Is it ever ok to work for free?

Written by  //  June 16, 2013  //  Daily Juice  //  No comments

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Today I’m thinking about free and in particular the times when you and I are asked to do stuff for free.


I’m quite happy to do things for free, and in fact – one way or another- I do quite a lot of it. But I try to be super-selective about it. I have to because back in the old days, when I didn’t give “freebies” enough thought, I wasted a lot of time doing great stuff for people that didn’t appreciate it, and projects that weren’t worth it.


I’m almost still cranky about it.


Nowadays I have five questions I go through to help me decide whether or not to give a freebie.  


1. There are five reasons to work for free, which one is it?


There are five common reasons to give a freebie. Now not all these reasons are deserving of a freebie, but we’ll get to that later. To start with I just decide which of the five is the reason I’m even contemplating doing ‘free’.


1.It’s good “exposure”

This is the most common reason for being asked to do a freebie. The idea is that you give your product for free and lots of people will hear about you. Donating cakes to a function or writing a column for a magazine are examples.


2.It will give good credibility

This is when you do something for free for a well know person or large organisation because it gives you credibilty. So making a birthday cake for Nigella Lawson would give heaps of credibility.


3.It’s a way to trial a new product

Sometime you give a freebie because you need to have a go with a real life customer. This could be your first wedding cake


4.It’s for family and friends

Not totally unreasonably, family and friends expect the occasional thing for free. The trouble comes when pretty well all your customers are family or friends…..


5.It’s for someone who ‘needs’ it but can’t afford it

We’re often asked to give freebies for “charitable” reasons.Mostly these are genuine requests but there are some shonky people out there. More below!


2. How much will it cost?


There are two types of cost – money and time – and I try to estimate them both.


Money costs

Mostly I think if someone is asking for a freebie they should reimburse you for any money costs you incur. So if someone asks you to make a cake for them, they buy the ingredients.


You can’t always do this and sometimes the benefits of the opportunity (Nigella’s birthday cake, say) outweigh the cost of the ingredients. It’s your call, but I think you should definitely ask for family and friends to pay ‘out of pocket costs’, mostly ask ‘charities’ and as often as possible get reimbursed for ‘exposure’ opportunities.


Time costs

Really the biggest cost of doing a freebie is time. And we don’t have much of that do we?! I think it’s usually quite easy to estimate how long a freebie will take to do. We just resist doing the calculation because that’s when we realise how ‘expensive’ it is! Once I’ve worked out how long it will take I I convert that into a cost (some tips here on hourly rates). And, can I say, that really focuses my mind!


3. How much is left in my ‘free’ budget?


At the start of the year I set myself a ‘free’ time budget for each of the ‘reasons’ in Step 1 above. I find this super-useful because it forces me to ask whether the freebie being requested is the best use of the budget.


Here’s an example. I’m often asked to write free articles for various publications. Although this is good exposure (more on that later!) I still set a limit for how much I will do as I also need to do spend my time on stuff that pays the bills. I have a set amount of hours I spend on free stuff for my ‘exposure’ pot and if a better ‘exposure’ opportunity comes in I have to jettison something else!


If you do no other budget, please do a ‘charity’ budget. I think we’re all asked to make lots of donations to “charitable” causes and with the best will in the world we can’t do them all. Setting a budget for what you do will help you feel more in control of the requests.


Keep track of how you’re using your ‘freebie’ budget. Start with the total “freebie” hours you plan to do in the year and deduct hours spent every time you do something for free. You can do this on a spreadsheet or in something like Evernote. Recording your ‘freebie’ time keeps you honest.


4. Is it worth it?


When I’m thinking about giving a freebie for business purposes (exposure type stuff) rather than altruistic reasons I try to work out whether the benefit is worth the cost.


Calculating the benefit isn’t so easy to do, but it’s worth having a go. I’ve got much better at asking questions rather than just being dazzled by the number of people who will “see my name”.


A friend of mine is in the cupcake business and she donated a little cupcake for each person attending an event. There were more than 800 attendees. Gulp! She tracked her sales for 3 months after the event and specifically asked customers if they had discovered her from attending the event. Only five said they had. Five!


Since then she’s been much more rigorous about checking out who the ‘consumers’ will be when she does a ‘freebie’, how much her name is mentioned, demanding good links back to her website, etc. She treats each ‘freebie’ like an expensive advertising opportunity and I think that’s a great tip.


5. Is it a ‘charity’?


Charity type stuff is a little tricky. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to people who are very deserving. The only way I can do this is to set my ‘free’ budget at the start of the year and stick to it. If I don’t feel a “charity” request is right for me I tell them that I set my “charity” budget at the start of the year and that it’s now fully allocated.


The other thing I do is to really check out the “charity”. There are some terribly unscrupulous people around. Enough said.


6. Is it for ‘family and friends’?


It’s super-hard to say ‘no’ to family and friends. What works best for me is giving them a ‘mates rate’. The way I do it is to first tell them what the proper price is and then I offer to do it at my cheaper ‘mates rate”. This usually keeps everyone happy.


And that’s it for my tips. If you’re plagued with requests for free here are a few other things to read.


1. This one is terribly good. It’s about writing for free but it’s so funny you’ve just got to read it.


2. This one is a link to a question on freebies we posted on Facebook. There are some fabulously practical suggestions in here. As an aside, I’m giddy with delight that I’ve finally worked out how to link to a specific post on Facebook.


3. And this one is perfect if people ask you if they can “pick your brain” or have a coffee with you. A few coffees are fine. Full-time coffees will leave you hyper and penniless.


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