When you own a small IT business, it's generally not a good idea to give away your services. For starters, no one likes working for free (and those iced cinnamon dolce lattes aren't going to pay for themselves). Plus, giving your work away might make customers think that you're inexperienced or that you don't believe your services are worth paying for. That won't entice them to hire you for future (paying) gigs.
But as with all rules, there are exceptions. Let's look at three times it can benefit your IT business to give your services away for a smile and a thank-you.
1. You Want to Grow Your Network
When you don't have a lot of clients and have to scramble to book jobs, making connections is a big deal. If you selectively offer to do a few small projects at no charge, it can lead to a paying gig down the road, as well as referrals.
owner of IT consulting firm
Information Business Systems,
said he found marketing his services to be a challenge – some of the more tried-and-true methods simply weren't working for him. That is, until he tapped into word-of-mouth marketing.
"I have tried mailers, postcards, cold calling, joining user groups," says McNamara. "Nothing really works for me like word of mouth. You have to realize that handling a company's data is a VERY personal thing. Data is the company's lifeblood and trusting someone takes a lot more than a fancy website or postcard."
Freebie advice: Instead of investing in marketing materials that weren't really bringing in new clients, McNamara instead started occasionally giving away his services.
"I am constantly doing free work for people," says McNamara. "I'm not talking about a 40-hour project – just an hour or two investigating a problem for someone. It's nice to help people, but the other positive is the possibility of gaining a new customer and another marketing contact. For example, I helped out a friend of a customer once and now they are my second biggest customer."
2. You Want to Get Your Foot in the Door
Even with some experience under your belt, it can be tricky to land new clients. If you find a qualified client who's hesitant to hire you, sometimes a little spec work can help you demonstrate your capabilities.
Freebie advice: "The trick is to keep the project contained to a reasonable amount of time to showcase your skills and add value," says
JJ DiGeronimo (@JJDiGeronimo),
Tech Savvy Women.
She warns that you want to negotiate on your behalf, too. Make sure decision makers can assess your work and offer you a paid engagement if you meet the predetermined criteria of the project.
Maryland SEO 360
(@MarylandSEO360), says he has also occasionally found working for free can get a potential client's attention.
"In one instance, I found a website of a local business I wanted to do Internet marketing for, but their site needed a complete overhaul. It looked like it was straight out of the 90s," says Lewandowski. "I created a redesign of their site without even asking if they wanted one. When I completed it, I contacted them and asked if they wanted to see it. They liked it. I got the web design business and a contract to do SEO for them. Giving out free work is hard but certainly can make sense when you're making a name for yourself or trying to get your foot in the door for new business."
3. The Business Is a Nonprofit
Volunteering your expertise is a charitable thing to do, but it can pay off for your business in other ways. For example, it's a good way to build connections. If you're lucky, you might even get a celebrity encounter.
"When I started out as a digital marketing expert about 10 years ago, I did desperately offer my services for free to a few businesses," says Ed Brancheau, CEO of Goozleology (@Goozleology) and an SEO expert. "I didn't convert any of them into paying clients and I got zero referrals. And, worst of all, they ended up being the biggest pain in the bleeps ever!"
Freebie advice: He notes that nonprofits are the exception.
"First of all, any work that you do for them can be a tax write-off," Brancheau notes. But, he adds, there are many more benefits, such as…
- They're usually stretched thin and are extremely grateful for any help they receive.
- Other business owners often volunteer to help them so you'll cross paths with potential clients.
- They know business owners that they'll happily refer you to if you do a great job.
- The board of directors is always made up of business owners and I always make it a precondition that I get to make a presentation to the board every year.
- They'll give you free tickets to events like galas where you'll rub elbows with business owners and community power people. For example? "I met Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was Governor of California and got a photo with him," Brancheau says.
He added that if he works consistently for a particular nonprofit, he does start charging them after a year.
"But I give them a 50 percent discount and they're still ecstatically happy," he says.
Bottom line: sometimes working for free really can result in paying clients, as long as you don't let them take advantage of your generosity. For more tips on striking the balance between free and paid work, check out our article "3 IT Sales Tips to Help You Avoid Becoming a Free Consultant."
About the Contributors
is an SEO expert and the CEO of Goozleology
in San Diego. He helps businesses worldwide create detailed, actionable digital marketing blueprints and establishes his clients' online presence to dominate their competition.
JJ DiGeronimo is the president of Tech Savvy Women, a company that works to attract, retain, celebrate, and promote experienced women in technology and related industries. Since its founding by JJ DiGeronimo in 2008, Tech Savvy Women has hosted hundreds of events for professional women in technology, such as conferences and online discussions. Tech Savvy Women also facilitates recruiting and retention sessions for organizational leaders looking to interlock their diverse talent with business value. She is also the author of the book Accelerate Your Impact: Action-based Strategies to Pave Your Professional Path.
Marc Lewandowski is the co-founder of Maryland SEO 360 and has a 12-year track record in digital marketing. With a focus in lead generation, Marc has helped many small- and medium-sized businesses use the web to drive online visibility and generate leads that have resulted in new business for his clients. Marc delivers cutting-edge search engine marketing campaigns and innovative marketing strategies that accelerate growth, increase demand, and maximize marketing budgets.
Brian J. McNamara is the owner of IT consulting firm Information Business Systems and has been in the IT field for 24 years. He handles all IT functions for companies that are too large to handle technology on their own, but not yet ready to hire full-time staff. He specializes in using current in-house technology in a more creative way and breaking each business process into manageable pieces, identifying bottlenecks, which results in increasing productivity and reducing costs.