36:4 How to stop working for free - Lee Matthew Jackson
36:4 How to stop working for free - Lee Matthew Jackson

36:4 How to stop working for free

There are many ways you may be working for free. Some are by choice, others are not so obvious. In this episode we explore ways you could be devaluing your service and missing out on opportunities to charge for your expertise.

Lee Matthew Jackson
Lee Matthew Jackson

There are many ways you may be working for free. Some are by choice, others are not so obvious. In this episode we explore ways you could be devaluing your service and missing out on opportunities to charge for your expertise.

Lee Matthew Jackson - Trailblazer FM ™


Lee Matthew Jackson

Trailblazer FM ™

We will look at:

  • Pitching
  • Consulting
  • Doing extra freebies
  • Trying to create work

I share my own experiences of working for free and how we can flip the script and start charging for what we do.


The Project Discovery Blueprint will help you establish a discovery process for projects that will allow you to get paid for your consultancy, understand what the client needs, quote the right price and deliver the right solution. You can find out more information by clicking here.

Episode 249 – The one page business plan – click here

Episode 200 – How to transform your agency – click here

Live stream

How to stop working for free
Do you find yourself doing loads of extra work for free? Let’s talk about that… Are you: _ Pitching _ Consulting _ Doing extra freebies _ Trying to create work Lee Matthew Jackson


Welcome to the Agency Trailblazer podcast. This is your host Lee, and on today’s show, we help you to no longer work for free. If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, then please stay tuned as I unpack all the ways you may be working for free and thus could begin to charge, protecting your time and helping your business grow. This is taken from our live stream. You can find all of our live streams over on leematthewjackson.com/live.

Before we crack on, I’d like to thank our sponsor Cloudways. You can check them out over on cloudways.com. They are the cloud platform that I trust with all of my projects. Thus, without further ado on with the show.

Alrighty. Hey, my name is Lee Matthew Jackson. How are you today? Let’s have a conversation about working for free. Are you working for free? What I want to do today is have a bit of an open conversation. I would love for you to hit me up in the comments and let me know if you are experiencing any of these in your agency life. I’m going to talk through a few that I have experienced and I’ve seen other people experience. I’m going to shoot the breeze with you on how we might be able to change the behavior. And I would love to hear from you, what are the ways you may be falling into the traps of working for free and or how you are getting out of that rut?

So let’s have that conversation. Now the first way that you could be working for free in your business is pitching. So what is pitching? Pitching is essentially when a tender or a competition comes out and a business will say, we are looking for a new brand for our company, we’re looking for a new website, we’re looking for X, Y and Z. And they will do this as a pitched competition. That means they are expecting agencies like yourself to go ahead and do the design for completely free and present it to them, and if they think it’s good enough, they may just choose you.

Now, there’s a big problem with that. You are putting in all of your resource, your design and your talent for completely free on the hope that you might win the competition. And this is how our old agency many, many years ago operated. We operated on the premise that we would look for anyone who had pitch work. We would try and wow and bedazzle them with the custom work that we would create and then we would still lose the pitch. Often we would lose the pitch because of the price that we had put alongside our design, or we would lose the pitch because the pitch was only a process that people went through because they had to go through the process but they already really knew which design agency they were going to connect with. And that really, really sucked. So we would spend hours bleeding time on our pitch work. It was awful.

What was happening as well is because we were losing pitches predominantly for the same reasons of price, or they already knew who they really wanted to go with. The cost of entry was slowly dropping. We were realizing that we’d gone from going to pitches where we were pitching for work based at say ten, twenty thousand. We were now pitching on five grand jobs and two grand jobs, which is ridiculous. We were putting in maybe three, four or five days worth of work, maybe across two or three different designers just to try and win a few grand. And very often we would lose again for those reasons. Maybe it was price a race to the bottom. Maybe again, it was based on they already knew who they were going to pick. And also, I’ll be honest, as we were starting to pitch lower and lower, maybe it was because what we were putting across was absolutely diabolical and crap. I wouldn’t say that, but maybe it wasn’t as good because we were having to try and do our best with the little time and the resource that we had. So we were starting to cut corners and pitching as best as we could.

So that’s pitching. Are you pitching? I would be very interested to know if you are in a pitch process. We’ve been able to take ourselves right out of that pitch process and we produced something called a cred’s document. What we now do is we look for clients who are looking to work with a agency who specialize in their industry, who understand them, who know them, who knows their problems, who have solutions, and who have worked with similar clients who have got their creds to prove that they can do the job.

This means we can show up and say we have the creds, we have the experience, we have the testimonials. We can demonstrate to you that we have the ability to complete this job. Therefore, if you would like us to do this work, if you would like us to rebrand your business and build your website and do whatever it is that we are going to do with you, you will make that decision based on the proposals that we put forward and based on the document that we provide. We will then start to design the moment there is cash in our bank account.

So no longer do we go down that pitching process where we bleed ourselves for free in the hope that we might win something. Now we flip that on its head and we will only work with clients who accept the way of working based on creds, based on your experience, based on your knowledge. And I would encourage you if you are stuck in the pitch phase, I think they call it specing as well. Maybe in the States. I would absolutely encourage you to really draw a line.

I know it’s a hard process to get out of that because that’s how you’re used to generating leads. That’s how you’re used to generating the business etc. But for us, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. We were getting worse and worse. The quality that we were putting out was getting worse and worse because we were trying to win as many pictures as we possibly could because we were now going in too low and it was just ridiculous. So we were doing lots and lots of work for free and getting nowhere when we flip that on its head. And that was a slow process over a few months we had to unlearn a lot of bad habits, but we had to work out how are we now going to show up and find new clients and elevate ourselves and say, hey, we know what we’re doing, here’s our creds. Here’s all the amazing work that we’ve done. We can look after you. We understand your problems. We understand what you want to achieve. We can help you achieve it because, look, we achieved it for X and Y and Z, and we did this both A and B and C.

Once we got into that language, once we understood that we were able to increase our prices, we’re able to find clients who wanted to work with us like that instead of us pitching for work. It’s the same with tender’s instead of us going down the tender line. And I understand tender’s in some businesses are worth it and that’s a good marketing cost. And I get it. And I also get that pitching in certain businesses in certain industries when the price is right is classed as a marketing cost and I also get that. But let’s face it, for all of us everyday folk who don’t want to spend their lives working their ass off and not getting paid, you probably want to avoid pitching. And I would recommend you absolutely avoid pitching in my experience. But if it’s working for you, please do let me know in the comments.

Right, pitching. I have gone on for ages. Next one is consulting. You’re probably doing absolutely shed tons of consulting for absolutely free. Right, consulting. You’ll probably maybe not you maybe you’re totally got this nailed. I still have years in I still do this. You’re probably consulting for absolutely right. Think about it. How many calls you get from potential clients. How long do you spend on the phone with those potential clients? How many questions do they ask? How many proposals, how many iterations of that proposal do you have to give? How much research do you have to do on their behalf to then continue to try and sell yourself into that business? How much work are you doing for absolutely free for a potential client?

I get it. It’s a marketing cost. There is a marketing expense and you do need to put in some work and some effort to win a client. But there is also a line. And when people continue to take advantage, when can people continue to ask you for more and more information and to make you bleed for the potential business that they have to offer you, then there is a problem. You have become a free consultant at their beck and call whilst they wave a dangly carrot.

I speak from experience because we’ve done this so many times, including a massive food company who have the money. Right, this was awful. They approached us, they say, right, we want a social media marketing strategy. This is when Facebook and social media marketing was brand new. We came up with some incredible ideas. We put forward a document saying this is all the stuff that we can do for you. We’re going to do pop up stands. We can do this in supermarkets. We can do this over there. We can do this on social media. We spent days putting forward a proposal. We spent hours on the telephone answering questions and creating an entire marketing strategy that we would help carry out for them. And you know what they did? They said, thank you very much. You too expensive. We’re going to take all of this in-house. And they did everything that we came up with and we didn’t have the money to sue them.

We didn’t have any contracts with them, to sue them, to have an argument with them, to chase them down or to go and punch them in the face. I really wanted to do that. But that happens. This happens. You can accidentally end up consulting for free. You can end up giving the keys to the cupboard away instead of getting paid. And that’s where we flipped things on the head as a business as well. We now do paid discovery. I don’t care how small the project is, we are going to engage now in paid discovery. You come to me with a problem, you say, hey, I want to create a new website, I want to do X, I want to do Y, whatever that is.

Let’s go through some paid discovery process. At this point, I should probably be pitching that we do have the Project Discovery Blueprint that will be available from the 1st of October and that’s on a pre sale right now. So I’m going to come back in later and ping the link to that unless somebody watching wants to be a sweetheart and ping a link to my discovery blueprint in the comments as we talk.

But what we do is we will have an initial conversation with the client. We will do some initial discovery, maybe an hour of conversation to understand what their needs are. But then we will put forward a proposal which includes maybe a day, maybe several days of in-depth discovery where we will reverse brief to them all of what they need, that includes the problems that they have and the potential solutions that they can engage with. What this ensures is that we get paid for the time that we spend in producing a proposal for them. You have to remember that clients don’t understand necessarily what they want or how to formulate the solution that they need. They are coming to you with that and that is valuable information. That is information that you have gleaned over the years of building websites or creating solutions or doing designs. Whatever it is you’ve been doing, you have that experience and that is of value and is of worth. And we always pitch this to our clients as, hey, Mr. or Mrs. Client, we get that you don’t necessarily have the technical knowledge to unpack what you need or to decide on what solution you need.

Therefore, let’s go through this discovery process where we will get to the absolute bottom line of what you need. We will present to you a reverse brief, telling you what your problems are and what your solutions are going to be. We will put that in such a way that you will know what to do next. We will also attach a proposal for what it would cost if you worked with us. But if you didn’t want to work with us, that’s fine.

At the end of that pay discovery process, if you want to take all that discovery away and take it to another agency and have them do it, that’s also totally fine. The thing is, I’ve got paid now for that process. The client has seen the value in having an expert such as me and my business, helping them unpack what their needs are and helping them create a solid brief so that they can then do what they want with that. And I’ll tell you, in most circumstances, the client will then pay us to do the work no matter what the price, because they worked out. Holy moly, these guys obviously know what they’re doing and they have absolutely nailed it in this reverse brief as to what we want and what we need to. We’re going with them.

I am appreciating all of these comments, but let’s just show that up. It is trailblazer.fm/project-discovery-blueprint there you go.

Let’s carry on. We have talked about pitching. We’ve talked about consulting. Are you consulting for free next? Are you doing loads of extra freebies? I still struggle with this. A client will approach us halfway through the project and they’ll be like, can you just X, Y and Z? Could we just tweak that? Could we just add this extra field? And you know what happens? You want to be nice. You want to be supportive, you want to do the work. You want to go above and beyond to want to really please the client. But if you keep doing that, you’re going to find yourself racking up loads and loads of free hours and creating yourself a potential problem for the future.

Let me highlight. Number one, all of that extra freebie work adds up. Ten minutes here, 15 minutes there. If you start to look at the amount of times you have said, yes, I will do that, you will start to recognize you are working hours extra on projects. Those are hours of value that you should be getting paid for. The second thing, though, about that is if you start adding a custom field here and a little tweak there and a little tweak there, it’s going to kick you in the future because you’ve designed in advance through the discovery process a system that is going to work very specifically if a client asks for a little tweak here and a little tweak there and you start doing it especially as a freebie, it’s going to potentially screw things up later on. And we’ve found ourselves creating complete monsters because we went off brief. We started to accept these little freebies because we thought we were helping out and we then created a monster that was hard to control.

What we now do is exact same process. If somebody says to us, hey, can we tweak this and can we do that? We say, no. We went through paid discovery. We said, this is what we’re going to build. What we can do is do an updated discovery on a change control request and we can then see, will your request affect the project? Will it affect the overall price? Will it affect anything else that’s happening? Do we need to make any changes in our plans? Therefore, the word change control is your best friend. When a client comes to you saying, can we make this tweak? It’s either a change control or if, you know, it’s not going to affect the project, but you’re still going to have to spend time on it. It’s still going to be something that you would pull from the contingency fund or you if they don’t have a contingency fund, that you just tell them flat out this is going to cost you X extra. There is a lot of money on the table for all of those freebies that you are doing. And there is a lot of pain in the future if you don’t go through some form of change control process.

All right. The last one, and this might hit home for some people. And I’m really, really sorry I’ve done this as well. But you might be trying to create work. This is something that I used to do a lot. In fact, we did it hundreds of times, especially in the events industry. When we were just entering the events industry and we were trying to make a name for ourselves. And what we were doing was creating things for potential clients and showing it to them in the hope that they would then say, wow, this is incredible, that you’ve made this custom thing for us and we want you to implement that now in our business. And we want to pay you loads of money and we want you to evolve it.

We did this too many times. I actually employed someone as their full time job at one point. To continue to build out these mini micro sites for all of these different businesses so that we could say, hey, look what we’ve made for you, do you like it? Do you want to buy it? We had absolutely no success with that strategy. The thing is, we were getting to those points of desperation where we were trying to work out how are we going to create business? Maybe we should create all this stuff for free to really showcase how awesome we are and to encourage the client to buy. And that just didn’t work.

I go right back to the pitching that we talked about earlier where we say what we do now is we actually go in with established credentials. We go in with our cards docs, we go in with our testimonials, with our case studies, with our confidence, with our history, with our brand, with our focus, our experience, all of that sort of stuff. And we go in and we build relationships with the client. We engage them in something small, like a discovery process, and then we build onto the bigger project. No more do we try and create work. If you have a conversation with a potential client or even just with a person and then you see an idea in your head, and then you then spend hours trying to create a mini website or a design or something to try and entice that person to buy.

Even when they’ve not even asked you to buy, then I’m afraid you’re more than likely wasting your time and you’re also devaluing what you do. You devalue your talents and your skills because it becomes something that you can produce for free. And why the hell with the client even want to pay for it? They weren’t looking for it. They weren’t asking for it. And then you present it to them for something that you’ve spent time on. And as far as they’re concerned, it should be free or extremely low cost.

So I would challenge you if you are doing this it’s a knife edge. It’s a difficult place to be and I would not encourage this. On the flip side, if it’s working for your industry and you’re sending people a design, it’s templated and you’re taking maybe two seconds and you’re selling them like hotcakes. Hell, don’t listen to me. That’s amazing. And let us know in the comments. But for most creative people, and that’s who our audience are who are not using templates, who are bleeding themselves for this sort of process, please look after yourself.

Look after your body. Actually, look at all the breadth of work that you’ve done in the past. Create yourself some sort of cred’s document, create yourself some sort of system where you will go in as a confident designer, a confident developer, whatever your business is going with confidence, go with your creds, go in with your big boy or girl pants on, whatever that looks like, and build relationships with people, show them how they are to work with you.

You go in and wow them with your creds and you build a relationship and then you tell them how they are going to work with you. And that includes discovery processes, that includes change control requests, etc. and try and shy away from these processes of pitching for work in the race to the bottom and the poor quality that we were describing that we were starting to put out because it was a race to the bottom on pricing. Or giving away tons and tons of free consultancy, all the keys to the cupboard before you’ve even been able to get an invoice out there or doing all of those extra freebies that add up or create a world of pain for you or trying to create work to create opportunities by doing tons of work for people when there wasn’t even an opportunity there. I would encourage you to stop.

I can see that there have been a lot of comments, which is awesome. And we’ve had from Matt oh, yes most excellent topic. Thank you. I agree. Rowbey says camera one camera two camera one camera. I do this all day. Come on. Absolutely. I like Lee’s side profile. We’ve got an amen from Nick. I presume that was all the way through. We have another Amen from Facebook user.

Facebook user. You are awesome. I have no idea who you are. Lee says great name. Amen from Lee. We have an Amen blueprint. Got to go ahead and check that. Thomas says I hoped for part two today on the pencil talk, go and watch yesterday’s away with all this business talk. Talk more about pencils and beard grooming. Apen to that says Lee confession. I did that too more than once, so I’m not sure what that confession is for Tom. But if you could let us know, that would be phenomenal. Oh, and you have the gray hairs to prove your point. You’re absolutely right Facebook user.

I tell the story a lot of times. You see that computer behind me as from the nineties is an amazing machine. But I remember leaning on that table crying my eyes out one night because I was exhausted. We were doing work for five hundred quid and I was the director of a business with tons and tons of employees. And I had spent three weeks of my own time trying to make this particular project. Work can happen for five hundred quid. It was awful and I recognized what had happened and I just broke down behind me. And I don’t want that for people.

The whole purpose of this community, the whole purpose of the Agency Trailblazer podcast, the whole purpose of the Agency Trailblazer Group is to create a space where business owners be they one person on their own, a solo partner or a agency owner with multiple team members, want to create a business where you don’t have to be stood over there crying. Where you don’t have to be working 18 hour days. Where you don’t have to be in a race to the bottom. Where, you don’t have to be working for free. We want to create a business, all of us together as a community. And I hope I can help you as a leader to create a business that works for you, that works for your client, that works for your team, a business that allows you to spend maybe six to eight hours a day, five days a week, if that’s what you want working and the rest of the time doing whatever else you want. And when you are working, you’re working on the things that you love, that you’re frickin amazing and that you are changing the world.

Right now. Full disclosure, I am stressed out in Event Engine. A project has got very, very stressful. We’re right near the end. A whole load of information that wasn’t coming all came in at one point. So I was very stressed about that process. And yet what bad things happen, I’m still in an agency that I love working on, projects that I love doing, the things that I love and doing the things for the people that I love. I just frickin love my job. Yes, I’m stressed. Yes, sometimes I hate what I’m doing. Like, oh my gosh, look at this massive list of to dos. But I’m doing what I love and it’s amazing. And I’m creating a business that allows me to take days off, to have weeks off, to have holidays, to have evenings off, to take the time off in just a few days time when baby is born for two weeks, I can just shut down and ignore everything and everyone else will look after it. That’s what the heartbeat of agency trailblazer is.

The heartbeat of Agency Trailblazer. Build a business that you love. Build a business that earns the amount of money that you want to earn. That’s going to allow you to do what you want to do and live the life that you want to lead in the house that you want to live in and sod all of the 10x income, all of the millionaires sod all of them. Stop giving people all of your money. If someone is asking for five hundred quid a month to go on to some sort of program because they’re going to transform your life, then I call bullshit.

Do not go for that. Spend some time yourself. Go and listen to my episode where I tell you about the one page business plan and listen to episode number two hundred about transforming your agency. There is enough information in there for you to start to build a picture of the business that you want to build that matches what you want in your life. Then you can make a decision to go and maybe do some courses with other people. That’s all fine if you want to do that, which is going to help you towards your goal. But I would encourage you stop ignore all these courses for a moment. Go listen to episode number two hundred. Go on. Listen to the one page business plan that I do. In fact, I think I did a livestream on that. Probably we do so many I lose count. Go I listen to that as well. Let’s build a business folks that we love that allows us to spend time with our family. I feel like I’m preaching. I’m going on for hours. But, you know, can I get a few amens?

Let’s do the quick recap for anyone who’s joined us late. We just encouraged you to stop pitching because that is a race to the bottom. The quality of your work is going to drop and you’re going to be making some very, very bad decisions. I shared the story where it absolutely sucked in my life. We talked about consulting, where you might be doing tons and tons of free consultancy. And I would say stop doing that and start selling that as a discovery process or if it’s mid project, selling that as a change control as well, which leads onto these freebies. If you’re doing all of those extra freebies, then now change controls. You get paid for those and you go through a mini discovery process.

If that change is significant because it might affect the project. So you protect yourself and find that we talked about creating work. Don’t create work for yourself by devaluing what you do and doing stuff for free. For people who don’t really know you and hope that you might win that business. I would say show up as you with your brand creds, build your brand credibility documents. So build your website portfolio, whatever that needs to look like, build your testimonials up your case studies up. Show that you have got the ability to do what you say you have got to do and then go and build relationships with your target audience.

Remember episode number two hundred, listen to that you can learn how to transform your agency. It’s an old one, but it’s a classic we are nearly at episode three hundred now, which is phenomenal. But go listen to that incredible episode. Go and check out the one page business plan Live stream that I did leematthewjackson.com/live or trailblazer.fm.

We did a whole podcast on it as well. If you don’t have a discovery platform of your own is in a framework that you want to use, I would encourage you to spend just one hundred dollars as just one hundred dollars to preorder our discovery framework that we have used for absolutely years. Works for us and it will work for you on the 1st of October. The price is going up not significantly, but if you want to save a bit of money, it’s a hundred dollars right now and you’ll get it on the 1st of October and you can enjoy that and use that as part of your process.

Folks, your flippin awesome. I have rambled on way longer than I anticipated. I love you all. I hope you love me too. If you don’t, you know where to go. Hey, don’t forget, if you can’t be good, be careful.

That wraps up this week’s episode. If you would like to be a part of our Facebook community, can I encourage you to head on over to trailblazer.fm/group. Be sure to check out our Trailblazer Project Discovery Blueprint over on trailblazer.fm/pdb that’s trailblazer.fm/pdb and that will help you become a paid consultant to your client as you help them understand what their problem is, what they want and need the solutions and how you are going to deliver that, that’s over on trailblazer.fm/pdb The Trailblazer Project Discovery Blueprint.

Folks, thanks so much for your time. Don’t forget those live streams leematthewjackson.com/live. If we don’t see you on the lives, if we don’t see you in the Facebook group, then we will see you in next week’s episode.


PodcastSeason 36

Lee Matthew Jackson

Content creator, speaker & event organiser. #MyLifesAMusical #EventProfs