Why you should work for free (and how to make it pay)

Would you work for free?

It’s a question that evokes strong emotions, especially amongst my fellow writers. In an age of content marketing, freelancer writers and designers often find the “free” part of their work title taken a little too literally.

But if you are starting out in online business, or changing your niche, there are some good reasons why you should work for free – at least for a while.

A few months ago, I was preparing to launch my Master Your Message sessions to a wider audience, when I stumbled across this advice from Racheal Cook: Talk to 100 people before you launch your next program.

100 people! Seems like a lot right? But the more I thought about it, the more I could see Racheal was right. What better way to get closer to my customers’ struggles and figure out how I could best help them, than by talking to a wide range of entrepreneurs?

I am a huge believer in listening to your customer and paying attention to the language they use to describe their needs. It’s the best way to create great copy, brilliant blog posts and products that truly serve your customer.

So I decided to go for it: for the month of July, I would offer my Master Your Message sessions for free – no pitching and no strings attached. I would do as many as possible for those 31 days. I would do this entirely from a place of generosity, letting go of the attachment to being paid for my work and focusing on how I would help each individual.

I created the offer, shared it in a few Facebook groups, opened up my booking calendar and worked flat stick for the next 31 days.

Over that time I did 31 free Skype sessions. Each conversation lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. With preparation and the follow up reports I prepared for every participant, each session took about three hours of my time.

Am I crazy? Many times I wondered!

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Here’s what I gained from my 31 days of working for free:

  1. Customer pain points – I quickly started to see patterns in my customers’ struggles. This helped me refine my offerings and work out how best to help them sort out the jumble of ideas in their head and bring clarity back to their copy.
  2. I know what sets me apart – I knew where my strengths lay, but within a few days I started to see exactly how I was helping my clients. I could also see that the way I helped my customers achieve clarity was different from others in my field. Knowing what sets me apart helps me to differentiate my offering and gives me confidence to push forward in my business. (This is especially helpful if you get the occasional bout of comparisonitis.)
  3. Blog topics and product ideas – Seeing clear patterns in my customers’ struggles inspired many new blog topics, social media posts and product ideas.
  4. I know what I don’t do – I confirmed what I already knew – I am not in my zone of genius when it comes to helping someone find a business idea when they don’t have a clue where to start. That’s for a life or business coach – my role is about helping you define your idea and articulate it in a powerful way. This understanding helps me to make sure I am targeting the right customers with my copy.
  5. Product validation – After testing my process so many times with a wide range of businesses from health coaches to design, property management and reiki, I truly know that it works for anyone. This is a great confidence boost if you’re launching a new product or service.
  6. Market Demand – Seeing so many entrepreneurs struggling with similar issues, confirmed that there is a need for the service I am offering. It would have been equally as useful though, if it had proved there was no need, or that I should refine my offer.
  7. New friendships – I can honestly say I enjoyed every single one of the sessions and ‘met’ so many wonderful entrepreneurs. Many of the free sessions have led to great new friendships and connections. I’ve developed strong relationships with other entrepreneurs around the world and several have become advocates for me, sharing and promoting my work.
  8. New clients and referrals – Even though these were expressly pitch-free sessions, many of these entrepreneurs are now paying clients. I’ve also had many, many referrals from these free sessions and this continues, months down the track.
  9. I discovered unexpected holes in my business – Within days of starting the free sessions, one of the attendees emailed to say she tried to hire me for a follow up session and couldn’t find a suitable package on my website. Time to refine my offerings!

Perhaps the biggest unexpected bonus was the sense of fulfillment that came from offering these sessions from a place of generosity. By letting go of the money for that defined period of time, and concentrating solely on helping each entrepreneur get the desired results, I really felt a deep sense of service that was so enriching.

By the end of the month I was utterly exhausted but elated. Giving up over 80 hours of my time for free, while juggling paid client work and the kids, was not at all easy. But the pay offs were huge. I was buzzing out on all the amazing new connections and the validation for my work.

I’ve since recommended that some of my clients follow this process and seen similar clarity and newfound confidence in their work. When it comes down to it, there is simply no substitute for talking to people.

Now I get it – it might not be practically or financially viable for you to do a full month for free. There are other options, like offering just one week of free sessions, or offering a few free sessions a month, or doing a smaller session focusing on one specific issue.

If you’re inspired to offer your own free sessions, I’ve created a cheat sheet full of tips to help you run free sessions that pay. Just click here to download it.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you ever work for free? Would you consider doing free sessions of your own? Let me know in the comments below

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