Bring on the money! Working for free…

Thinkstock Single Image SetOk, so I’ll admit it . . . I wrote this post a while back called “Give it Away . . . For Free!” sharing how free advice will ultimately pay off and bring good karma. And yes, I still stand by everything I wrote. But perhaps I’m seeing business bottom line with more of an ice cold eye than I once did.

On an episode of Kell on Earth, Kelly Cutrone struggles with people constantly asking for free advice, actually taking a cell phone call from the uncle of her daughter’s school friend. He inquired about his own business (whatever it was) and asked what he should be doing. But, Cutrone owns her own business (People’s Revolution) and she has to worry about paying her employees and getting food on the table for her seven year old daughter (oh, and paying for her country house in France…technicality). Constantly dolling out free advice sets her back in her day taking away valuable time from her paying clients.

With the economy being as bad as it is, I say it’s perfectly OK to be selfish focused and concentrate on the paid jobs first and foremost (really, regardless of the economy, this is how it should always be). I receive calls and questions all the time about offering my firm’s PR services for free for nonprofit events. That’s not even my decision to make as an AC, but I’ve started to just say “no.” I mean no harm and usually give 10 or so minutes of free advice telling the person where to send a release to and the best way to approach pitching the media about the nonprofit event. Nine times out of ten I even go to the event. My firm also does work on barter or pro bono with a few organizations which I have found somewhat of an industry standard. I myself am heavily involved in helping two nonprofit organizations with pro bono PR work. It’s important! But if we say “yes” to everyone who asks for help, there’s no time left to earn the money. Then where does that leave us? Yeah – no one will be asking us for our advice when we‘re out of a job or have closed shop, will they? Man, I can’t imagine how lawyers feel.

Have you ever been approached for free work and free advice? What’s your outlook on it and how do you approach saying “no.” If you say “yes,” where do you lay the boundaries? Has it worked? I think this is a fair discussion especially for firm professionals and solo practitioners.

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  • seanathompson

    I see your point, and you definitely need to draw the line somewhere when it comes to pro bono work. And from your post, it sounds like you actually do a lot of free consulting for nonprofits anyway, which is great!

    Might there also be something to be said for developing a strong reputation by doing free consulting? Probably less necessary at a firm, but even so, it could give you new networking opportunities for the future.

  • Rachel Lom

    I haven't had this happen too often, as I am a solo practitioner. However, when it has, here are the ways I've dealt with it. If it's a casual conversation when out socially or at my child's event, etc., I dole out advice and most often that's all they were looking for (direction or guidance). If it's a non-profit group, I let them know I offer a reduced rate. They get a deal and I get something for my time. If it's a regularly-paying client who has a non-profit or outreach PROJECT they're working on, I often volunteer or provide the services at no charge. And finally, if I just see an opportunity that a client would benefit from that is outside my current relationship with them, I simply pass it along as a suggestion. Sometimes it takes a little work on my end, but it's worth the relationship-building it provides. As a solo practitioner, I learned I need to set boundaries and establish “rules” for responding to requests because there's nobody else to pick up the slack if I'm not billable. I assume I'll never be completely billable and allow for those opportunities to volunteer and get involved, but within some set parameters. It keeps everyone happy.

  • Absolutely! You bring up a great point – some free consultation can get your name out there and create connections you might have never made otherwise. This is probably a great idea for people who are new to the area or are just breaking out on their own.

  • Hi Katie,
    As a technology consultant, I have a similar problem, but to date, I haven't encountered a lot of people who expect to get my help for free. But sometimes you get someone who wants to tell you a story about how their wireless router keeps dropping out, or how their printer doesn't work (printers are the devil's work, by the way). I'll sympathize, but unless it's a close friend or a special circumstance, I don't try to help them because once you get ensnared in one problem, it inevitably leads to other related problems and before you know it, you've become their free help desk.

    One technique that works quite well is to refer the person to someone you know and say, “he/she is very good and only charges $X/hr”. They usually get the point. 🙂

  • Great advice! Thanks so much for your input.

  • kmskala

    I agree. Shocking, I know!

    You hit on all the right reasons. A tough line, but something you need to take seriously. I had a recent conversation with a local PR pro in Minneapolis, who indicated that since he's gone solo, he's been getting more and more people wanting his time just to “bounce ideas around.” However, there comes a time when you need to put your foot down and let people know that this is how you make a living and you can't continue to give away free advice.

    It's great and essential to give back and help out where you can, but you can't give away the farm. Otherwise, why would anyone pay for your services?

  • jeffespo

    Kate – this is a great post and one that I have struggled with at times. While it is great to help friends and people who ask for help but at the end of the day it comes out to how much is this worth.

    I know you're a good person and very amiable, but at the end of the day how many of these people would give you their services for free? Probably not many so don't feel bad asking for some compensation for your time.

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