Work for free

RVE 94: Why You Should Work for Free (Sometimes)

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On today’s test drive, I talk about three times that I’ve given away my services for free and how those experiences changed my life.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on doing free VS paid work.

  • Some people think if you give away your services for free, then people won’t value your time or YOU don’t value your time enough. Which there is truth to.
  • Other people believe you have to create the demand for your work, which you can do by giving away your services for free until you can’t afford to do that anymore (I lean towards the latter).

My opinion on why doing work for free is valuable was shaped from a few key experiences since we started traveling and building our business.

Make connections and improve your skills

The first of these experiences came during 2014 and it completely changed my life.

Alyssa and I were one month into our 50 state road trip. We knew precisely zero other travelers and were feeling a bit homesick. We’d literally just picked up a camera and started using it, so our film skills were next to none. We really had no idea that a creative/nomadic community even existed.

This was until I heard about World Domination Summit, an annual conference hosted in Portland, Oregon by NY times best-selling author Chris Guillebeau. It is a conference for creatives, entrepreneurs and storytellers. My friend, Jia Jiang, had spoke their the previous year and told me if we were passing through at the time it was happening — we had to check it out.

After seeing the price tag to attend was $1,000/person and knowing full well we couldn’t afford to pay, I shot a LinkedIn inmail to Chris Guillebeau. I told Chris I was a fan of his books and that we were traveling across the country on this project called Hourly America. I pitched him to see if maybe I could volunteer our video services (all one month of them, which I didn’t say) to help them create a video for their conference.

Chris got back to me immediately, connecting me to a guy named Wes who was running their media team. He enlisted our help, we shot a video for them, they liked it and that experience became the catalyst for so many other things.

Just to name a few things that have happened as part of that experience:

  • Literally almost all of our close friends have come from that Summit (not kidding).
  • We connected with a group of nomadic entrepreneurs. So, for the first time we met a group of people who understood and validated our recent (and seemingly crazy) life decisions.
  • We were invited back to WDS to premiere our Hourly America documentary.

And so many more things.

Reach more people

Two other examples of giving away things for free that have proved hugely valuable to us have been:

  • The Facebook livestream for our RVE Summit last year. I felt nervous to give this away for free because a lot of conferences charge to watch the live stream. But ultimately, I decided that reaching more people was more beneficial than making a few bucks off of it. As a result, countless people who watched the live stream last year are coming to this year’s summit & it led to our most recent client project with Winnebago.
  • Lastly, this podcast, which has led to meeting countless people on the road, hosting the RV entrepreneur summit, sponsorships, and client opportunities.

When to work for free

These three things when we’ve given away something for free has led to a crazy amount of opportunities that we could have never predicted. If we’d had stuck to our guns and charged for this podcast, the live stream or trying to make WDS pay us for that first film gig — who knows if any of them would have happened?

Here’s my take on when it can make sense to work for free.

Do work for free when nobody is beating down your door to hire you or use your app. If nobody wants it yet, make sure it works or that you can provide enough value in your service. Giving away something for free doesn’t mean your business won’t be valuable in the future, it just is a way to get more experience/feedback, so you can reach profitability sooner. We’ve given campgrounds early access to our campground management software to seek out their feedback and it makes our product better.

Do work for free if it will clearly lead to a “next and more lucrative opportunity”. With WDS, we met countless people who ended up hiring us or collaborating for future projects. We went back the next two years and volunteered our services for free just because of how many great things came from the first time around (plus we love the event).

Do work for free to build relationships with people you’d like to work for. A couple years ago, we filmed a workshop for my friend Jeff Goins. Jeff was a guy whose work we really admired and looked up to and filming his workshop was a way to do something of value for Jeff and open that door.

A few scenarios where I don’t think it makes sense to do free work:

Once you’ve established credibility and demand for your work. Considering our day rate for film is $1,500 I wouldn’t go out and shoot a video for a campground or any other client for zero dollars, just because they asked nicely.

When someone asks if they can jump on a call to talk to me about RV life. We’ve been asked this quite often and in the early days I was happy just to give away our time. But considering we get a lot of emails each day, I can’t just give away my time every time someone asks for it.

Once you’ve generated enough demand for your services, you can charge what you want for it. But up until that point, you’re just hustling to create demand — one way to do that is to give your services away for free.