I’ve been wrestling with a problem that many entrepreneurs and business owners face: the idea of “working” for free.
My wife, Toni, is a jazz singer who is asked to sing at no charge around the state. My photographer friend, Paul D’Andrea, is often asked to take a couple quick pictures as a favor, because “it’s so easy for him.” Other writer friends are asked to knock out a quick article on something or other “for the exposure.” And I’m often asked to speak for free by small companies and nonprofits.
While none of us are jerky enough to say “NO!” outright, it’s important that the requesters think about what they’re asking for. They’re not just asking for an hour of our time, there’s so much more that goes into it.
When you ask us to to work for free, here’s what it costs us:
- Preparation time: My wife hours creates a new set list for every show, and rehearses it for 2 – 3 hours beforehand, in addition to her normal practice. Paul has to make sure his equipment is assembled, working, and fully charged. And I spend anywhere from 3 – 6 hours for a 1 hour talk. All of us do this whether we get paid or not.
- Travel time: Driving to a local event can take 60 – 120 minutes round trip. I’ve driven up to 5 hours away for talks outside Indiana. Toni has driven 2 hours one way for a single show.
- Gas: Cars do not run on good intentions, they run on gas, which costs $3.35 per gallon right now. It takes anywhere from 2 – 20 gallons to get to where we’re going.
- The actual event: Toni typically sings for 2 – 3 hours. Paul’s photo shoot takes at least an hour if it’s an “easy” one. A good writer will write and edit for 3 – 4 hours. I speak for an hour. None of this includes pre-event setup, which takes roughly an hour for any of us.
- All of that leads to lost work time: We get paid for our jobs. That’s how we feed our families and run our businesses. When you total up everything it took to do that free concert, photo shoot, article, or talk, we spent 4 – 12 hours not doing client work. That’s anywhere from a half day to a day-and-a-half of billables that we didn’t collect from clients.
So what does that work out to be? How much would that be for you? To figure out your regular hourly rate, take your hourly salary (your yearly salary divided by 2,000 hours per year) and multiply it by 4 and 12 (the range of hours).
That’s what it costs for you to work for free.
Based on a $60,000/year salary, that can be $120 – $360 of lost revenue.
Would you take an unpaid day off work to volunteer at a nonprofit? Or to help a friend move? What about taking an unpaid day to attend a conference, and pay your own way to travel there (but receive a free pass)?
If you expect us to work for free, will you also give up half to a day-and-a-half’s wages to show your gratitude and share our plight?
But that doesn’t mean we won’t do it.
Now, having said all that, none of the people I mentioned have become such egotistical jerks that we would never, ever work for free. We will.
Toni will sing for free at certain events, because not singing there can work against her. Paul will take the pictures, and the writers will write the articles, because sometimes the exposure is more important. And there are still groups and events where I’ll speak for free, because I consider it paying my blessings forward.
But it wasn’t until I started looking at what it was costing me in lost wages for that free one hour talk that made re-examine whether I would start charging to speak at events. And every other professional I’ve talked to has wrestled with this problem. Hell, we all still wrestle with it, even after we “turn pro.”
Should we do something beneficial for someone because it’s the good and right thing to do? Or do we say no to some very special people because our top priority is to take care of our families?
Over the past two months, I’ve had to cancel two free engagements because they conflicted with two paid ones, and I had even committed to the free ones first. I felt guilty about it. So guilty that I almost turned the paid ones down. It was Jason Falls who reminded me that my first responsibility was always to my family, and that sometimes I have to make the unpopular, un-fun decision to take care of them, like saying no to people I want to help.
Taking care of family means I have to turn down some important events down. It means Paul can’t load his very expensive camera equipment into his truck for an easy photo shoot. It means Toni won’t load her entire PA system into her car for a free performance. And it means the writers won’t even turn on their computers for some free exposure.
These costs are why I charge for my speaking engagements, or at least ask people to buy copies of my books. That’s not to say that every talk I give will be a paying one, or that I’ll require the organizers to purchase 100 copies of my book.
But hopefully it will help you understand why I — and my family, friends, and colleagues — may say no when you ask us to work for a “quick freebie.” (Hopefully it will also help you understand you need to bring your A-game when you’re going to convince us that working for free is worth it.)
And of course, if we do work for free, a little thank you gift, like a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble gift card is always appreciated.
Photo credit: NoHoDamon (Flickr, Creative Commons)