You already know my views on free work.
Free work is something to give, not to ask for.
Of course, starting a business can be tough. We don’t always have the capital to hire people. Even if we did, paying people to help isn’t always necessarily the smartest way to bring people into the fold.
Your weaknesses don’t care about how much is in your wallet.
So when you desperately need a helping hand but can’t afford it, here are some meaningful non-monetary ways to pay people back.
(1) Invite them to every event you attend, and introduce them in a special way.
As you hustle to make connections, invite them to hustle with you.
And as you meet new people, introduce your helper in a way that makes them a hero. Here’s the exact line I use if I’m ever in this position: “Hey, I want to introduce someone to you who is really talented. They’re taking the time to do me a huge favor. This is …”
Steal that line.
(2) Go with them to their meetings with potential clients as a “living testimonial.”
Leaving a testimonial on a site is nice, but that’s not enough.
Instead, you can make a huge impact on their business if you attend their meetings with them. When they introduce you as one of their customers, correct them by saying, “Actually, I’m a happy customer. Get it right!”
Who brings clients to meetings? As a living testimonial, you can help them close deals.
That’s a million times more valuable than just linking back to their site.
(3) Give them access to an online learning platform.
Say you can’t afford to hire, but you’ve got a hundred bucks to throw their way.
Ask them to find an online course that piques their interest. Pay for it. Or purchase a year-long subscription to a learning platform like Lynda.com. If you’re a true entrepreneur, then you might even find a way to get a free Lynda account. (Hint: talk to your local library, university, or employment council.)
Share that access with your helper so they can continue their professional development.
(4) Perform your top service for them for free.
In the same way their work solves your problem, your work might be able to solve their problem.
My videographer produces amazing video for me for free because our events connect him with his target customer. It’s a perfect fit. Another example of this is the work I do with a friend in Europe. He gives me some free coaching while I help him with his branding.
Swap their free work for your best work.
It will pay off.
(5) If you’re an experienced entrepreneur, then help them build the “business” part of their business.
There’s a lot to business that you just don’t know about when you start a business.
If you’ve started businesses before—and if you’re any good at doing so—then commit to helping startups navigate that unknown in return for their skills. And I’m not talking about talking about those things whenever the topic comes up.
Block time out on a regular basis for you two to sit down and work through their business.
(6) Include them on every meeting, call, and coffee break you have with your mentors.
People crave access.
In return for their free help, give them access to the knowledge that you have access to. Leaving them out of your interactions with your mentors will make them feel as if you’re holding things back from them.
Inviting them to learn from your mentors isn’t just beneficial to your free help. It’s also a way to thank your mentors.
(7) Consistently ask for their ideas, listen to their ideas, and take their ideas seriously.
“Free” help does not mean “useless” help.
If you have volunteers, then be sure to get their perspective on whatever you’re working on. Block time out to sit down with them. Call them out of the blue. Have them contribute during meetings. However you want to do it, be sure to consistently ask them for their perspective.
If they’re smart enough to give you free work, then they’re smart enough to contribute in a real way.
Take their ideas seriously, then give them serious credit.
(8) If they’re creative, give them the freedom to create.
I’ve seen too many nice designers agree to free work, only to have the creative life sucked out of them by the people who asked them to work for free.
Beggars can’t be choosers. If you asked a creative person to do free work for you, then allow them to be creative. Don’t get in their way. Encourage them. You don’t have to use their final product. Final products can be great even if they miss the mark. If the person worked hard on it, then you do have to find ways to promote their work.
Understand that creative people get asked all the time to do work for free.
Stifling their art is the worst way to thank them.
(9) Hook them up with people and resources they need.
You may not be able to directly help your free help.
If that’s the case, then go out of your way to connect them to people and resources who could help them most. If you don’t personally know anyone who can help them, then work hard to find someone. Hustle hard to meet that person, befriend that person, and then introduce them to your free help.
Their work is free. And do you know what else costs no money?
(10) Commit to becoming their customer in the future.
This can’t be a hollow commitment.
You’ve got to mean it. Say it, then follow through. If not, I guarantee that the business community will hear about your actions.
Worse, it’ll be on your conscience.
(11) Earn equipment for them.
Let’s say you’re in desperate need of a photographer.
You find someone who’s just starting out. They’re looking to build their portfolio, so they’re willing to help you out for free. If their pictures are going to lead you to more business, then plan on using that revenue to buy them that camera they’ve been wanting for forever.
That’s a thoughtful gesture.
(12) Extend equity.
This is a classic entrepreneur move, and people can abuse this offer.
Don’t offer equity to someone out of desperation, and don’t do it unless you’re absolutely certain that this person is worth their weight in gold.
This move takes deep thought and a lot more advice than I can give here.
With that said, giving someone equity can be one of the most meaningful transactions you could ever make.
Use it wisely.
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Photo: Flickr/Barney Moss