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…