Culture of Free: Top Five Things People Offer in Lieu of Money for Tech and Creative Services

I've had the privilege to work in a number of creative fields over the years including photography, graphic design, music and, obviously, writing. I've also spent the last decade running a technology company. Surprisingly, they have a lot in common when it comes to business. Both are mostly young fields and they both get asked for free services often.

Naturally, as the world is flooded with cameras in phones, blogging software, easy-to-use music creation technology and do-it-yourself Web tools, the demand for those services will decrease and costs will go down, just like they taught you in Economics 101. But what surprises me to this day is the number of times I'm asked to do something for free. I've been asked to shoot weddings, play gigs, write stories and build Web sites out of the goodness of my own heart and I have found that the things people offer in lieu of money are almost always the same.

And this is not meant to skewer bartering. In fact, I'm building a Web site for a dear friend who is handling the photography at my wedding. In those situations, everyone wins because the exchange is worth it. These offerings are, shall we say, more esoteric.

5. The promise of future business.

I had a boss that used to joke with customers who asked him to extend them credit for purchases, "Oh, you want to put that on account...on account of you don't have any money." Whenever someone suggests that if I do a project for free, they'll use me for future paying projects, I roll my eyes, mainly because I've accepted that offer before and never saw a dime of revenue from it later. People hire people they perceive as good and good people don't take jobs on the promise of potential money down the road.

4. Referrals

"I know a ton of people and can send a lot of business your way" is a tired refrain I've heard far too many times. Much like the promise of future business, this is an easy way to coax someone into doing something for less or for free with no guarantee of anything. I usually handle this by turning it around and saying I'll offer a discount on future services for each referral. They almost never accept.

3. The knowledge you helped a good cause.

If I wanted to help a good cause, I would offer to donate my services, but rarely is the person who has suggested this one to me representing a charity that is worthy or even a charity, for that matter. But, on occasion, I get contacted by a big organization trying to cut corners on their budget and thinking that they can persuade me with a feel-good story. The truth is, if someone came to me and said they were looking for someone to donate their services and would I be interested, I'd consider it. When they approach me with a photo I took that they found on Flickr and want to use it for free, I usually think they are just trying to avoid paying. It's all in the approach.

2. Experience

Do a search of Craigslist for people seeking free services for anything. The VAST majority believe they are offering a good deal because the person will get "valuable experience." In truth, this person is cheap and, in fact, will likely be a huge pain, and probably get really crappy work in return. There is a rule that says whoever offers the least demands the most. I have found that rule to be almost always true.

1. Exposure

This is the most pervasive offering and the one that can, at times, be accurate, but more than likely is not. The problem is that the organizations that do legitimately offer the best exposure are also the ones that have no problem paying. For example, if Time wants your photo for its cover, you can bet they will offer more than exposure even though, almost certainly, that exposure will be worth more than the money you are paid. If someone comes at me offering fantastic exposure for my business, I just tell them I'd rather have the money.

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