The Threshold on Free

threshold on free When I go to Whole Foods, it’s not uncommon to see someone standing at the end of some aisle or another handing out a complimentary tidbit on a toothpick. It’s a sample. Enough to decide whether what they’re slinging is tasty enough for me to load a box of it into the cart. And admittedly, sometimes I just want a snack. When I lived in Vegas, my friends and I would spend the entire morning climbing out at Red Rocks and then we’d go to Costco. Why? The samples! Every damn aisle had someone sampling something – it was a free lunch.

Are you handing out a free lunch?

I wasn’t Costco’s target demographic with that sampling, but they (just like Whole Foods) know they’re going to get the grazers like me and my rock climbing friends. It’s part of doing business. But if they started giving away whole boxes of crackers, loaves of bread or cuts of meat – therein lies a real business problem.

Because people aren’t going to pay for what they can get for free. I spoke about this recently in my post It’s Not Free. Today, I want to dig deeper into how to set that threshold between free and paid in your business. The best examples I can give are those I’ve worked through myself and situations I’ve helped clients through. Maybe you’ll find value in the following thoughts on not being the neighborhood slut and start with some strategic whoring (because we’re all selling something, and it’s best to admit that right up front).

On Handling Grazers

They call you. You email. A few (multiple) conversations (transcripts of which could masquerade as handwritten versions of The Fountainhead) are had. They call and email again. You send over case studies. You send samples and recommendations. They comment on a blog post. They call. Another email. You reply. They send you a link to a pedestrian blog post with a question attached on how this affects their business. You reply. Another email. A phone call. An in-person meeting that stretches on for an hour and a half, leaving you hauling ass to your next meeting with your stomach grumbling like a radiator from the late 1800s.

It’s fucking exhausting. And that, my friend, is your fault (just like it’s mine). I don’t know a single businessperson who doesn’t struggle with this type of prospective client on occasion, but every time the situation rears its ugly bastard head, it’s your responsibility to look at the situation and call bullshit.

Processes are what help me a great deal. For example, I now get off email with inquiries ASAP. I take it to a brief phone call. Determine needs. It’s likely that the next communication from me is setting a full-on meeting (if required) or a Scope of Work and pricing. No more la-la-la. Take a look at your processes and how you can revamp them to better handle those who like to graze. And for those who continue, there’s always this response:

“I would love to help you out with ______. I work in one of two ways: an hourly consulting rate of $XXX or we can define the entire scope of your needs and I can put together a project rate for you. Let me know which one sounds like a better fit for you and we’ll get you put into the production calendar and headed towards a solution!”

On Being a Slut

There comes a time we all need to get paid for what we do. It’s the same reason that grocery stores don’t give away whole boxes of crackers but they’re happy to give you a sample. That’s because free doesn’t keep the lights on. It doesn’t keep my dogs fed or my rent paid and it certainly doesn’t put gas in the car (at WTF a gallon especially). Why do we act like we’re ashamed to be in business? When you give it away, you’re nothing more than the dorm slut. Easy, but nobody’s going to put a ring on it. Here are four ideas to help you get your rep back and find clients who are looking for a connection and not just a one night stand.

  • Webinars: Offer a free webinar with 36,000 foot view information that’s a prelude to a paid series. The trick here is actually showing people that you’re worth paying for without ending up the drunk girl who can’t find her bra in the sorority house the morning after a kegger. HubSpot is the king of the free webinar, but if you want access to their product, you’re going to pay.
  • Whitepapers: Spend the time developing a shit-hot whitepaper with great, actionable information. Let people download it for free in exchange for an email address. If they like what they found there, you’ve put out a single effort that applies to potentially thousands of people and in the process, added them to your pipeline.
  • Guest Blogs: Most guest blogging opportunities will be for free, so when you take on one of these opportunities, get the nitty gritty. Track your followers, fans and subscribers BEFORE the post goes live. Track comments. Retweets. And then figure out if that venue is worth your time. Maybe the subject matter was off, maybe it’s not the right place for you. But don’t keep putting out without knowing there’s a discernible benefit for you.
  • Quora: Been there yet? Many people have. As the fastest growing Q&A platform on the planet, you can offer your perspective on a variety of questions. Not only is it a great venue for establishing expertise, other users vote on the usefulness of your answer. I know multiple clients and colleagues beginning business relationships on the site. A tip? Don’t answer questions with more than 20 responses already unless you have something materially different to add. Look for fresh questions and get in the first 5 responses.

The Bottom Line

It really comes down to (in the most blunt of terms) how much of your time are you willing to waste? I’m 38 and have a beautiful life. I’d like to be able to spend most of my time enjoying that life and be more effective in helping my clients get to where they need to go. How much will you give away and why will you give it? Every freebie needs a strategy behind it. Don’t be the guy who thinks that a girl will fall in love with you because you buy her presents or the girl who thinks that open legs are the way to a man’s heart.

That Guy will find that the girls will happily take their gifts.

That Girl will find that the guys will happily take her clothes off.

Stop giving it away. Be smart. We’re all smarter than that. Costco’s looking for members, not grazers. Meaningful, revenue-generating customers. And it’s rare (rare…did I say RARE?) that those one night stand and grazer type of interludes ever turn into something meaningful. I’m looking for meaningful, in every facet of my life. It’s a better life on account of it, methinks. Maybe yours is, too.

50 comments
rachel
rachel

Thanks for the post. I found myself doing this with "almost clients," or with clients who I wasn't careful to set very specific boundaries with right from the start. You know, you consult and they call you with just one quick question. How would you recommend weaseling out of such a case?

Visual Adventures
Visual Adventures

Happens pretty frequently for us, but we are refining our process and learning how to politely say "cough up the $$, if you want more of our time". Ironically, we have found that potential clients that put you in this situation are probably not the ones you want to work with anyway.

rac speal
rac speal

Yeah- we used to call them "all day suckers."

The Redhead
The Redhead

Yep. Nuttin' to add to that one, Lisa!

Rezdwan Hamid
Rezdwan Hamid

"When you give it away, you’re nothing more than the dorm slut". I love how you put that. Now, I don't want to be a dorm slut! Those who still thinks that blogging for free is a noble act and selling anything on the blog is evil, read that sentence again.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Legs closed, ears on. Best business motto ever.

Jeff Gibbard
Jeff Gibbard

LOVE IT! Having just started my own business I am very much in the same boat, trying to figure out when to cut it off. I have a natural tendency to be generous but now that I need that contract signed, I may just have to adopt the structure. I haven't been back to Quora for like 3 months, guess it's time to dip back in.

The Redhead
The Redhead

I'm trying to spend more time on Quora - I actually have scheduled reminders to pop in! (works for me) And congrats on the new endeavor!

Leon Noone
Leon Noone

G'Day Erika. As I think I may have said before, you've gotta believe that you're really worth your hire. But you've also gotta remember that you're in business. And you wont stay in business if you can't sell. Sorry, that's the reality. And if you accept that, you need a clear business focus and a clearly defined target market. I'm always happy to offer free advice to those who seek it. But there's a limit. Once they start "using"me like Wickipedia, I stop and ask them to make a commercial arrangement to pay me some money. If the prospect doesn't want to become a client, the free advice ceases. And if they're outside my target market it probably wont even start. Regards Leon

The Redhead
The Redhead

As always, Leon, spot on. Many a business fails because folks can't sell. If you can't sell, find someone who can and stop running a free clinic (or close your business and go work at one). :)

Bryce Alan Katz
Bryce Alan Katz

love, Love, LOVE your "cost of free" series of posts! I'm sure the triple-digit hourly rate placeholder was not coincidental. ;-)

The Redhead
The Redhead

Damn, I do love that favicon, too. Thanks for reading today, Michelle :)

The Redhead
The Redhead

HAHAAHAAAA! And what amazing information - free didn't sell as much as the "dry tasting." Thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing that. And for the smoothie-flavored laugh. Hey - I drank those smoothies :)

danielle hatfield
danielle hatfield

Another fan*fucking*tastic blog post that calls it like it is. "How much of your time are you willing to waste?" is what every business owner should ask themselves before 'putting out' for grazers. (thanks for the great advice!)

The Redhead
The Redhead

You're welcome, Danielle! Great to see you stop by today...

Michelle Ketterman
Michelle Ketterman

Love the rant and absolutely positively LOVE the favicon! Nice work!

Sheryl
Sheryl

I was just talking to my husband about your post since it's a topic I need to pay close attention to! He said "yep, but we have a whole generation of kids raised on free: music = free, movies = free, twitter = free, facebook = free." It's a crazy new world out there.

The Redhead
The Redhead

I hear you, Sheryl! But most music still isn't free (it's stolen or Bit Torrented), and with Twitter and Facebook, you get what you pay for: zero customer service. Movies really aren't free, either. Cable TV, Hulu subscriptions, Netflix...while there's a lot of free stuff lingering around, remind your husband that all those cool things that kids think are worth having come with a price tag. Adults need to remember that, too :)

TravelnLass
TravelnLass

So true. Fits the "80/20" adage perfectly (i.e. 80% of the inquiries/to 'n fro blather will yield 20% of the rubles - sigh...) I find it true for prospective clients for my digital design biz, and likewise for participants for my earlier Belize and Costa Rica travel biz. Absolutely. You surely need a strategy or the 80% will suck you dry leaving your serious clients neglected (and you feeding the pups Cheerios.) ;) Love your "...I work in one of two ways..." generic response template. Perfection. Indeed, yet another handy entrepreneurial trick: Always give (esp. unruly) customers a choice: "I can do A. or I can do B. - pick one."

The Redhead
The Redhead

Couldn't have said it better. And you bring up another great point (and more succinctly than I put it in the post): A or B. Pick one.

Rob Harrison
Rob Harrison

Great rant, and something that was pissing me off for ages. So much so that I blatantly ripped off Justin Kownacki's $200 lunch idea... (with his permission of course). It's led to actual business, sharpens people's minds about my value, and funnelled the tyre-kickers into a more appropriate channel. I'm not into link baiting, just supporting info, so feel free to delete this link if you wish: http://41minds.com/2010/12/02/the-200-lunch/

The Redhead
The Redhead

Rob, loved your post and thanks for sharing!

Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2
Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2

(transcripts of which could masquerade as handwritten versions of The Fountainhead) Huh-larious! "Easy, but no one's gonna put a ring on it." Bwahahaha! And the "End Free Lunch language" in the paragraph right before, On Being a Slut... Priceless! I. Love. Your. Shit!!! Most of what you're talking about I learned from expensive conference call I jumped on with Dan Kennedy. You've added one ossum tool to the wisdom I gained from him (Quora) and reminded me of what's important when dealing with new clients and I'm grateful to you for this.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Delighted to provide entertainment as well as substance, Lewis. Great to see you back!

Kadee_irene
Kadee_irene

Great article Erika. This showed up in my inbox at right the time as I'm dealing with being taken advantage of and standing up for myself with a client (and boss) who think it's okay to work for free and give it up in hopes of getting paid better in the future. I don't agree and this post really put into words my feelings of apprehension. Thanks for the great post!

The Redhead
The Redhead

Ahhh...the "Incredible Opportunity." Yeah. Eff that straight to H. *high five*

jmacofearth
jmacofearth

Yes please! Only the good good stuff. Too much trivialization of talent and sex these days. Whatever happened to honest hard frakin work? ( http://uber.la/2011/03/american-idolization/ ) I don't want to settle for OKAY when I really want FKin FANTASTIC. And we shouldn't have to settle. The choice is up to us. @jmacofearth

The Redhead
The Redhead

Yeah, this guy is pretty much a douchecanoe in my opinion. Apparently you're a fan since you left this on the Facebook wall AND on the blog. Maybe you want to re-read the post: I'm advocating having a strategy behind giving something away for free, not giving willy-nilly.

owengreaves
owengreaves

Love the rant, is it possible you are looking at FREE from the wrong perspective? FREE was never going to be 100%, nor was it supposed to be the big prize. Have you studied other companies who use the open & free business model? I wrote not too long ago, your business needs to become a platform, a place where people can come and do things, a place where they can hang out and use what you do to make their business or life better. You actually solve a problem. In this scenario you have trust the people formerly known as consumers. I understand it's more difficult for small businesses or individuals to participate at a high level, we just don't have the resources, but there are ways to, all you have to do is find your loss leaders, your samples as you put it. Google does this like a ninja master, skype uses the model, Youtube, cartoonist Howard Taylor, Nine Inch Nails just to name a few. Nine Inch Nails generated 760 million in sales with free, granted they already had a huge following, but the key was how they thought, not what they did, hell they even coined their own equation for the free model. CWF + RTB = $$$$! CWT=Connect With Fans + Reason To Buy = $$$$ Pretty simple but they had a plan, it's really all about the plan, if you have one, you can make FREE work. Howard Taylor, left Novell to become a cartoonist, he promptly stated giving away his cartoons, wrote a few books, sold the books and generates over $80,000 per year. I can give example after example but I can tell you are close minded enough not to care. You are good at what you do, I know I've been here a few times, you just need a better plan that's all. If you were to fly up another 10 or 20 thousand feet and see a different pattern, you will see where FREE could blow your mind. It's perspective, it's more about how you think. The Future of Business is not about what we do, it's not a bunch of action items, it's not a skillset, a paradigm shift, it's how we think. Anyway, I often find frustrated people when comes to this topic of free, it can be for sure, but it's usually the view they have when they are looking the model. FREE has been proven already, it is expanding into your market, you need to decide if you're going to participate. Oh,this is what I do for a living, the future of business - open & free business model - http://owengreaves.com : ) Thanks for all you do, and keep ranting : ) Owen

The Redhead
The Redhead

I find it interesting that you just called me "close minded enough not to care." Really? Personally, I don't need a better plan for my business. Everything you've just gone on and on about is what I was advocating in this post: have a strategy, decide what you'll offer for free and why. I'm not dissing giving things away. I'm pretty clear on the fact that if you do it, you need a strategy. Maybe you want to re-read the post? Hat tip :)

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Love it love it love it. Can't wait to start reading your column in Entrepreneur.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Thanks, Elizabeth! Always great to see you stop by...

Steve Congdon
Steve Congdon

Hip hip! Good stuff, as always. Love your ideas to move beyond free! Having jumped in to the social media space myself, I've had a lot more grazing calls than in the past. I find myself listening a lot harder when the prospect suggests they have hired numerous outside resources not related to mine. I wonder if there aren't a couple of open-ended questions that couldn't be asked to help quickly weed out the grazers. Hmmm. Note to self: gotta get on that...!

The Redhead
The Redhead

I do love me some open-ended questions, but I find that specific ones that yield a yes or no answer tend to direct the grazers back to the pasture, FWIW :) Thanks for stopping by today, Steve, and if you come up with any doozies on the open-ended questions, will you share?

Steve Congdon
Steve Congdon

Happy to. Lemme give it some more thought. Though The Stooges said this best, "I keep trying to think but nothing happens...!" And I agree, there's probably a mix of question types that will help get to a conclusion.

XD Web Solutions
XD Web Solutions

Great blurb and I need to jot that down, practice it, and USE it! I've been a slut for too long - keep giving away too much of my time for free! LOL I just read another post about what to say when people ask to "pick your brain" - same concept...tell them the same thing you mentioned here (maybe unless there will be mutual brain picking)! Thank you!

The Redhead
The Redhead

You can pick your nose and pick your friends, but why is your finger inside my head? (my favorite new phrase)

Joel MacCollam
Joel MacCollam

I find the same "grazers" in charitable direct mail fundraising. It's the $2 donor who asks a question with every gift, and the question takes an hour to research and get back, often just representing material already on web site. So time and energy factor into economics as well, in terms of who I cam mail to and still be profitable on all fronts. Sure, folk will say "But maybe they'll give a million", but it is highly doubtful and, as you say, RARE.

The Redhead
The Redhead

RARE. That's a great word, isn't it?

sellmeyoursoul
sellmeyoursoul

In my defense, I wasn't grazing so much as flirting. Honestly, I thought we'd made a real connection, but I guess all I am to you is a paycheck. Me and my broken heart will go find someone else who's career I can feign interest in .

Kris @krazy_kris
Kris @krazy_kris

Ha! Funny timing indeed... But since I've only sent one email & paid for the kick ass SEO webinar, I'm considering myself innocent.