Colette Nataf

Why I Stopped Working for Free (And Why You Should Too)

When I founded my startup a few years ago, things were different.
If you’ve ever been a startup CEO, you know that sometimes, in the beginning, you take on work that is less than ideal, and put up with situations you otherwise wouldn’t.
That meant bringing on any and all clients, regardless of whether they were the right fit for my business. Finding my product-market fit in my company was key. Going down market and building a self-serve app was another crucial turning point.
Through it all, I’ve learned a lot about the ups and downs of running a business. I’ve also learned a lot about human behavior and how other leaders handle certain situations.
And, most importantly, I’ve learned a lot about respect.
I advise a number of companies and consultants. And lately, there’s one situation in particular that I’ve been hearing about way too often. It’s one I experienced a lot in my early years and one that’s worth addressing. Let’s talk about the problem with expecting anyone to do free work for you.

The “working for free” concept: why it’s wrong

A little background for you…
My company, Lightning AI is an artificial intelligence platform that creates new Facebook interest groups and Google keywords. We focus on getting measurable results using performance marketing tactics that go beyond human ability.
When I founded Lightning AI a few years ago, a lot of people expected me to setup free campaigns for them and spend countless hours in consultations and follow-up without being paid. And although there is some truth behind the “try before you buy” method in society, there’s a few concrete reasons why it’s wrong and rude to expect anyone to do free work for you.
However, in the beginning, I would “suck it up” and meet these crazy free sample/trial demands to get the business. At the time, I figured completing free work for prospects would get me where I wanted to be. But instead, what I learned is that nine times out of ten these clients ended up being my biggest nightmares. Ones that didn’t respect boundaries, went outside the scope of work, and always demanded more and more. Coincidence? I think not. Looking back now, I realize just how big of a problem there is with the “free work” and “free sample” model. The direct correlation between the ones who required numerous free hours upfront and the ones who caused problems later on was frightening, to say the least.

Why it just doesn’t make sense…

Whether it’s a consultant, freelancer, or startup — free work shouldn’t be allowed, let alone encouraged. As mentioned above, often times people would ask me to complete “free samples” for them or free trials that required a lot of my time. Here’s the thing… when you hire a consultant or a startup software company or anyone that doesn’t require a long-term contract, your risk is extremely low. This is something I think a lot people forget and neglect to acknowledge. It’s much different than hiring a W2 employee or executive C-level person.
Because remember, when someone is a 1099 employee or an outside agency, they make their money off meeting and surpassing your expectations. If they don’t follow the defined scope of work, they will be out of a gig. The vast majority of consultants, freelancers and agencies won’t make you sign long-term contracts either. They’ll want to earn your business long-term. Hiring them is low risk, period.

Why consultants (and outside agencies) don’t and shouldn’t work for free

Example scenario: You want to hire a freelance writer for your SaaS startup. You want to find the best person for the job, so you interview ten writers and then ask them each to write sample pieces for you.
Two of the writers you were really excited about refuse to write a 1,000 word article for free. They’re six years into their careers, have extensive portfolios and charge for “sample pieces.”
Your team thinks it’s too risky to choose someone who isn’t open to completing a sample article for free. In return, the two best writers drop out of the interview process and you’re left to choose from mediocre ones. All of this because you wouldn’t 1) pay the freelancer for a sample piece or 2) hire them for a small project and then evaluate. After all, what’s your risk? A couple hundred dollars? A thousand dollars? Expecting an experienced worker to complete free sample work for you is disrespectful. Sorry, but someone had to say it.
And sadly, this is happening everyday. I’ve experienced it first-hand. My contractors experience it regularly. To sum it up, we are simply asking way too many people in the workforce to work for free. And keep in mind, these aren’t eighteen year old interns in college. These are experienced marketers, writers, designers, etc. Something has to change.

The solution: How I handle hiring + firing in my startup

“You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” — Eldridge Cleaver
Now that we’ve addressed the problem, let’s discuss the solution. Since I’ve been on both ends of the situation before, I believe I have been able to find a happy medium that respects both parties when it comes to hiring and firing people.
When I want to hire a consultant, freelancer or any outside person (1099 employee), there’s a few things I do to set the company up for success.
I always ask to see a portfolio first and foremost.From there, I interview them to see if their personality is a good fit. Because I don’t want to talk to someone every week that doesn’t have a good personality or doesn’t support our mission as a company.If I’m impressed and want to move forward, I’ll develop a scope of work for a short time period to start (something very small, like a 5 hour project).I’ll pay them for that time period and evaluate their progress after it’s completed.If I’m satisfied and want to move forward, we’ll continue to work together with no long-term contracts initially required.We’ll set-up some type of regular communication i.e: (weekly/monthly) meetings to ensure we’re always on the same page moving forward.If things end up not working out, I will let them go. It happens, don’t sweat it and just move on.
This system has worked great for my startup thus-far. Most of my consultants, freelancers and 1099 employees would say I’m easy to work with and very respectful of their boundaries and time. And although I don’t sign any long-term contracts with these people, I’ve worked with most of my consultants long-term. It works out more times than it doesn’t, so give it a shot.
I don’t work for free anymore and neither should you.

About Colette

About halfway through my PhD studies, I caught founders fever and made a beeline for Silicon Valley. Fast forward a few years and my startup, Lightning AI is now serving 300+ clients and rapidly growing. You can frequently find me speaking on AI and writing about my experience as a female tech CEO. Have a question or comment? Leave it in the comments below!

Tags

More by Colette Nataf

Topics of interest