How I Stopped Giving My Work Away For Free

I was watching videos online a while ago -- going down the deep, dark, rabbit hole of the internet and I can't even remember what I was pretending to research. I stumbled across a video from Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere about how to work with bloggers. The point of her speech was simple: don't give me free things in return for an editorial piece on my blog. I'm a business, treat me like one.

Yes, her blog is a business. She has full time employees and over $1 million in annual revenue. She has mastered standing up, being an owner, and being paid.

But there are plenty of others out there who can't seem to get out of the free mindset. Who barter away their services. Who take the makeup instead of the money.

But here's the rub: Makeup doesn't pay the bills.

Some of you may disagree when I say that we shouldn't barter away our services or give things away that we could be selling. You may say that as you're building your business you need to give things away for free to build up a client base -- to get testimonials. I don't completely disagree, but it can be hard to transition from giving things away for free to charging for them.

With my first business we knew testimonials and reviews were important. Critical, really. We needed to get brides to trust us with one of the most important days in their life.

We started giving away our product to close friends to test the concept and received great feedback. We then gave away the product through giveaways as publicity on larger blogs. We got a lot of new traffic and interest from customers. But as we kept giving our product away we started losing control. We were faced with a question that we couldn't answer:

How and when do you stop?

Rationally, once we felt as though it wasn't serving a real and true purpose anymore, we should have stopped. But money, running a business, and charging people isn't always rational. We found it difficult to stop. "Just one more" or "this is actually really helping attract new customers." We rationalized it, but in the end it was damaging not just to our profitability, but also to our ability to boldly and confidently ask for what we were worth.

If you're in the cycle of giving away too much for free, recognize it, and take some time to develop a plan forward. Draw a line in the sand and be clear about when and how you will stop giving things away for free. Write down that plan and stick to it.

How I stopped bartering and started charging

With my current business, I felt myself falling into the free or discounted trap again. Somehow conversations that I started with the intent of research were evolving into me slowing giving away my services.

I needed to get things under control before I repeated my past mistakes. I used 6 steps to decide what I needed to stop giving away for free, and how to make that change.

1. I took a real, hard look at everything I was giving away for free. I wrote down everything from the obvious (giving away my products and services) to the not-so obvious (giving away advice).

2. Next to everything I was currently not charging for, I wrote down what I was gaining. This ranged from getting honest feedback from a for service, to satisfaction from giving away free advice that was actually helping people.

3. I went back over the list and took an honest, critical eye to what I had just written down. My intent with giving away my service for free was that I could collect feedback. Was that really what was happening? Or was I not collecting anything meaningful?
Would I get the same results if I charged? Was the feedback I was soliciting only robust because I wasn't charging? Or would it perhaps be more robust if I was charging?

4. I took the list of my free items and made a decision about which ones I would continue offering for free, which ones I would stop offering for free immediately, and which ones I would stop offering for free after a certain number. I run a service based coaching and consulting business and my list roughly looked like:
  • Free or bartered consulting sessions: I stopped immediately because I wasn't getting the true feedback I could only receive from someone who was truly invested.
  • Free and discounted services for friends: this one felt trickier but I decided to honor my prior commitments but not offer any free or discounted services moving forward.
  • Free worksheets and exercises to my email list: I kept this one because the engagement I receive from my subscribers keeps me motivated and coming up with new ideas to share.
6. For each item on this list I came up with the exact script that I would use to let everyone know about the change going forward. I was worried that I would lose my nerve and writing it out as a part of this exercise was the best and easiest thing for me to do. My script was similar to:

"I've loved working with you over these past few months and hope you've seen the results you were hoping for. I wanted to let you know that starting on XX/XX, my rate will now be $XX. If you'd like to book any future work, let me know -- I'd be thrilled to continue building XXXXX with you."

While this was the best way for me to move myself away from a free, discounted, or bartering mindset, everyone will have their different approaches. What is important is that you take a moment to step back and look at your current situation objectively: are you losing your ability to boldly ask to be paid because you're constantly giving away, bartering, or discounting your business?

It will feel awkward at first to ask for your money. But like everything, practice and time make things better. It's time to stand up, be an owner, and get paid.