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Taking the Free out of Freelance
Once upon a time, I received a phone call. This wasn't just any old call, but a call from a potential client. A very special call, indeed!
This potential client asked for some samples. Said he'd have lots of work for me to do in the future. Started a rapport. And everything was nice.
The potential client began sending me his own writing efforts and asking me to give them a "quick look." And I did. For this was a very special potential client, in whose hand was the key to everlasting riches!
But lo! When the $5,000 brochure project hove into view, the potential client did not turn to the faithful servant who had granted him so many free wishes. No, the potential client went out and found a well-known copywriter. A copywriter who didn't go around granting free wishes to all who passed, perchance. Prince Charming had lots of fun with the easy girl (a.k.a. me), but when it came time to propose, he chose the respectable girl who played hard-to-get. And so I sat at home in my ball gown, scrubbing the floors while my evil stepmother beat me.
I'm not the only IP who's been sucked into this scary fairy tale. In fact, it's such a common theme that you can probably find it in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss: IP needs client. Potential client asks IP for free work. IP does free work in hopes of gaining client. IP gets screwed.
Just to prove that I'm not the only IP to fall into this trap, here's another horror story.
"I wanted to obtain business from a client, so I agreed to develop their Web site for them," says Michael Sommermeyer, a former public relations IP who later started the tourism marketing and PR firm Assent Consulting. "They wanted me to do the work on spec so that they could 'evaluate' my work. I agreed because I saw it as a way to establish a relationship and obtain future work. This was early in my new business and I wanted a portfolio."
Sommermeyer developed the Web site and agreed to host it on his server. And what did he get for all this effort? He got squat. And not only that, but five years later, when Sommermeyer had built a thriving business with three employees, the moochers were still calling. "They expected us to make changes to their Web site whenever they called. I swear, they must have had 'They do free things' in their Rolodex," he complains. "We sent them a bill for design and support services after months of doing this work for free. After they received the bill they called and said that they were going to move their Web site and marketing needs to one of our competitors. I suppose the competitor also agreed to do the work for free, but for how long?" Actually, that may be a good marketing tactic: let your competitors do all the free labor while you rake in the paying work.
The Turn of the Screw
If you try to lure a client through free work, what happens when you suddenly start asking said potential client to cough up some dough? Bob Dabney, a former independent PR pro, was so eager to get business from a national golf organization that he offered to do a three-month test, gratis. He got the business, all right.
"The owner felt that he had to pay me and offered $275 a week," says Dabney. Nice, right? Not really. "I wish I had insisted on working for free, because when the test, which was extremely successful, ended, he refused to raise the level of compensation, which averaged out to about $5.85 an hour!"
What's more, if you work for nothing, potential clients may think you're worse than free -- they may think you're cheap. "Another client didn't want to work with a firm offering too many free services because they believed that if we were giving it away we couldn't be all that good," says Sommermeyer. "I guess the adage 'You get what you pay for' really applies. You can give it away and never make any money, or you can charge them market or above-market rates and make a good living."
It's true that doing free work is an easy way to build your resume. But if you're going to be charitable, you may as well give your work to an actual charity. That way, you build up your portfolio, you do a good deed -- and you don't feel like you have the word "sucker" stamped on your forehead. I know that I feel a lot better about doing pro bono work for the Massachusetts SPCA than for some freeloading for-profit firm.
"I donate my time," says Fran Capo, author, comedian, actor and the record-holding fastest-talking woman in the world (I have the interview tape to prove it). "For example, I'm reading kids a story for the TV station WLIW to promote a literacy program. Since it helps kids, I do it for free. But if a corporation wanted me to do a free reading for their Christmas party to gain more work from them later, I would turn it down."
Give It Away, Give It Away Now
Despite the 1,000 words of griping above, some IPs do manage to take advantage of the "free" in freelance to boost their profits. Take Kristin Taliaferro, an independent life coach who dubbed her business KristinCoach.com. As a coach, Taliaferro helps clients clarify what they want, teams up with them each week to give them focus and momentum, and cheers them along until they reach their goals.
Taliaferro built her business by giving away the store. "I built up my practice in six weeks, where it usually takes people a year," she says. "I did it by giving away 100 free sessions through my Web site, the Internet, and my newsletter." Of the people who took her up on the offer, 60 percent turned into clients.
Based on Taliaferro's success in getting something for nothing, this year 500 coaches who received training through Coach University (a school that offers coaching classes over the telephone from its home base in Colorado) are giving away a month of free coaching by phone to anyone who asks. "The whole idea is to give a lot of people exposure to coaching," says Taliaferro. "It's so hard to explain coaching, but once people experience it, it's a different thing."
Isn't she afraid that people will take advantage of the free offer, knowing in their miserly little hearts that they will never pay for coaching? "That's not a problem," she says. "The intention is not necessarily to recruit clients. We want people to get coached and go out and talk about it."
Perhaps the rest of us IPs (remember us, the ones who got screwed trying to lure clients with free goodies?) were going about it wrong. "When you give something away for free, you have say to yourself, 'I want people to have a good experience with this. I know that what I do is good and I feel others will be attracted to it,'" says Taliaferro. "You can't go into it with the mentality that you're doing it just so that you can get clients."
Taking out the "Free" and Giving 'em the "Lance"
So there you have it -- in some fairy tales you live happily ever after, and in others you get eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. If you're hungry for clients and think that doing work gratis will get you what you desire, go for it -- just use a contract that spells out what you expect to get in exchange for your work, such as testimonials, referrals, or the promise of paying assignments in the future. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes when you work for nothing, nothing is exactly what you get.
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