Pricing Mistake 3: Working for Free
I'm Denise Duffield-Thomas, money mindset mentor, author and founder of The Money Bootcamp.
Over the last decade my books, courses and events have helped hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs like you to release your money blocks and earn the money you deserve.
Today we’re talking pricing and one of the big mistakes I see entrepreneurs make when setting their prices - working for free for too long.
One of the most symbolic milestones of your business journey is graduating from free to paid work.
For many, it feels like a leap too far, which is why otherwise talented entrepreneurs get stuck in their day jobs for way too long.
I very deliberately use the word “graduating“ when it comes to charging for your work because it should be a natural progression, like graduating from an unpaid internship into an actual paid job.
Real talk: Graduating from being a moonlighter (or hobbyist) to being a full-time entrepreneur requires you to actually charge people money!
At some point, you just have to decide that you’re ready and that, even if you never believe you’re good enough, you’re going to move forward.
The Chillpreneur way is realizing that your imperfection is perfect.
Because you’ll never feel ready, have enough testimonials, feel validated enough, or be free of doubts about whether you’re good enough.
That’s not going to change.
That’s the inner work you need to do, not the actual hard work and hustle.
Now, there’s a difference between working for free and intentional volunteer work.
It’s healthy and generous to build some philanthropy into your business, whether you’re giving time or money.
But know the difference.
Philanthropy usually feels good and has no other motive other than giving back.
If you’re being exploited, you’ll feel out of alignment.
Beyond philanthropy, you might decide to work for free strategically, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Valid reasons include:
- Gaining valuable experience
- Promoting your work
- As a sales strategy
- To gain exposure to your target market
Gaining Valuable Experience
Maybe you’re working toward a certification and need to log client hours to get certified.
Or you need testimonials for your website, test cases for your portfolio, or case studies for your blog.
In that case, working for free is the quickest way to achieve your goal. It’s totally fine: Get ‘em booked ASAP!
Just decide in advance how many clients you'll take on for experience purposes and cap it at that. You don’t need to live in apprentice mode forever.
You’re allowed to earn while you learn.
Promoting Your Work
Most businesses can find a way to let customers “try before they buy.“
For example, if you’ve got a book or a course, you can give away a chapter or some lessons for free and finish with, “If you liked this, here’s where you can buy the full version.“
Don’t forget to make the payment link really obvious. You don’t want to make people work to give you money.
As a Sales Strategy
People understandably want to see if there’s an energy fit before they commit to working with you, so doing a small (emphasis on small) amount of work for free can be an awesome sales strategy.
A lot of different service-based businesses can do this.
You could offer “mini makeovers“ for a web page (not the whole website), a free critique of a sales page, or copywriting feedback.
This isn’t working for free, and you have to be clear that it’s a taster or trial to see if working together is a win-win.
To Get in Front of Your Target Market
I do several interviews on podcasts a week, just to get in front of my target market. It’s totally a win-win situation.
However, nowadays I’m more selective about what I say yes to. It has to be a good fit, and it has to be a sizable audience.
I’ve done my apprenticeship and have been interviewed for a blog with five followers, but I’ve since graduated to blogs with a bigger reach.
When you’re starting out, say yes to almost every opportunity for the experience, and then become more discerning as you go on.
You’ll figure out what to say no to over time.
What About Speaking for Free?
I get asked to speak for free all the time, not just at local events in my hometown (which is an automatic no because I like to keep home and work separate geographically) but at events in different states and countries by organizers with zero budget.
Some thought “no harm in asking“ just in case I happened to be in their neighborhood on the other side of the world at the exact time and date of their event.
Um, no thank you. There’s a 100 percent chance I’m going to decline that “opportunity.“
Back in the blissful, carefree days before I had kids, I traveled around the world attending conferences all the time, so it was no big deal if I spoke at an event I would have paid for anyway. Why not?
After I had kids, I started adding up the true cost of speaking for free.
Most conference organizers booked the cheapest flight available, so I had to pay extra to check a bag or have more legroom, and they didn’t always pay for a taxi to the venue.
You’d be surprised how many organizers don’t provide food for speakers, so there are meals, snacks, and beverages to pay for.
There are also internet costs at the hotel plus tipping everyone from waiters to bellboys to taxi drivers.
To feel confident enough to perform well, I needed to look my best, so I usually have my hair and nails done.
And, now that I have kids, there’s the additional cost of childcare and the indirect cost of being away from my family.
Like many mothers, I feel obligated to make up that time with Mark and the kids when I return.
Then there’s prep time. All the “brain power“ invested in speaking for free comes at the cost of developing my own income-producing assets.
As an introvert, I also have to factor in recovery time.
Putting on a bra and Spanx to leave my house and be in a room full of hundreds of people can wipe me out for hours and sometimes days at a time!
If you don’t value your time, neither will others.
Let’s face it though: It’s wonderful to occasionally sleep through the night without my kids waking me up.
And I can be incredibly productive sitting in a quiet hotel room working on my book (which is where I’m writing this chapter).
I have a friend who gladly speaks for free as long as there’s a bathtub in the hotel room, so she can buy a magazine and soak for as long as she wants.
For her, that makes speaking for free worthwhile.
But get honest with yourself and calculate your costs: all of them.
Then you can decide if it’s worth doing.
Sometimes it is! Sometimes speaking for free is worth it if the audience is your target market and if enough potential clients are going to be there to make it worthwhile.
I’ve noticed that, when I’m speaking to the wrong crowd, it takes an enormous effort for me to “perform,“ and then I suffer for it later with a big integrity hangover that might take a few days to recover from.
I once got booked to do a cheap “inspirational“ keynote for a group of middle-management government workers.
I turned up in my sparkly blue caftan, talking about manifesting, and it was just the wrong crowd.
A few months later, I spoke for a few hundred bucks at a college “career day“ event and, again, I felt icky, like I had prostituted my talent for a tiny bit of money.
Don’t get guilted into speaking for free just because it’s a good cause or you feel like you should.
Appearance activist Carly Findlay often gets asked to speak for charities, provide disability awareness to organizations, and ironically, participate on panels to promote equality and women’s empowerment.
All for free.
After being asked to speak at a career day for disabled students at a for-profit educational institute (another irony), she wrote on her blog:
“No doubt they’d pay a consultant specializing in an area outside of disability.
No doubt the person running the event gets paid. For me, it’d mean an afternoon away from my day job, plus several hours preparing the presentation.“
When Carly said no, the organizer said she was disappointed (ouch, the D-word always stings), and that she should be “happy to donate her time“ because it was a worthy cause.
Carly says, “I believe the work that people like me and (other disability activists) do in educating people is important in facilitating change and improving access and inclusion, and it deserves compensation.
Our work is not to be given away for free.“
Melanie Ramiro, one of my Money Bootcampers (and someone I hired to coach me on speaking), advises having a personal quota for free events—say one per quarter.
When you’ve fulfilled that, it’s okay to say, “Sorry, I’ve reached my quota for pro-bono work this year.“
Many women have a seemingly unlimited capacity for giving, and they feel greedy if they expect something in return.
If this sounds like you, here are some tips that will help you “check yourself before you wreck yourself.“
Put clear boundaries around the scope of your giving.
If you’re giving away a certain amount of coaching or consulting hours, or designing a small website for someone, put it in writing, and when it’s done, it’s done.
If you’re speaking for free, don’t feel obligated to stay for the whole event. One keynote and you’re off the clock.
Don’t feel like you should market the event for free either – that can be part of your paid speaking package.
Be clear about the expected reciprocity.
If you’re doing free work in exchange for a testimonial, professional pictures or video footage, make sure you follow up and actually get it.
You’d be surprised how often people overlook this because they don’t want to nag or bother others, even when they agreed to it up front, and did their fair share of the bargain.
Make it worthwhile.
If you do pro-bono work, let the recipient know what your rate is going forward, and make an offer for further work.
If you’re a speaker, can you sell books or products at the back of the room? Can you use the time to meet up with some paid clients around the event?
It’s always okay to say “No, thank you.“ Working for free isn’t bad in itself: Just make sure you’re doing it intentionally and for strategic reasons—not because you feel bad about charging.
Be intentional about your free work and calculate what it actually costs you.
I can't tell you what to charge, but I can help make sure that your money blocks don't sabotage your pricing and income.
Grab my free workshop all about the the seven most common money blocks and how to clear them.
It's available at DeniseDT.com/Blocks
Watch it today.
It's your time and you're ready for the next step.
PS: To nail your pricing strategy in your business I’ve got an awesome bonus for you. Change your money mindset (and life) with the exercises and ideas that I share in my Ultimate Guide to Pricing. Get your copy here.
P.P.S Dive Deeper:
- Read Pricing Mistake No. 4 on why you shouldn’t take it personally when someone says you’re too expensive. That’s their stuff – believe me!
- Read Pricing Mistake No. 2 on the damaging effect of undercharging and overdelivering – yes, it CAN affect your whole life!
- Read Pricing Mistake No. 1 on why you shouldn’t base your prices on other people’s suggestions – really!
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