One of the most effective ways to generate interest in you or your business is to give something away for free.

Do you like free sh*t? Me too. Who doesn’t?!

Whether you’re sampling the latest double-fudge ewe-gooey brownie at the grocery store, previewing Jay-Z’s new CD on iTunes, or downloading a free chapter of Snooki’s book on Amazon (please don’t tell me you read Snook lit), we all like to test drive before we buy.

And while we love getting free sh*t, we aren’t always ecstatic about giving our hard work away. But I’m here to tell you that you should be! I’m also here to tell you why giving 50 percent of your work away for free is one of the smartest moves you’ll ever make, especially if you’re starting out.

One of the most effective ways to generate interest in you or your business is to give something away for free. Because everyone loves free sh*t! The objective here though is to give something of value to people you want to start a conversation with. For example, if you’re a web designer, offering a free website makeover is an opportunity to showcase your skills and to get people talking about your work. Encourage the world to sit up and take notice of you.

That all-important first nibble

Ever notice that people who have a product or service of value are happy to give you a trial run or a money-back guarantee? That’s because they’re confident that once you get a taste of what they’ve created, you’ll come back for more. It’s the classic “try before you buy” concept. You hook them with that nibble.

It’s sort of like a first-date kiss. (Well, minus the nibble unless you’re into that sort of thing.) The kiss should be good, but small. Just enough to make them want more, to convince them to say yes to a second date and keep the thought of you lingering. And just like you shouldn’t give it all away on a first date, you shouldn’t give it all away for free in business either, no more than 50 percent.

It’s true that if something costs money, people tend to value it more. That’s one reason why college degrees are worth more than reading a lot of books in the library. But I’m a firm believer that if you’re willing to invest in doing great work, people will eventually invest in you. And how do you get people to notice all the great work you have to offer? By giving 50 percent of your work away for free!

Think I’m preaching insanity? Worried you’ll be living in a van down by the river if you follow this advice? Then maybe this short story will change your mind…

A tale of two Ryans

Once upon a time there were two 20-something guys named Ryan. The two friends were fed up with the way their generation was stereotyped and decided to do something about it. So in March 2007, Ryan and Ryan took to the Internet and started a blog called Employee Evolution, a place for GenY to speak directly to corporate America.

Like most bloggers, they created content for free, asked others to contribute content for free, and gave it all away on the Internet for free.

A lot of hard work and no money to show for it. How could this “give it away for free” business model ever payoff?

Simple. It made people sit up and take notice.

And notice they did! Everyone nibbled. Soon Ryan and Ryan had interview requests from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and 60 Minutes. They also caught the eye of someone you may have heard of, Penelope Trunk.

Needless to say, the Ryans I speak of are none other than Brazen Careerist co-founders Ryan Healy and Ryan Paugh. Along with Penelope, the trio started the very site you’re reading now, Brazen Careerist.

What’s the moral of this story? Employee Evolution evolved into something greater because of free work. Ryan and Ryan’s careers both took off because of free work.

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s sh*t

Getting people to sit up and take notice is the first step. And nothing does that better than offering free work to the world.

Just because you’re doing “free work” doesn’t mean you aren’t providing value. The payoff will come later and in ways you never expected.

So keep doing free work. As much free work as you can. Worry less about the lack of dough and focus more on how the work could grow.

David Stehle started a Network Security Consulting company by offering his nerdy expertise for free. You can find him on his blog The Rest Is Still Unwritten and on Twitter @davidstehle.


  1. Lindsay | The Daily Awe

    True. But there is a fine-line between giving information or stuff away to people who will become paying clients…and then giving free stuff away and attracting the wrong kind of people to your business or websites – those who just want free stuff. I agree that it pays to give stuff away, but you have to be careful not to give TOO much.

    • David Stehle

      There will always be people that are attracted solely because it’s free and will take advantage of your generosity. In time, you’ll be able to see these vampires from a mile away and avoid them.

      And if you ever get fooled by a vampire, just chalk it up as a lesson learned and move forward. There are more good people in this world than bad – try to remember that.

    • Holly

      Agreed, Lindsay. A lot of small businesses learned this the hard way through Groupon. A friend of mine really effectively gave just a nibble away for free and, as a result, generated some great traffic and cash. She says it better than I can over at her blog:

  2. Annika

    Free shit (throw the i back in, David!) always wins. I hear Lindsay’s point about giving it away to the ‘wrong’ people though. I think the “how” of your giveaway is the ideal way to control and filter the process so you can find your ‘right’ people.

    At the same time, I think there’s also a need for us to let go of the idea that we can predict whether each recipient will turn into a client or not. For me, it is more about goodwill – of course we want those glowing referrals – but it demonstrates confidence in your abilities, makes those freebie folks adore you and is also a good way to get your name out there. Free shit rocks!

    • David Stehle

      Yeah, I like all 4 letters to be present in my swear words too. But I cleaned up my potty mouth by throwing the asterisk in for Brazen. 🙂

      Giving free shit away definetly makes people like you. And when people like you, they’re more willing to do business with you. But the best part, when they like you, they are willing to TELL other people about you…generating even more business for you!

      Let the “free shit” happy dance begin!

  3. Anonymous

    Giving away free shit is like throwing a penny and grabbing a dollar. it surely helps boosting the business when managed carefully.
    The main thing to remember is turning the recipient into a client where relies the business tactics.
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  4. Alexandra

    I think giving services away is definitely a good idea. Target your audience to places like Non-Profits (who often have an array of successful business people on their boards) or your local Chamber of Commerce who has the ability to refer you to a large network of local businesses. Giving free services to your mom’s neighbor who runs a business out of her home (while it might make you a hero to mom) probably won’t bring you much future business.

    • David Stehle

      Yes, good point! It’s important to target the right audience when doing free work. And by right audience I mean preferably companies that have a little dough to spend and would be willing to hire you down the line.

      Doing free work for a company that is about to go under is sweet of you, but that business relationship won’t evolve or generate you any money.

      And while being kind to others is nice, so is being able to eat!

  5. Anonymous

    I agree! Great points!

    • David Stehle

      Thanks! I hope you also agree that no one should ever read Snookie lit! 😉

      • Anonymous

        I haven’t personally read any Snookie lit. 🙂 But I must say, she’s found a way to make a pretty lucrative career out of one little reality TV show that wasn’t even supposed to do succeed. More power to her!

  6. Tatiana

    David yay! 😀

    I think doing free work is kind of the only real way to go. Everyone wants to get paid, because people value themselves by how much money they make (a massive cultural problem to be sure). When one work for free (but don’t call it volunteering or interning), in some ways it feels like they’re wasting their time because “time is money” right? So I think that by encouraging people to work for free (in some capacities for a reasonable amount), is good.

    It can help a person detach their personal value from the arbitrary value of the almighty dollar, while getting them the valuable experience they need. It’s also great because due to high unemployment, people are more desperate than ever to get paid to do ANYTHING, but employers are also more discriminating than ever in proving your abilities. So you’ve got to give a little to get a lot. :3

    Great post. yay!

    • David Stehle

      Exactly! In today’s economy people are more reluctant than ever to hand over their hard earned cash to someone who just says “what I’m offering is good – buy it.”

      That’s not enough. You have to SHOW that what you’re offering is good…and worth the asking price.

      That’s why a free nibble can be so effective! It gets the conversation started and if you’re lucky, it gets a little dough to start rolling your way.

  7. Jrandom42

    And just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it’s worth any more than what you’ve paid for it.

    • David Stehle

      For me personally, the free consultation I offer to potential clients requires the same amount work on my part as the work I would charge for in an hour long session/evaluation with a paying client.

      In other words, I give the same value to the free consultations as I do for paid ones.

      The “free shit” you give away (that enticing nibble) should be of equal value to the work you will later charge for. It should be a fair representation.

  8. Sheila

    I think that giving away something for free builds trust. With everything in the world today the way it is, I think its more important than ever to show people that you are concerned about people. These small acts of kindness will turn around and produce some unimaginable results.
    Great post.

    • David Stehle

      Not only does it build trust, but it’s solid proof of the great work you’re capable of.

      Talk is cheap. Anyone can say “I’m awesome at doing this – hire me!”

      But if you can actually SHOW them your awesomeness, give them a free nibble of your work, then they can’t argue with facts.

      So let your free work do the talking for you. If you’re good at what you do, your work should nearly sell itself.

  9. Chris Hughes

    This is a great example of how giving stuff away can actually build a business. It’s often scary for us young guns to give stuff away because we need to find ways to make money to pay bills. I used to do free consulting all the time and would occasionally get new clients that way. As I’ve grown and my business has grown, I’ve had to start charging for these sessions. No one seems to have a problem with this either because I have testimonials from happy people who I gave free consulting to 🙂

    Great post here!

    • David Stehle

      Happy to hear this method worked for you as well, Chris!

      Giving it away for free almost seems essential when you’re trying to grow a new business! The free consultations I gave landed me some of my biggest clients! And I honestly don’t know where my company would be today without having done that.

  10. Anon

    Free can be good sometimes, but as someone who has done free work for nearly 2 years to get people interested in my work – it doesn’t help at all when no one has money to pay eventually. I do fantastic work, all of my clients love me, and they recommend me to others… but EVERYONE wants and expects FREE work then.

    If everyone keeps doing work for free, then it brings down the rate that pros can get paid. There’s a horrible undermining ethic going on right now of “hiring” interns and new college grads for free rather than hiring real employees with experience. There’s always some new kid willing to volunteer and work for free, so why would any company actually pay money for the work?

    Volunteering is great and it gets your foot in the door… but when companies stop paying employess all together, and expect everyone to volunteer, it ERODES the market for real paid professionals.

    • David Stehle

      As I’ve mentioned in previous comments…

      There will always be people that are attracted solely because it’s free and will take advantage of your generosity. In time, you’ll be able to see these vampires from a mile away and avoid them.

      It’s important to target the right audience when doing free work. And by right audience I mean preferably companies that have a little dough to spend and would be willing to hire you down the line.

      Otherwise, all you’re doing is building your reference list and not generating any money for yourself.

  11. Morana Medved

    There is a great book exploring this topic “FREE: The Future of a Radical Price”. What surprised me the most is that “free” is a very old idea. It’s powerful when managed correctly, keeping in mind you don’t want people to value your work less just because you give something away for free. BTW, the book is free in audible and ebook format.

    • David Stehle

      Ha. I love that they are giving that book away for free! Very fitting.

      I’ll have to put that one on my reading list.

  12. Mnovakow

    It really was completely unnecessary to use sh*t at all in your story. Is your writing aimed at 14 yr. Olds?

    • David Stehle

      Really, the word “sh*t” typed out even with an asterisk in the middle offends you?

      You do realize Brazen Careerist is a network geared toward Gen-Y (20-somethings), right?

      That is why the post has references to things like dating, earning a college degree, and trying to launch your career – all topics aimed at people in their 20s.

      Brazen Careerist posts are supposed to be written in a conversation tone. And I don’t know any 20-something that would use a word like “poo-poo” instead of “sh*t.” So it just seem fitting. Sorry if it offended you.

  13. JacPfef

    This is essentially how I started my business. In the creative field, offering your services for little to no monetary compensation allows you to build up your portfolio and make valuable networking ties. When I did it I was gaining the tools that allowed me to grow my business and attract future clients. Also, if you’re providing a service and just starting out, there’s a lot less pressure than if someone’s paying you hundreds or thousands of dollars. Five years later, I’ve still been known to cut my prices drastically for a project that really interests me.

    Good shit, David 😉

    • David Stehle

      That’s what I like to hear. One success story after another of how “giving it away for free” helped launch someone’s career!

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  15. Emprego

    I enjoyed reading this article. Quite interesting. Thanks

  16. Steff @ ex back

    Hi David,

    I believe your model of giving away free stuff is best expressed in the form of a blog. No matter what you do, a blog is an easily accessible space for a taste of the real thing. Do you consider showing a previous design portfolio to prospective employer as a form of “giving”?

    I do free first proposals for my clients and a few amendments before they decide to take me in or not. Sometimes I get so sick of doing that as the job is labor intensive (say, I can only do 2 proposals a day – full time) and the conversion rate ain’t great (5-8%). Sadly, this is the industrial norm. What would be your advice on this?

    • David Stehle

      I consider design portfolios more as “proof” of the great work you’ve done, like an example. It is in fact a “nibble” of what you have to offer. However, it’s a nibble that served someone else. It doesn’t necessarily serve as the nibble needed to secure your future prospect because it wasn’t tailored to fit their exact needs. Does that make sense?

      Don’t get me wrong. Work portfolios are great and if you’re in a creative field, you should definitely have one! However, when you give away a free nibble, you want to make sure it’s tailored to fit the exact needs of the client you’re looking to land.

      I know you’re working hard at putting together those free proposals, but still having trouble landing the gigs. So my advice is this…

      If you find your conversion rate low, perhaps you aren’t targeting the right potential clients. For any business deal to work, it has to be a good fit for BOTH sides. Both parities need to be happy and excited at working together. The answer to your problem may simply be that you are going after the wrong type of clients. That it isn’t a good fit and therefore all the wooing in the world won’t get them to sign. They may not have the money to spend or simply lack the need for what you’re offering. Take that into consideration before slaving over anymore free proposals and let me know how that helps!

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