Starting a new business can be full of challenges.
You’ve got to get customers and clients. You’ve got to have product or service. You’ve got to think about legal situations, taxes, and cash flow.
Even if you have all of those things mastered, there’s more.
You’ve got to think about your personal life. You’ve got to think about your health. You’ve got to think about others’ health.
Starting, building, and running a business is hard.
But let’s get one thing straight…
You’re starting a business.
Businesses are based on transactions, not charity.
There’s a Facebook group that I’m part of for startup business owners in my city. It’s usually filled with announcements, invitations to events, and cool articles that people read that day. The group is definitely useful.
Unfortunately, some people use it to look for free labor.
There was one such post today. This startup was looking for someone to build them a website and app. For free.
I’m a big advocate for performing free work, especially when you’re just starting out. But I’m very against asking people to work for free. It’s insulting. It takes skill to create something like a website, and it definitely takes time to build an app.
The startup that asked for the free work is going to fail. There are no handouts.
“Free” is something you give, not something you ask for.
Unless you’re on the giving end, then “free” should never be free.
Here’s what I mean.
I was in college when I began exploring entrepreneurship. There were all of these things I had to think about when I started that first business, so I enlisted some of my friends for help. I didn’t pay them. I didn’t really give them anything, either. They were acting out of the kindness of their hearts.
That didn’t work.
It all started out great, and we were having fun. But they began to burn out. I couldn’t understand why they would go back on their word. They told me they’d help, then they didn’t.
But I realized that it wasn’t their fault.
They weren’t letting me down. Actually, I was letting them down. Asking them to help me for nothing in return was selfish. Selfishness never wins.
So, I changed my approach.
Instead of asking others for free help, I began asking others if I could help them for free.
I began reaching out to business people in my college town with suggestions on how I could help them.
The first free gig I got was with a marketing firm. A group of us performed some market research on one of their client’s products: hot sauce. As a “thank you,” they let me keep the sauce. That made my roommates happy.
The next work I did for free was for a man who completely changed the way I view the world. That one person taught me how to approach things as an entrepreneur.
Before I finished college, I had gone all over the country performing free work for people I admired.
It was hard, and it was expensive. But it was absolutely the best thing I could have ever done for my career.
What to give when “exposure” is not enough.
But what do you give people if you don’t have the money to give?
Trust me, there’s plenty that you can do for someone else even if you don’t have the money to pay them. But whatever you do, just know that “exposure” is not enough.
Telling someone that you’ll give them exposure in return for their free work is a cheap way to do business. Giving someone exposure is a passive activity. Any transaction that involves one side being active and another being passive is a bad deal.
Take the prior example of the startup looking for a free site and app.
Instead of asking for free help, they could have offered much more. Here are a few ideas:
- Buy them a year-long subscription to an online learning service like Lynda.com so they could continue their professional development.
- Invite them to every event you go to, and introduce the designer to everyone you meet by saying, “Hey, I want you to meet someone very talented. This is my web designer.”
- Agree to go with them to 10 of their meetings with potential clients as their “living testimonial.”
Full disclosure: I still ask for free help.
Let me clarify.
I don’t ask for free help anymore. Instead, I ask for non-monetary help.
The agreement that I have with my videographer is a perfect example. Ethan is a budding star. He’s only 18, but his eye for great shots and his communication skills are far beyond his years. But there’s one problem.
When he came to me, he had no idea how to turn his skills into a business.
So we made a deal: He gives me a certain amount of video work, and I pay an active role in building his business. If he gives me great work (which he does), then I send him paying clients. And he’ll be able to handle those clients because I’m helping build the invisible parts of the business.
If you have something valuable to give to those helping for nothing, then give it.
Fuller disclosure: I still give free help, and it’d be smart if you did too.
I’m typing this in my parents’ kitchen.
We had pizza tonight as a family, but that’s not why I came home. I’m here because my sister needed help polishing her brand. She flew in from New York City for 10 days.
She’s not paying me, but she’s returning the work in incredible ways. I’m not doing this just because she’s family.
It’s because this is good business.
What free work will you do next?
Do enough, and it’ll lead to big business.
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