s a good signal and a place to start negotiations.
Tell them you’re flattered by the reviews, and would like to work with them, but not for free. “I believe my work is worth more than that”. You can be sympathetic to their budget issues without totally caving in.
Standing up for yourself makes you more desirable, because it shows the pride you have in your work, and yourself, rather than a needy surrender.
If they use the e-word, run away
If they use the e-word – “it’ll be great exposure for you” — don’t walk away.
Nothing good will come of it. Artists, musicians, photographers and others in creative fields get the worst of this. Because “clients” think creative work is fun and so rewarding that the spiritual benefits transcend mere money.
And there’s a special place in hell for wannabe influencers wanting all their luxury desires served up free from businesses who have to pay their staff.
But even in the regular business world, you’ll get plenty of zero budget deal-seekers who reckon they’ll deliver the exposure you need.
Here’s the sort of exposure you want: the sort you seek out, in circumstances chosen by you, to your ideal audience. Think of it like an up-and-coming band. Who do you want your business to be a support act for? Who has the exact audience you want?
What is a stellar brand you want to be associated with, to have on your credibility list? Seek them out and see if they’re up for a free/discount project, rather than dealing with whatever random enquiries fate serves up to you.
We do free “exposure” work with our industry partners, because it’s a qualified audience of people we know will spend money in future. Plus it builds our relationship with those partners. It allows us to create an experience on our terms, where we know people can see us at our best. Rather than the usual acknowledgement of a logo posted somewhere amid twenty others.
On your own terms, free work is a legit, productive part of your business strategy.
We get daily requests to do free work for charities and causes, almost all of them worthy. But there are 60,000 registered charities in this country alone and you can’t say yes to all of them. Pick something you feel strongly about, make that your cause and support it hard. Feel good about it. It’s a fair point to make to others when they ask.
The downward spiral of free work
Obviously not every client has the big budget. It’s an essential business skill, particularly in service industries, to discuss what can be done within a modest amount of money. There are ways of making almost everything cheaper with compromises on both sides.
Do a deal, but make them work for each element. If you just throw in the usual service at a bargain-bin price, it’s an insult to your top-shelf clients.
Free work does neither side any long-term favours. If you’re doing the free work for too long, it’ll destroy your self-esteem.
If you’re asking for free work: clients who are always on the scrounge apply that mentality across their whole business. They apply it to their own staff, to product development, to their brand, and it shows.
It’s not going to kill the business, but it attracts customers with the same mindset. They can sense it. No way are they paying full price. Low margins keep the whole cheapskate cycle rolling.
Is that what you want your whole working life?
Got a comment?
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