You should probably do free work.
Let me go a step further.
You need to do free work.
Yep, I said it. You should pour your blood, sweat, and tears into a project without direct financial compensation.
“But Brent?! You’re the purveyor of high-value work for high-value pay?!!!”
I know. Head explosion.
Before you freak out on me, here’s what free work has done for me:
- Allowed me to scale up in a new market from zero clients to thirty-five website clients in less than six months
- Helped me break into the restaurant market by working with a champion that added credibility and critical introductions to my business
- Built me an email list of hundreds of nonprofits that wanted our agency’s services
- Paved the way for a 7-figure per year product through in-depth Customer Development
- It’s been the spark that’s helped me generate over $12,000,000 in my businesses
So much for free work being a bad idea. By the end of this article, I’m going to explain how free work can fit into your business’s growth strategy and specific steps to help you get the most out of the tactic.
You’re Moving Too Slow
One of my coaching clients spent six months attending conferences, cold calling prospects, and doing her best to network within her market to gain traction. I encouraged her to “cut a deal” to get the first client within her market. This offer could be a huge price cut to mitigate risk for her first mover or offering to make phase one of the project entirely free.
Humans are social animals. Group-thinkers. There is incredible power, trust, and authority in getting the first domino to tip. I explained that once the herd saw one of their own trust her agency, others would follow.
She refused. She said something along the lines of, “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t do free work anymore.”
I relented. Back to the drawing board.
A sweet combination of ego and hubris handcuffing her to stagnation. The mindset that I’m better than that. That, somehow, giving away our time is out of integrity with our standards of how we believe the world should work.
Instead of leveraging her skills to break in and prove, and position, she slogged away at building relationships where there was no credibility. Prospects would say things like:
- Can you show me what you’ve done for others like me?
- Do you have any results from companies in this market?
- Have you worked with anyone else?
Her prospects were cold. There was no trust. They viewed her as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Another carpetbagger is strolling into their territory looking for a buck.
So six months went by, and she started losing hope. She had spent a grip of money on conferences, flights, hotels, to be still empty-handed.
It broke my heart. My client still refused to do free work in exchange for a position in the market.
“If I’m going to be successful in this market, it’s going to be on my terms.”
There was a deeply held belief that free work and the devil were buddies.
All right then. Let’s go back to square one.
Why the heck does the creative industry hate free work?
Positioning Work is Not Spec
- Want free work in exchange for a promise future business (that never pans out)
- Want free work now, and if it’s good they’ll pay you later, i.e., spec work
- Want free or discounted work because they’re a charity
- Want free work in exchange for “exposure”
- Want free work because they’re cheap and entitled, or were mistreated as a youth
These cheapskate clients are easy targets for a laugh. Our industry leaders brainwash you to believe free work is terrible. Evil even.
“You will be the laughing stock of the designer community if anyone finds out you worked for free!”
The subtle nuance in most of these cautionary tales and mantras, is these clients are approaching you and requesting free work because they don’t have money, have wrong expectations, and are probably bad clients.
I agree, this type of free work is terrible and will be a dead end road for your agency.
My approach to free work is fundamentally different from the free work the internet has indoctrinated you to avoid.
When I do work for free, it falls into one of these buckets:
- Market research
- Customer development
- Positioning work
In all cases, I’m the one bringing the offer to the table. The clients I offer it to are those I have researched, strategized around, and quantified what I want in return.
Let me show you how one well-placed market champion got me thirty plus clients in six months:
I wanted to break into a new market that I lacked the necessary experience and had no existing clients within the market. I sought out a market champion, a well-connected influencer in the market. I spent a few weeks building a healthy relationship through informal chats and conversations about the problems that existed in the market.
Once I had a solid understanding of the pains, problems, and aspirations, I proposed a potential solution. I would solve my champions problems, free of charge, and in exchange, she would introduce me to five other businesses in the market that would hire me for a fifty percent reduced fee. Another term my champion agreed to was a warm introduction to another strategic partner or prospect every month for ongoing free labor and support.
The five early adopters in the market agreed to provide me with three warm introductions to other potential prospects within the market that I had yet to meet. There was no contingency that these folks were going to sign up in exchange for the discount. However, by the time I was showing up for my third-level connection calls, I was well versed in the inner-workings of their issues. I could speak to their most significant problems better than they could.
I was batting 75% or higher on winning accounts because my offer was well researched, tested, and proven. Within six months I had thirty-five customers in the market and an email list with another couple hundred prospects. I had open communication with several strategic partners and was being asked to speak at the major industry conference.
I had a market position.
This method works so well. I leveraged free work to break into a market often regarded as a dead-end: restaurants.
Breaking Into a Tough Market
One of the problems with the general free or spec work that agency owners abhor is the clients they are doing it for are in the bottom 10% of their market. Bottom feeders. Low-value mindsets, not connectors, and looking for a free ride.
The clients I do free work for are the top 5% of a market. They are the super-connectors. The influencers. The clients that can get anyone in the market you want to break into to reply to an email, take a meeting, or pick up the phone.
You could spend ten or twenty years building up a reputation in a market, or you can work with someone that already has that level of credibility. You can let that reputation wash over your business through the power of association and make it launch you to the next level within weeks or months.
I like shortcuts.
My late mentor and restaurateur, Noel Cunningham, was so revered in Denver, other restaurants wanted to work with me just because they wanted to buddy up with Noel. I would show up at meetings, and they would say, “We’ve already decided to go with your firm, if Noel trusts you, we trust you.”
And this is the restaurant industry!
The one I hear countless stories from agency owners about how it’s impossible to get them to pay you or trust you or break in. In a matter of a couple of years, we went from a nobody to running the digital marketing for dozens of Denver-based brands.
All because we had one well-placed positioning client and market champion.
I built Noel’s first restaurant website on spec so he would take notice. Then we cut a deal. In exchange for ongoing digital marketing, I would get a trade balance at his restaurant. I was never paid a dollar in hard cash for services rendered. I worked my butt off and, in return, I got free pasta and introductions to restaurant owners.
This idea worked so well. I also built Noel’s charity’s website for free. After we did this for his nonprofit, he introduced me to a dozen nonprofits in Denver that became paid clients. Which then led to a ton of referrals from those clients and inbound traffic from “design by” links on the footers of the top charity organizations in Denver, leading to even more paid work.
The free work for his charity brought me to Ethiopia on four occasions which pushed me to become a leader in the Denver community, earning me even more high paying clients. Not to mention the whole experience changed my life forever.
So much for free work not panning out.
Positioning work is just one type of free labor that can lead to much future business. I also use free work as a tactic for market research and developing new products. Let’s break that down for you.
Developing Products and Services
When we first started thinking about how UGURUS would help web professionals and digital agencies to make more money and achieve freedom in their business and life, we built some video courses teaching my sales process.
After about a year, I reached out to a list of customers and talked to them about how much of the video course they had implemented in their own business. I offered them a free coaching call in exchange for a little time learning about how they used our product.
Instead of chasing down people by cold calling to get feedback, the free coaching offer booked 72 calls on my calendar in a single week. By the end, I was thoroughly sauteed in market insights, and I had a lot of momentum and goodwill with the value I provided.
(Caution: Seventy-two thirty minute calls in a week will fry you.)
I learned that a small percentage of customers had applied the concepts and now had agencies that were taking off. Another portion applied a couple of concepts and were overall happy with the experience. The problem I discovered when researching was the portion of folks that never cracked the book. Or they got stuck on a snag and never applied the concepts of the program to their business.
So I had an idea. What if I added a coaching and consulting element to our product line to push digital agency owners to apply these methods to their business. What if I stood over them and held them accountable, answered their questions in real time, and dug below the surface to help them get unstuck.
Sounds great right?
The problem was, I had never done that before.
So I hand-selected five digital agency owners. I made sure each lined up with one of the customer avatars our team mapped out for the market. Then, I offered them six months of free one on one coaching in exchange for being able to use their stories for research and marketing.
I did it all for…
Every week I showed up. I took copious notes about their problems. Gave suggestions on how to apply our methods into their agency. I tested methods for coaching and accountability.
The results were incredible. I forever changed businesses and lives for the better.
After months and months of free work, I launched our Bootcamp program teaching web professionals how to land ten thousand dollar projects.
This mentorship-driven program became a seven-figure a year product within 12-months. The program has now morphed into an MBA-style, multi-year program helping digital agencies dominate their market. I estimate that within the next six years, all-in, I’ll have generated over twenty million dollars in revenue from this initial free work.
So much for free being a bad idea.
You might be thinking, “but why not charge for this initial coaching work?”
Let’s tackle that sacred cow next.
There’s Control in Free
I’m sure I could have gone to my initial digital agency owner coaching clients and offered my services for a fee. You can approach customer development by offering to do paid work. Instead of doing free work, use payment as the ultimate form of validation. I agree that cash as a form of validation should happen as soon as possible.
However, structuring my mentorship services as free the first time around gave me incredible latitude. I could run the show to my specifications. If I wanted to stop after a couple of weeks, no problem. If I wanted to change the agenda of the meetings, no fret. If I wanted to change the duration of sessions or the structure or framework I was working within, no issue.
When I was working for Noel’s restaurant, he gave me incredible flexibility in experimenting with marketing tactics to drive people through the door. He even let me create special offers and happy hour promotions that changed pricing at the restaurant.
After we built Noel’s charity website, we started running a ten thousand dollar website giveaway contest every year. Hundreds of nonprofits would apply for this grant. The winners were at our beckoning. We could run the projects exactly how we wanted, and each time we built a free site, we tried radically different approaches to our work to help improve our agency’s processes.
We had our free clients sign “commitment papers” telling them how to be awesome clients. We figured since they weren’t paying us, we needed something to hold their feet to the fire. It worked so well that we rolled it out to our paid clients.
Here’s how I recommend approaching free for your business:
1. Define your strategy
Why are you considering free work? I mentioned three good reasons before: market research, customer development, and market positioning. In the early days of market domination, leveraging your work as an accelerant can pay huge dividends later. Instead of bumbling around a market trying to build credibility, you can use your skills and talents to replace talk with action. You can consider free work as a form of marketing and advertising expense. It can help with:
- Market position
- Accelerate adoption in a market
2. Build your list
Doing free work is not a reaction to a client requesting you to do spec or work for “exposure.” You need to identify possible companies in the market you want to dominate and make sure they meet a few criteria. They are:
- Ideal customers in your market
- Well connected with others
- Willing to make introductions
- Open to your leadership
- Excited to help you bring a new level of product or service to their market
I recommend starting with a list because there is a high probability the companies or organizations you reach out to won’t pan out like you initially hope. Sure, free work is compelling, but they might already have a provider and while tempted, won’t be interested in your offer no matter how sweet. Don’t stake your whole strategy on one champion. Stack the deck in your favor by having a dozen or more great options.
Also, let your prospective market champion or test client know you have a list of options for this relationship. That this offer isn’t a sure thing and if they are going to qualify for this massive investment of time and resources, they’ll need to meet specific requirements. Turn the tables of pursuit:
“We pursue that which retreats from us.” – Dex in the Tao of Steve
3. Make contact, build a relationship first
Emailing companies cold offers to do their website, digital marketing, app development, or branding work out of nowhere will probably be regarded as spam. I approach people that I might work for free under the frame of customer development. I’m wanting to get their insight on whether my products or services are going to be a good fit for the market they’re in, and I solicit their feedback. This outbound connection request is what I call a “no sale” meeting or interview. After I’ve built a relationship, and have a good feeling for the type of client and connector they would be for me in the market, I will propose a give/get.
Here is an example of a customer development interview email:
4. Define and offer your give/get
Doing five, ten, or twenty thousand dollars worth of free work is not something I do “for kicks.” I’m clear with my clients about what I expect in return. I’m going to treat them as my best customer, and I demand value in return. If it’s market research, I might expect them to conduct many feedback interviews that might take up a chunk of their time. If it’s breaking into a new market, I’m going to expect introductions to others in the market including potential prospects, influencers, and channel partners. Being upfront by saying, “I expect ten warm introductions to companies like XYZ…”
Make sure you:
- Define what you are giving
- Define what they are giving
- Put it in writing
Here are some examples of give/gets:
- 100% free
- 30-70% discount
- Warm introductions to prospects, channel partners, influencers, associations, etc.
- Access to a list (to promote a service, webinar, etc.)
- Feedback interviews
- Experimentation or testing
- Endorsements, testimonials, and references
- Access to stages (keynotes, podcasts, webinars, etc.)
5. Treat your free clients like your best customer
An early mistake I made when doing some free work in exchange for sponsorship, was treating the client different than my usual paid work. We took a “we’ll do this when we have time” approach and it bit us hard. We missed some deadlines and the relationship soured. They ended up paying another firm to take over the project and we lost a bit of momentum and credibility in the market. I learned from my mistake and from that point forward, we treated free work as identical to our other endeavors. Most of the time, I just avoided telling my team how compensation was structured keeping them blind to the setup.
The investment clients pay you normally isn’t the only cost involved for them. Most of the time our clients are paying us to solve costly problems or pursue valuable opportunities. Just because you are giving this work to your client for free, doesn’t mean they need it any less. If you fail to deliver the value they need, they’ll likely move on and pay someone to do the work – and the whole point of you investing in this tactic will get thrown out the window.
6. Follow up on your “get”
Don’t throw your investment of time (and money if you’re paying staff) down the toilet by failing to follow up on their side of the bargain. If you have a written expectation that they will be introducing you to five new contacts per month for a period of several months, get your introductions. Free work arrangements aren’t super common, and it’s easy for clients to make a few openings that lead to paid gigs and call it a day.
If I donate $10,000 in work, I would expect about thirty introductions over six months. I’m buying warm leads for about three hundred dollars a pop. That’s a lot of money to market your business. Treat it as such.
7. Free work is a short-term tactic
I wouldn’t have a business if I offered every restaurant I worked with a trade agreement instead of payment. Sure, I’d have a fantastic dining schedule, and if I had enough paid work from other niches, maybe my business would survive. I recommend free work when breaking into a new niche or retooling your way through an existing market. Or, if you are looking to level up to a new tier within the market, getting a market influencer or celebrity endorsement could help make that happen. However, my recommendation is to shift from free to paid as fast as possible. In aggregate, the free mentorship work I did was a .005% investment of the revenue I earned over the last five years. You should be aiming for a similar ratio over that period.
By following these seven steps, you can make sure when you choose to do work for free, you do it the right way.
Using free as a part of your market adoption, acceleration, and domination strategy can be a powerful tactic. You can cut through months – or years – of credibility struggle. If there is a market influencer and super connector that has built up a reputation and relationships in your market through ten or twenty or more years experience in the market you want to serve, that’s worth a lot.
Why not stand on the shoulders of giants and leverage their experience and network?
Why not grease the wheels of adversity with a godfather offer?
I’ve been able to leverage free work to break into a half dozen different markets and plan to continue using the tactic when appropriate. I’ve found that it can save so much time and build a solid foundation for trust, credibility, and momentum.
If you are struggling to gain traction in your niche, I challenge you to consider this approach. Find a client champion that is willing to trust you to help their company or organization in exchange they’ll introduce and recommend you to the who’s who in the market overnight.
It might just be the tactic that finally turns the tide for you.
If you have questions about first steps, let me know in the comments below. I’m happy to help you structure the right approach for your situation.