Will I work for free? For “promotion” or “exposure”? I sat in a bar, in a meeting that had been cancelled on me several times, tried to respond without either laughing or snarking. 

If I have a pet peeve, it’s cheap people. Especially cheap people who have money. To me, there something so miserly about trying to squeeze the value out of every last dime, especially if you are blessed with abundance.

Also, so counter productive. Not to get all “The Secret” here, but in my personal experience, generosity and being appropriately free with my money has always paid back in multiples.

I  value the work I do, and I grind it out every day to make a good life possible for my family. I also do pro bono work for charities and causes I believe in. In order to help those in need I need to get uh, you know, get paid.

Shopping bags, something else you can't buy if you work for free

Can I work for free? Well, no actually.

So when someone asks me to work “for promotion” or “exposure” in other words, for free, it chafes. I have so many friends who are also creatives and small business owners and it’s infuriating to see people question their prices or ask for discounts. Wil Wheaton (love him!) has spoken out on this, as have many creative workers. The jist is: if you can’t or don’t want to do something yourself, you can expect to pay market value for it.

So I was especially frustrated today when this business owner asked me for literally thousands of dollars worth of work “in exchange for promoting my business,” because his business is just ramping up and he’s on a tight budget. Although you can bet he’s paying his contractors, his lenders, his insurers, his accountant.

This wasn’t for a writing job, but writing is where people ask me for free work the most. I think part of the problem is, we’re all able to write so it hurts a little to pay for professional writing. But just because I know how to drive doesn’t mean I expect free cab rides. If you want better work than you can do, or have time to do, there’s going to be a cost.

You get what you pay for. If someone is willing to work for you for free, it means you aren’t displacing a client who would pay them. I mean, logic right?  If they had as many paying customers as they can handle, they couldn’t afford to work for free. So it should tell you something about the calibre of work you’re getting.  

If you are a small business owner and people are hitting you up for free work, it can be really awkward. Even today I found myself starting to explain why I required money.  Like in general. Why I have the gall to insist my clients pay my fee. How dare I?

Channeling My Grandfather

That’s when I stopped myself and asked WWVBD, or “What would Vern Brown do?”

My late grandfather was a brilliant businessman. I’m actually a fourth generation small business owner. It’s in my DNA.  I grew up watching him run multiple successful businesses, from auctioneering to real estate to his successful furniture store.

He was a generous man.  He donated his time and money to many, many worthy causes. His name is on many a commemorative plaque in his hometown.

But as my dad (3rd gen small business owner!) reminded me today, Grampa’s response to being asked for handouts from strangers would have been -literally- to walk away laughing.

Hell, he was known to charge interest on loans to family. He was shrewd, and a literal genius, and I’m grateful to have him as an inspiration.

So I thought to myself, if I’m going to carry on this family legacy, I need to be ready to answer the “hey do you work for free” question with something other than my natural snarky inclination: “Bitch, do I have a Red Cross on my shirt? I’m not an effing charity.”

There’s a good, polite, customer-service-oriented answer to this question, no matter how uncomfortable you are with conflict.

#1 -“I don’t think my target market really aligns with that strategy.”

This is for those of you who don’t like saying no. Conflict sucks, especially if your business is new. This doesn’t insult the asker, it doesn’t shame them for asking, it just indicates that you know more about your business goals than they do.

#2 – “Your audience engagement isn’t at the level it needs to be for that to be possible for me”

I have a little side business where I make sculpted jewelry, and people routinely contact me for free product, in exchange for Instagram promotion. Or even more ballsy, they ask me to pay for Instagram promotion. The thing is … they don’t have the followers.  I remember one woman, an aspiring pop star, who offered to post my links to her 1 million followers. After looking at her profile, I would guess about 1000 of her followers are legit.

An important side note: Don’t buy followers. It’s just embarrassing, everyone knows, and it’s really bad for building an authentic brand. There are lots of reliable ways to tell if someone’s followers are fake, but the big hint is you have 100,000 followers and your pictures only get 100 likes. That level of engagement doesn’t jive.

There are a number of other ways to tell (I’ll do a post on this someday) but that doesn’t really matter in this case. If someone asks you to do work for promotion, and their engagement numbers tell you they paid for their followers, all you need to do is say you only work with brands who have a higher level of engagement with their audience.

#3 “Unfortunately my own vendors don’t accept “exposure” they only accept money. So that needs to be my policy as well.”

Okay, this is definitely a touch snarkier. However, your fellow small business owners will thank you, because hopefully it clues the asker in that what they’ve suggested is not only unworkable, but also a little insulting.

2 yummy burgers, which you can't get if you work for free

If I roll through the McDonald’s drive thru and say, “You know I could really make better burgers than these, I just don’t have time. Can you give me a free one and I’ll promote the McDonald’s name?” they would laugh. It’s laughable, and the asker should know.

#4 – “It’s so funny you ask, I was going to ask if  YOUR business needed more promotion.  I’d be happy to spread the word on my blog and social channels if you want to provide me with your product for free.”

I was very tempted to say this today, but I refrained. If you run a content marketing business, chances are you really DON’T need promotion, and could actually do a pretty good job offering other people free promotion, if you were that kind of person. (Of course,  you aren’t!) It does hit the point home that if they wouldn’t part with their product for free, why on earth would they ask you to?

#5 – “No, thank you. I have all the promotion I need. Best of luck.”

This is what I ultimately went with. Because it’s the truth. “No” is a complete sentence. Wish them the best and move on, to a client who is excited to collaborate with you at the price your talent is worth.