DEAR READERS: No matter your profession — writer, accountant, graphic artist, plumber, etc. — you've likely been asked to do work free of charge at some point in your career. But now you're at a point where you have the experience, skills and drive to start your own small business.
Should you continue offering to work for free? If so, what should the parameters be? And does it in any way diminish prospective clients' perception of your abilities? I decided to address those questions in honor of Small Business Week, held annually during the first week in May.
Jason Harris, CEO of the creative ad agency Mekanism and author of "The Soulful Art of Persuasion," knows something about starting a small business. And that includes understanding the ins and outs of not charging clients in the beginning.
"When we first started Mekanism, we sometimes worked for free because we had to build our portfolio and associate ourselves with some big-name brands," Harris recalls.
Taking that approach, he stresses, "doesn't mean you don't value yourself or your company." Instead, "It is the fastest way to have proof of work and a roster of clients," he explains. "This value exchange offers a client something for nothing, and for the business, it provides some quick hits. When you develop that roster and those examples — trust me — the money will follow. It's a worthwhile upfront investment, offering the fastest way to scale up. You have to risk big to win big."
Harris offers a real-life example to prove his point.
When he was starting out — after just opening Mekanism's office in New York — he decided to reach out to the chief marketing officer at PepsiCo. Although the company had done some work for Pepsi, "we were still very low on the agency-roster totem pole. I knew we had to do something big to stand out," Harris says.
Harris landed a meeting and boldly asked the chief marketing officer what the company's biggest problem was.
"He told me that Pepsi was sponsoring the Super Bowl halftime show, and they still hadn't exactly cracked the idea," says Harris, who immediately responded, 'We will crack it. I will bring you some ideas next week.'"
Clearly, it was a big project — and a big risk, considering there was no mention of a fee or of the number of hours that would be involved.
"Any small-business owner knows that pouring resources into a project that isn't guaranteed is very costly. But something told me that we had to try," Harris says. "We ended up coming up with an idea that we refined a few times, at no cost, and they loved it."
It was, Harris says, "a huge win." But it came with another risk: Pepsi wanted a more established agency to produce the spot; Harris had to decide how far to push his luck.
"I said, 'No.' If Pepsi wanted our idea, Mekanism had to make the work," Harris says. "It was a gamble, but it worked. And ultimately, after a long standoff, we got the gig and the money that followed."
Not every budding entrepreneur will have the chance to interact with a major company the way Harris and his team did. But there are myriad examples of how giving something away brings back more in return.
"We're often told that if you want something from another person, it helps if you grease the wheels by giving them something first — a classic tit-for-tat exchange," Harris says. "The effectiveness of this strategy has been repeatedly confirmed by the clever experiments of academic researchers. It's the reason why food and beverage makers offer free samples at Whole Foods and drug companies shower doctors with free samples, branded pens and coffee mugs. It's why Netflix and Spotify give you a free trial before they ask for money, and it's often why wealthy businesspeople donate to political campaigns and why politicians do favors for potential donors."
The secret, he says, it to focus on the "give."
"Simple as it may seem, research backs me up. Throughout time, humans evolved to be generous because it was a reliable way to get people to cooperate," Harris says. "And in a real-world environment where people aren't always in a position to reciprocate, generosity earns the trust and appreciation of others, especially when starting a new small business."