How to turn a profit from working for free

Elena Shalneva
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Rabbit And Piggy Bank
How to know when free work will lead to something and when you are simply being taken for a ride? (Source: Getty)

Earlier in my career, I read somewhere that the best way to market your business is to do some free work. This advice has served me well ever since, as offering free work to potential clients has proved to be the fastest and most effective way of convincing them to hire me.

Except when free work resolutely, deliberately stayed just that, and clients accepted my services with no intention of ever paying for them.

Recently, this phenomenon seems to be on the increase. The other day I checked the website of a healthcare company I had pitched to last year. At the time, I put in a good few weeks to prepare the pitch, my meetings with the company’s chief executive went swimmingly, and my advice was solicited eagerly. Then the chief executive disappeared, and I assumed that the project was not going ahead. That was until last week, when I looked at his company’s website and saw many of my original ideas staring me in the face.

Then there was the case of a friend of mine whom I helped with the launch of a VC firm a few years ago. With enviable persistence and an unshakeable belief that it was my privilege to help him earn his millions, he started coming back for more free advice. It eventually took a “please remove me from your email list” message to put an end to that unprofitable association.

However, I am still convinced that doing free work is the best way to market a business. But how to know when this work will lead to something, and when you are simply being taken for a ride?

The calibre of the client is usually a good indication. A company with high professional standards will quickly warn you against giving free advice if it believes there is no future. A company whose standards are less defined, however, may just try it on and see what it can get away with.

In the case of the healthcare business, all the signs were there. Their time-keeping was chaotic, their sense of self-importance inflated, and although the enthusiasm with which the chief executive called his company “unique” was commendable, his logic and argumentation were akin to a raving prophet on a street corner. These were all-round amateurs, and it was naïve to expect them to be too ethical when taking external advice.

The crucial question to consider before deciding whether to give away free work is how much you want the job. Or, indeed, how much you would enjoy the process.

Three years ago, I worked with a practice head in a magic circle law firm. I over-serviced the project considerably but my, was it worth it. These were the most satisfying, at times exhilarating, and without a doubt defining four months of my career. I enjoyed bouncing off his intellect. I liked challenging his logic and considerable powers of analysis. I admired his profession – the law – which I thought both rigorous and poetic, and to which, despite some lame attempts at sarcasm, he was genuinely devoted.

As a result, I took up presentation training as a career. His firm became one of my biggest clients. And in the end, he even offered to increase my fee (yes, a lawyer did that). This story should become an Insead case study on how to do free work to maximum effect.

And even though free work has never been quite as satisfying for me again, and even though some of my clients had few scruples, I maintain that it is by far the best way to grow a business. And if in doubt, take a chance. This is a risk worth taking.

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