Working for Free Can Pay. Sometimes.

Can I pick your brain? Many of my momblogging and social media colleagues field this request on a regular basis. Among my peers, this innocent (and admittedly not always so innocent) question has a variety of answers:
  • Sure, let's set up a call.
  • The first 15 minutes are free!
  • Okay, please note my fee is $ an hour; let me know when you'd like to talk.
In my experience, a friendly exchange or two often (but not always) leads to a deeper and more meaningful (i.e. paid) client engagement. Jessica Smith wrote a smart piece about the potential pay off for letting people tap into your wisdom for free.

Sometimes, a potential client merely wants to explain their project and assess your fit; they want to give you the background and feel you out.

Which is not to say that some potential clients aren't fishing around for ideas on the cheap. It happens.

In recent weeks I've been thinking about this as it relates to our house hunt. We've looked at many older houses that need serious, costly renovations. On more than one occasion, we've asked a contractor to stop in while we check out the house to share some thoughts on potential improvements and related costs.

We haven't paid these contractors any fees nor have we signed any contracts committing to work with them, but in the 30-60 minutes (they are often chattier than I expect) we spend together, I get a sense of their personalities, experience and professionalism, as well as their home improvement ideas. I feel out what it might be like to work together- does he listen to my ideas and needs, or is he trying to get us to build something that will look stunning on the front page of his website?

Once we find a home and decide what renovations are needed (kitchen and bath updates, raising the roof or ~gulp~ adding an entire level to the house), we'll seek a handful of competitive bids, meaning that several folks will spend a bit of time considering our project(s) and talking to us, but only one will actually receive a hefty payment.

It's the cost of doing business. For contractors as well as a variety of creative professionals and consultants it's a way of life. So yeah, sometimes I give it away for free.

That said, there are many factors that determine how much, if any time, I'm willing to put forth building a relationship with a potential client.

1. One is a simple gut check- is there going to be a worthwhile payoff? Sometimes the payoff might be a long-term thing (delving into a new niche, building your brand, or getting a foot in the door, for example) and sometimes it's in the here and now.

2. What is the ask? I've learned (well, am still learning) to provide enough information to demonstrate my competence and understanding of the client's needs without laying all my cards on the table.

This can be especially tricky and I know people who have been burned in the past by revealing a bit too much of their brilliance without a contract or non-disclosure to protect them. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free, right?

I might have once promised a potential client that I'd make no bones about calling in the lawyers if I saw them implementing my very specific and unique campaign idea. But the reality is, I'd only say something like that if I was uneasy about the relationship to begin with. In that case, I was. And I ultimately wasted several hours with very little payoff.

3. What is the time commitment? I'm typically up for a few minutes on the phone, but much less likely to show up for an in-person meeting without a signed contract already in hand.

Are you willing to share your ideas for free? What questions do you seek to answer before you open up your brain for picking?

Just for fun: Should I work for Free?

Want to talk social media with me? Check out the MomImpact Office Hour. On a few Thursday afternoons each month, I make myself available for free brain picking on all things social media and mombloggers. See the MomImpact website or Facebook page for details.

This Thursday, 4/7/11, we'll be talking about contract basics with blogger/attorney Sara Hawkins.
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