OWNER'S MANUAL

Why You Should Give Your Work Away for Free

If you're not devoting a small percentage of your time to working for free, you're making a big mistake.
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If you don’t devote a small percentage of your time to working for free, you’re making a mistake.

Whoa, wait, hold on a second. Sheathe your sword of value. Don’t go all cold-blooded capitalist on me. Hear me out.

Most entrepreneurs don’t do pro bono work. (By pro bono I don’t mean for charity, I mean for another entrepreneur.)

A friend swears “pro bono” is Latin for “no way.” He says, “I’m against the idea of anyone working for free. As a more colorful person said, there are two kinds of articles on Huffington Post: Those that shouldn’t be written at all, and those that are too good to give away. I don’t think anyone should give away their profession.”

You probably agree. You invested significant time and money into your business or profession. You provide value.

You should receive value in return.

But sometimes free is valuable.

Aside from simply doing something nice for the sake of doing something nice (which has a value all its own) here are other reasons why occasionally working for free—or for a big discount—can still provide value to you in return:

You get to stretch. Your processes are solid. Your operations are optimized. You’re a fine-tuned machine. You’re also a little stale and stuck in your ways.

People who can’t afford to pay you often have, um, unusual needs. Unlike most of your clients, they’re struggling. Help them and you’ll see and do some things you would otherwise never experience. Not only will you benefit from what you learn, so will all your other customers.

And you might discover opportunities you never knew existed.

You get to be scared. It’s easy to forget how fortunate you are. Help a person whose business is on the brink of failing and you’ll remember the true meaning of “urgent.” The experience will help ground you… and help you see your own business from a different perspective.

You get to be creative. A person who needs help does not deal from a position of strength. Your standard techniques or strategies don’t apply. You’ll need to find new ways to leverage limited resources and transform weaknesses into strong points.

You get to flex an atrophied muscle. You’re successful. You have a team and infrastructure in place. You can throw money at certain problems. You can call in favors. Some customers do business with you just because it’s comfortable.

People who need help have none of that going for them. Often they’ve made poor decisions and have limited choices. The only approach that might work is a practical approach. Using common sense and finding creative solutions are core strengths for a good entrepreneur—exercise those muscles.

You get to do the right thing. No, you can’t help everyone. No, you can’t give all your time away.

Yes, you can help a few people who really need help—just like, somewhere along the way, someone went out of his way to help you. You remember how that felt. Pass it on.

You get to be a hero. You rarely get feedback when performing well is an expectation. Help someone who needs a hand and their thanks will be sincere and heartfelt.

Can’t beat that.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 17, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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