Paid vs. Free Services

I am a shameless eavesdropper. Sometimes, in restaurants, I become so engrossed in a nearby conversation that my husband kicks me under the table.

So, two months ago at the fairly deserted Virgin America ticket counter in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but hear an exchange between a Steve-Van-Zandt-look-alike (think do rag and leather chaps) and the ticket agent. The aging rocker was unaware of the bag check surcharge and didn’t have a wallet. He couldn’t carry on his sizable suitcase and guitar, but had no cash or credit card. He wasn’t angry, just bewildered that he couldn’t check his stuff. So I walked over, slid a 20 on the counter and walked away.

I never do this. I mean, I don’t give change to panhandlers and I don’t whip out my checkbook for every solicitor who comes to my door. (not counting Girl Scouts – gotta support budding entrepreneurs – and I love the cookies)

I did, however, just finish reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. She gives very specific, research-based actions you can take to increase your personal happiness. One of these ideas is small, unexpected gestures of kindness to strangers. So I did it. And I cannot tell you how appreciative the aging rocker was. At first he refused, but then he was so incredibly thankful, promising to pay me back and insisting on giving me a hug.

I gotta tell you, I could not stop smiling. I was giddy for the rest of the afternoon. The researcher was right. It did increase my happiness to give away a twenty.

This got me thinking about giving stuff away in general, especially in terms of business. Web workers, for the most part, get paid for what’s in their brain: their creativity, their knowledge, their expertise.

It’s easy to get cornered at a cocktail party or on a phone call when someone says, “Hey, can I just ask you a few questions about this?” or the worst, “If I could just pick your brain…” (hate that expression)

But it’s good business to give things away. In fact, lately it feels mandated. (see Free by Chris Anderson) Of course, giving things away in business doesn’t have as much to do with increasing happiness as it does with building a relationship with your customers. If you are normally paid for your expertise, it’s a good idea to demonstrate a bit of what you know for free so that people feel comfortable handing over a portion of their kid’s college fund for your services.

But how do you know where to draw the line? I mean, you have to feed your family and there is that pesky mortgage.

Havi has a wonderful analogy about business with you at the center and concentric circles of interaction emanating from the core. Certainly this could be a model for business activities, with higher valued interactions closer to the center and the free stuff at the outer edges. The difficulty is understanding where one circle starts and another one ends.

When I posed the freebie question to Liz Strauss during a workshop at sxsw, she suggested asking the person, “Are you trying to hire me?” But this can be intimidating for the people-pleasers among us.

For now, I am going to continue to use my intuition, give some stuff away for free and hope I have the courage to ask “Are you trying to hire me?”

How do you balance your free vs. paid services?

I would love to hear about it in the comments…

7 Comments to Paid vs. Free Services

  1. at | Permalink

    I think you’ve touched on the difference between free that makes one happy and free that makes one resentful. The free that makes one happy is given, well, freely, usually without any expectation on the other person’s part. There’s no guilt over not giving, and the other person isn’t demanding (or asking nicely, in a brain-picking way) to be given something for free.

    When it comes to consulting, blog posts provide plenty of free advice. But I think people should expect to pay for anything more. I’ve found that people who pay for stuff are much more likely to appreciate it and put it to good use. They actually benefit more.

    I’d rather just randomly do nice stuff because I feel like it, rather than because someone else thinks I should, you know? (I’m still probably not as nice as you are, but I’m working on it!)

  2. at | Permalink

    Definitely! They value it more because they paid for it; but they also pay for it because they value it more. It forces them to really think about what they want, so they’re committed to making it work before you even talk.

  3. at | Permalink

    I love it!

    One way to give away without cost, is as follows:

    I recently printed a batch of my etsy cards for $20. I sold half of them at $3.00 each, which left me with a small profit. This meant that the remaining cards were “free” for me- which means if I mail them out to my twitter friends, people who say nice things to me and make me smile- I’m giving them away (occasionally I’ll send an extra for *them* to give away) without it costing me a penny. It doesn’t devalue the ones that I sold already, and it doesn’t cost me anything, and I get a happy warm feeling when I walk out of the post office!

  4. Noa's Gravatar Noa
    at | Permalink

    Hmmm… I like your post!

    I give a lot of my time and expertise for free. I work with endurance athletes, and those trying to get to a higher level of performance are often struggling financially. They are faced with 2 options – work more and train less (not good for performance…) or work less and train more (not good for those bills…). Often, they can’t afford to work with a coach, which adds to the struggle… so I sponsor a small, talented group of international level athletes. I charge either very little or nothing at all. If I need help with anything – they are always there to help me out.

    I think there is a balance between free and paid services. I do both and I am happy doing that. I LOVE my “job” and when you do, you tend to find that fine line, between helping and being a part of your community (professional or otherwise) and getting paid so you can make a living… at the end of the day – everyone’s happy :)

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MEET Jacquelyn

  • I like pies, but I don't make them. I help organizations bake up social web strategy.

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