Why a ‘great opportunity’ rarely is: Consultant lesson number 1
Ian Lurie Dec 1 2009
“Do this bit of work for me for free. It’s a huge opportunity! You’ll get rich! I swear!”
Uh-huh. David Thorne wrote this hilarious piece about an alleged exchange with someone who wanted some free design work. While it may be an utter fabrication, it got me thinking:
In 15 years, I’ve never – never had a ‘great opportunity’ pan out. Not. Once. I’ve been lured in a few times to provide free consulting time, do some free copywriting and the like. But somehow the client’s stock options/promises end up worth about as much as really low-quality toilet paper. The kind that comes off the roll in tiny little bits and pieces and could be used to grind metal.
There’s a reason folks ask for spec work, and it’s not because they’re jerks. A lot of the time they genuinely think they deserve it (which may make them jerks, actually) or that this really is a great opportunity. Which merely makes them lousy gamblers/businesspeople, or both.
Why a great spec work opportunity is never great, or an opportunity
- Chances are the client’s idea is so dated/foolish/doomed you’re better off buying stock in GM.
- You don’t control your own destiny. Sure, if the client succeeds, you’ll get paid lots of money. But you don’t control whether they succeed. Your success or failure is in the hands of someone who thinks they deserve free work, and also lacks the funding and good sense to pay for good work. Chances of success = .0000001%.
- If the client does succeed, you’ll be replaced. If the client’s idea is a huge success, they will be bought out, or hire underlings. The new management or underlings will have their own pet consultant/designer/writer and squash you faster than a pile of earwigs.
- If the client does succeed and you aren’t replaced, your investment will be worthless. I’ve learned this lesson the very hard way: We got lots of shares in a promising company. The company kept growing. Then they changed their investment strategy and required us all to fund a new round of financing. If we didn’t, our series A stock became common stock. Hear that flushing sound?…
- This isn’t the way to get good karma. Do free work for someone who has a ‘great business idea’. Best case: When this idea flops, they return asking for more free work. Worst case: They forget you ever existed during one of their alcoholic binges after their great opportunity is laughed out of 20 consecutive investor meetings.
Alternatives to working for free
Sometimes, someone you really like and trust asks for free work. You can work for them. Just don’t do it for free. A few ideas:
Get a glowing testimonial. In advance.
If they have a cool blog/site, ask ‘em for a link.
Ask them to arrange an introduction to a business leader/potential client you’ve been trying to meet for ages. In advance.
Instead of doing the full project, advise their team as they do the project. Charge the client for consulting instead.
When to work for free
At some point you’ll still give in. I do it. Just have a system. I have my own set of ‘free work’ rules:
- It’s a great cause. “Joe Schmoe’s yacht fund” is not a great cause, by the way.
- There is no committee. If you’re not paying me, I am in charge of my work. I will not sit and listen to 12 slack-brained power-maddened volunteers. I will be the slack-brained power-maddened volunteer. Period.
- There’s an end date. Working for free forever without pay is called prison, or slavery, or something.
- I’m not doing any other free work.
- It’s in writing. There’s still got to be a contract. I will do X and Y. You will be eternally grateful and/or compensate me in some way.
You have to find your own way when it comes to free work. All I suggest is that you’re very, very careful about it. At a bare minimum, make sure the warm tingles you get from donating your time (because that’s what you’re doing) is sufficient compensation.
If the potential client is asking for free work, their ‘great opportunity’ never is.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More