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On Giving It Away For Free

Posted by on January 26, 2014

Years ago when I lived in San Francisco and times were tight, I was practicing massage therapy on a regular basis. Occasionally, I would question whether or not my rates were too high. I’d bring it up with my best friend, who founded his own online business printing high quality business cards (they were expensive… not the vistaprint crap, but the cards were gorgeous and totally worth it). The conversation would always go like this:

me: Business has been tight. I’m thinking of dropping my rates to get more customers.
him: Don’t drop your rates. Cheap rates means cheap customers. You don’t want cheap customers.
me: Yeah, but I could use more customers.
him: Cheap customers waste your time. What’s your time worth?

Inevitably I’d learn this lesson the hard way. When I moved to Chicago in the winter of 2005 I’d occasionally give a client a break on my rate to entice them to visit more often. Invariably the customer getting the discount would be the one who was always late and then would beg for more time without being willing to pay the difference.

So, I stopped dropping my massage rate. For customers who paid my full rate or tipped, I’d be generous with my time; I’d be less of a clock-watcher. The ones who came back again and again and got more than an hour of work and became part of my devoted client-base. They were willing to invest in my full rate and in exchange, I was willing to invest more time in them. I paid the bills and they got great service.

Paying money means you get great service.

Paying money means you get great service. | They say that adding images improves the readability of blogs. This was the best image I had of me and money in a dance context. Here’s my dance partner, John Joven and I enjoying a private dance from his partner Shoshi. He’s making it rain, I’m drinking from a huge flask and we’re all having a good time.

As a dance instructor just starting out years ago, I started with lower rates, so that I’d be competitive with dance teachers at my level. As I’ve gained experience and traveled abroad multiple times to teach, I’ve felt justified in increasing my rate even though I’d happily do what I do for free, since I love working with people on their dancing.

Occasionally I do offer my services to friends and close colleagues for free or nothing. I suggest a trade, or agree to spend time working and training with a colleague who has become more of a friend. (This agreement doesn’t apply to teaching partners with whom I’m building shared curriculum—we don’t charge each other to train together.) It usually applies to someone who wants more dance training and has some other business relationship with me.

And, what I’ve learned the hard way, yet again, is that when you offer to give your services away for free… or you don’t negotiate a clear exchange, people, even your friends take you for granted. They don’t show up, they flake, they’re late or they try to raincheck your time, often to a time-frame that’s no longer viable.

On the other side of it, I’ve watched as close friends pay practitioners and teachers less qualified than me for bodywork or instruction, even though they’re willing to give lip-service to my skills. This may just be a desire for business/friendship separation or an uncertainty for how to conduct business with a friend, but it still baffles me.

I don’t have clear solutions to either of these situations. Every dance teacher I know probably has friends with whom they’d love to work. Because they’re our friends, we’re often willing to do more for them, to share our skills in the hopes of enriching their lives and therefore adding to our own enjoyment of the dance. But when our colleague and friends waste our time, squander the resources closest to them, or simply fail to take advantage of what we offer, especially when we offer it for cheap or free, it can feel personal.

I’m a solutions oriented girl. I usually make clear rules for myself when it comes to handling business and friends. But I don’t have any on this one, other than to stop giving it away for free, which feels stingy to me. So, I want to hear yours.

8 Responses to On Giving It Away For Free

  1. Heather Kraft

    I love your perspective that if people pay what you are asking for, you feel more willing to be flexible with time and service, and when it’s free people take it for granted. I believe people buy into the value of goods/services. If it’s free, they sometimes miss the value. I think about this a lot with my own business; your post is a great reminder. As far as friends go… it’s what you feel comfortable with. However, they should respect your business just as much as you respect theirs. If you take your prices and time seriously, so will they.

  2. Raven

    It’s important to help your friends out because it helps build and strengthen relationships. We don’t and shouldn’t expect things in return (though subconsciously we do), but sometimes not negotiating ahead of time can make that an issue. Perhaps even just saying “get me/you back next time” may help.
    From my experience, no matter how close the person(s), I would cut the free or reduced services after being flaked out etc. on after maybe 2 mishaps. The more you show your friends and colleagues that you can be “used” and your time isn’t of value, the
    less they may respect your skills, and go to other teachers, practitioners.
    You are probably worth more than you are charging, based on the few lessons I’ve had with you. You are one instructor I wouldn’t want to see go down because other people disrespect you and your valuable time.

  3. Lowry

    I think there is potential to start with free and work toward payment, but have clear expectations. I know I was offered some ankle rehab through a MT dancing friend, and she said x number of sessions. I decided it was fair to pay her even before the x number ran out, but she would flake out on me all the time, not respecting my time because she was giving me free work. I literally had money in my pocket to pay her, and she didn’t even to call to cancel, just did a no-show. I now go to an MT who doesn’t do as good of work, but is reliable and respects my time when I make arrangements to go to her. If you want to barter, I’d suggest that you do say that you want to work toward being paid for your expertise at some point, and ask what you can do for that. Sadly, with some people, it will never work, but with some, they will respect and reward your honesty. Above all, always be respectful of one’s time whether they are giving you that courtesy in return or not. If they’re not…don’t deal with them again. I’m totally with you on that one.

  4. Ruby

    @Lowry — That’s a really interesting and surprising perspective, about your friend not respecting *your* time. I do rarely make plans to “give it away for free” with folks unless I’m truly up for it, because I know my own resistance to giving my time away can lead to me not being fully committed. Often freebies happen spontaneously and out of a genuine desire to share and help. But, I think it’s important for people on both sides to remember that what the money is for, is a commitment to giving up your time for someone… in addition to the aggregate experience that came before.

  5. David

    Made me think of this:

    “For most all of my speaking, consulting, and advisory work, yes: I do charge a fee, plus expenses. And, candidly, I charge kind of a lot…..I learned a long time ago to only work for or with people with whom you have mutual admiration and respect—and who already think you’re valuable and great at what you do. In my experience, the folks who expect you to make a case for your own value make for terrible clients. They may be good negotiators and nice people, but working for them is a gut-wrenching travesty. And I don’t do travesties.

    With all that said, I do a fair amount of (private, unpublicized, non-ribbon-based) work with non-profits and other deserving groups. And, no, I normally do not charge for this work. So, If you’re working for a good cause or represent an organization that’s trying to do something you know I care a lot about, please ask me. No promises, but I’ll do what I can with what I have.

    So, yep. “Expensive” or “Free.” It’s a fee schedule that works.”

    -Merlin Mann (

    I do student prices for students and those who I know don’t have an income stream that will support lessons, and free for close friends. For everybody else, publishing a flat rate and sticking to it has been the lowest-drama way to teach.

    I’m also a fan of saying “My time is worth $X. I don’t care if it’s just you or you and 3 of your friends- it’s still $X. If you want to save money, organize a group private and each pay 0.25x. It’s still lots of personal attention for everybody, but a quarter of the cost and lots of practice opportunity.” I usually cap it at 4 or so per lesson just because of space constraints and not wanting to be on the hook for planning a huge curriculum.

  6. anders

    If I was skill swapping (for example guitar tuition) with a dance teacher of your ability and experience I would still offer to pay you top up as your going rate for private tuition is substantially above what I charge for music and therefore what I have to offer should only be part payment.

    Not all skills are of equal worth.

    I totally agree that when students/customers pay then they commit to and respect what they get in return. If you ever give away your labour I feel its important to do it with defined parameters and with a contractual mindset (for example as a language teacher I used to do first hour free – allowing the student and me to size each other up – after which they booked me and paid a cancellation fee if they cancelled last minute).

  7. Devonavar

    I give lots away for free. It’s part of my marketing / networking, and I view it as a budget line.

    That has a few ramifications:

    1. I consciously limit the amount of free work I do. If you catch me when business is slow, you’re more likely to get lucky.
    2. If I’m doing free work, I have generally have a clear goal in mind for what *I* am getting out of it. Sometimes that goal is fun or supporting a project that I believe in, sometimes it is connections or referrals, sometimes it is storing favours. But I always know why I am doing it.
    3. I do NOT use discounts directly for customer generation — as others have said, you rarely get high value work from low value customers.
    4. I generally work for free, or for full price; I don’t like discounts. However, I do have some clients grandfathered in at lower prices that I offered earlier in my career.

    And, lastly, my free work isn’t a replacement for my paid work. I have certain services that I rely on for my income, and I don’t offer those for free. My freebies are my secondary services that demonstrate my competence, but are easy and quick to offer. Alternately, I occasionally use free work as professional development or portfolio building, and offer free services for things that I’m still learning about or exploring.

  8. Randy

    I don’t really have much to write besides I enjoyed reading this article Ruby.

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