Why a ‘great opportunity’ rarely is: Consultant lesson number 1

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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!”
Really, it is a great opportunity.
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.
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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.

Be cautious

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.

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7 Comments

  1. I believe in building my credibility with influence and integrity (not with Get Rich Quick schemes). Building an online presence by following proven strategies over time will offer the most success.
    Cheers –
    Kathleen

  2. “When to work for free: It’s a great cause.”
    Hmm. What about volunteering your work for nonprofit organizations as a way to get exposure? I have many friends who donate countless hours into various nonprofit groups, but most claim that the relationships make it worth it.

  3. Ian

    @Kelly I might be impatient but after 15 years of doing that kind of stuff, I’ve never once seen any of those relationships pan out.
    I mean, if I WANT lots of folks telling other folks I work for free, then it works great. But otherwise, forget it.

  4. DK

    Thanks for this, Ian.
    I said no to a few pie-in-the-sky partnership offers last year. Just a gut feeling. I’ve never looked back on the decisions, but reading this makes me super glad I did other things with my time.

  5. “”Joe Schmoe’s yacht fund” is not a great cause, by the way.”
    But Gab Goldenberg’s plane fund is :).

  6. I too have never had any referrals from doing free work for good causes. It can be gratifying helping a good cause, but that’s where the gratification ends.
    And a sure sign a company doesn’t have the money to be successful is one that asks you work for stock. I immediately head for the hills when a potential clients spends all our time together selling me on how great their product is.

  7. I too have never had any referrals from doing free work for good causes. It can be gratifying helping a good cause, but that’s where the gratification ends.
    And a sure sign a company doesn’t have the money to be successful is one that asks you work for stock. I immediately head for the hills when a potential clients spends all our time together selling me on how great their product is.

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