Want to fire up any creative entrepreneur? Ask them their opinion on working for free.
Many vehemently advocate against it, claiming that it undervalues our work and makes it more difficult for the rest of the entrepreneurial community to succeed. Tim Kreider’s viral NYT Op-Ed about writing for free is just one of the many articles campaigning for payment rather than “exposure.”
Before you write off working for free, though, consider how it could be worthwhile when you’re getting started. For example, software companies let users test out early versions of their programs for free because they get more value out of the beta tester than they would from charging for their product.
Here’s how to use the same value proposition as a creative entrepreneur.
Working for free: A case study
For the past year, I’ve been creating content as a subcontractor. When I decided to open my own online marketing workshop business, I had no portfolio or testimonials for my high-end services. I also suspected my workshop processes had a lot of holes. During my initial research period, I also had a huge blow to my confidence when numerous experts I queried about my business told me it would fail.
I went through my extensive workshop process with a few carefully selected people, my beta clients, with three goals in mind: build a portfolio of relationships, fine-tune my workshop process and build my confidence in my products.
What I learned from beta testing my business was more valuable than the money I could have charged. That’s the only time when working for free is worthwhile.
Find the right beta clients
Shenoa Lawrence, a website designer, told me about the pitfalls she’s encountered doing free portfolio work. “I found the ‘free, portfolio-building work’ I did for clients only undervalued my business in their eyes.” She found that clients didn’t understand the value of her service, and referrals from these non-paying clients went nowhere. Nearly everyone makes this same mistake: choosing the wrong clients for these pivotal business relationships.
Instead of hoping to build your portfolio, look at free work as a way to generate meaningful relationships with people who can become trusted business advisors — your “portfolio” of relationships.
[bctt tweet=”Look at free work as a way to generate meaningful relationships with people.”]
Finding the right beta clients requires lots of vetting to ensure you’re getting more than just clips out of the deal. I analyzed potential clients’ businesses to make sure my services would fill their needs — after all, if they didn’t have a problem, I couldn’t offer a solution. I also tried to find out if they had spent money on other services like mine by looking for any indicators on their websites or social media profiles.
I narrowed down my list to a few potential beta clients and asked them if they wanted to participate. Underlining the time commitment and feedback you’re seeking from a beta client and being upfront about the process helps you find the right beta clients. Be selective about your beta clients and look for those who are excited and proactive about the partnership.
Beta clients should be part of your target market, and ready and willing to help you perfect your business. My best beta clients were people who were business savvy and willing to provide advice on my business weaknesses.
One beta client helped me spot problems with my workshop and, more importantly, became a strong cheerleader and advisor for my business. A designer in my target niche, she has become someone I regularly turn to for advice and expertise.
Not having skin the game means that some beta clients, like my first one, are unresponsive and unprofessional, quickly negating any benefits you get out of doing free work. Combat this pitfall by looking for beta clients who would otherwise pay for your services. They must agree to engage in your beta process as payment in lieu of cash — and understand what that entails.
Create clear goals and a feedback system
Beta clients will help you refine the pivotal elements of your product. For example, I wanted to test my content marketing workshops to see what aspects were most helpful for clients, and which ones needed more work.
Successful beta testing requires detailed goals and feedback. Well-thought-out goals let you target the results you want from beta testing. Feedback helps you bring these goals to fruition by letting you know what you need to tweak.
The goals of your best testing are not your product or service’s goals. Although the goal of my workshop is to teach clients content marketing and SEO, the goals of beta testing were to ensure clients could understand the assignments, see the purpose behind them, and execute them to achieve the desired results. Overall, I wanted to make sure my product made sense to clients.
To get the most value from your beta clients, guide them through a feedback system. They aren’t likely to volunteer the most valuable information without being asked, because they don’t know exactly what you’re looking for!
Create a strong feedback and review system to get reliable, helpful feedback. I used a questionnaire that asked about every step of my workshop process to open up the conversation, and then followed up on specific comments by email.
Working with beta clients before my launch showed me what my business is good at doing and what needed more work. Some of my plans were great in theory but ineffective in execution, and it was better to find these failures in beta testing than later.
Develop confidence in your offering
Entrepreneurs often fear that our products won’t fill a need or won’t be good enough. I worried that no one would want my product, but beta testing helped me recognize that people did need it and understand how I could best support them.
While you shouldn’t do free work just to stroke your ego, knowing that an audience is interested in your products and services can be a good kick in the pants. Seth Godin suggests asking, “Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?”
Overall, the value I gained by giving away services outweighed the money I could have made. I launched my business with a strong sense of direction and great recommendations. By choosing beta clients well, I built a network of trusted cheerleaders for my business who can provide advice in the future as my business grows and changes.
What do you think about working for free? Has it helped or hurt your business?