What’s Wrong With Free: Don’t Give Your Value Away

As a small business consultant, I have a real heart and passion for helping small businesses succeed. Unfortunately, this often gets me in trouble. I find myself wanting to help the business in front of me to succeed more than I want my own success. This may seem like a weird problem to have at first glance, but the bigger issue is that it can often set both me and my clients up for failure. I have spent the last couple of months trying to work with companies on commission only. I work to build and manage a sales team and, for my efforts, I get a portion of sales. This no upfront cost model seemed like a win-win. Who could turn free growth down?

The biggest problem with free is that it holds no value. People hear free and it is hard for them to understand the work, time, and effort that goes into whatever is being given away. I got a lot of praise in the business community for my business model but I don’t think that anyone could have guessed the mess that it would create.

I have learned a lot about human nature in the last few months:

Free is not a motivator
When something is given away, there is no motivation to make it work. Free means that you can take it and forget about it there is no commitment involved. When someone has to purchase something, they cherish it and take care of it.

People are suspicious of free
Nothing in this world is free, right? Thanks to countless false advertisements and gotcha-marketing, free has become synonymous with scams and even fraud.

Free does not foster respect and partnership
If you give something away, you are saying that it holds no value. Respect and strong partnerships must be built on a solid foundation, a foundation that says both parties have an equal value to exchange with each other.

People won’t work for free
No one has ever taken a job for free. Even in an unpaid internship, the intern is compensated with college credit, new skills, and strong connections in their field of choice. A few years ago, eager sales professionals would line up for commission-only jobs, but in today’s economy, people desire security and a steady paycheck more than the promise of uncapped earning potential.

If you give one thing away for free, people always demand and expect more
Free seems to be a slippery slope. Once people get something for free, they always demand more. If you were willing to do one thing for free, why would you not be willing to do everything for free?  This goes back to the fact that frees holds no value. By starting a relationship off by saying that your skills have no value, it is very difficult to turn the page and suddenly expect to have your skills treated as valuable.

Lesson Learned
Most companies struggle with the issue of free from both sides. On one hand, we want to find innovative ways of promoting our products and services, but we must be careful to not devalue what we offer in the pursuit of new clients and customers.  We either believe in the value of what we sell or we don’t. If you value what you sell, draw that line in the sand and find people who will also value it.

The hypocrisy of free is that, as business owners, we don’t want to give away our products but we also hate bills. We find ourselves stagnating our growth potential because we are unwilling to spend money where it needs to be spent. The lesson that I have learned about free is twofold: First, value your offerings enough to find those who value you. Second, value your business enough to grow it. Don’t go jumping over dollars you could have earned to save a penny. In the end, be wary of free, don’t go accepting it as a fair tender for what you have to offer, and don’t expect others to give away their hard work. Business is a very valuable commodity; let’s not devalue it by chasing after free.