No Such Thing As Free Lunch

I think we’ve all heard this saying before.  Probably around 3 or 4th grade in your history class you heard “there’s no such thing as free lunch” and probably snarled because they had just passed out a free lunch form for you to take home.  As I got older I understood what it meant but thought it was one of those fancy phrases that people just say to fill space; we all no those types of people, right?  It wasn’t until I went into my PR business full time that I wanted to buy the url, get a t-shirt made, and scream it through the walls of the nearest coffee shop.  Boy, oh boy do I truly believe there is NO SUCH THING AS FREE LUNCH or free anything for that matter.

For a quick history lesson, No Such Thing as Free Lunch was coined in the late 1800’s because saloon owners would give you ‘all you can eat’ free meals as long as you continued to drink. The food was high in salt and of course made you need to drink more.  The adage proved that you can’t get something for nothing.

So let’s push to the modern day.  I am always intrigued at how, as a society and culture, we fall for the buy 1, get 1 philosophy, why we negotiate for a service but pay full price for a product, and how lay-a-way went from retailers to service based business payment models.  Running a business can be quite difficult but one area I figured out pretty quickly were my philosophies regarding money, discounts, bartering, and free that have kept me and many of my clients in business.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t believe in free anything.  It is really funny because many of my friends and colleagues will preface their email requests with “I know you don’t work for free but can you please look at XYZ for me really quickly?”  I oblige because 5 minutes out of the day for someone who has probably given me the same luxury is not going to hinder my day or my business.  As a matter of fact I enjoy those moments where I can give to someone else.  HOWEVER, it is the “can you set up my facebook account and train me on it” requests that always blow my mind. Because did I forget to mention that people have a unique boldness to ask for everything for free.  Here’s my first philosophy…if you spend half of the time you spend asking for free work actually on your business you could be a millionaire!

So if that wasn’t enough here are my other philosophies:

I don’t barter, except in one occasion (see point #3): I believe that 99% of the time bartering can become bad for business.  Here are my sentiments: most every person I have chatted with about bartering their services has expressed disbelief when the deal goes sour.   Most people value your time and services just not as much as a product and it never fails that our value becomes unequal from what we are receiving in return.  For some reason many have it in their head that the intangible hour that I spend researching or writing is not quite as valuable as the new fangled gadget that we pay $600 for.  My suggestion: pay for what you want and you will not question its fairness nearly as much.

Reserve sales for special occasions: I look at facebook daily and see Press Release writing and distribution for $100.  After I do a double take I question why have a sell on something that takes time and strategy to complete.  The only time I have really seen value in discounting a service is if you are offering a group class or program and can create an incentive because it is a group rather than one-on-one.  By discounting so heavily you not only risk your business seeming desperate you also hurt the industry by providing less than stellar service (because honestly who is going over and beyond for such a small amount?).  Instead, if you insist on discounting, then I suggest doing so around the company anniversary or even by sending a private note to former clients to entice them.  Just remember, slashed prices don’t always attract your ideal client.

The no no’s of Pro-bono: I am not against pro-bono work at all. As a matter of fact I think there are two really great times to offer your services at no financial cost; when you first start in business and when you have been extremely successful in business.  I do, however, have a couple of practices that make this process go a little more seamlessly.  I believe that every client you take should be well thought out and should articulate the type of client you would like to do business with or that you currently do business with.  I also believe that the only time to really barter is when working in this situation.  I would suggest having an agreement that the pro-bono client will introduce you to their network where you can pick up another paying client or two.  I also think, especially if you are new in business, they should be able to write a recommendation or personally refer your business to others.

And here is my last thought!

Remove FREE from your vocabulary:  The day of social media has completely diluted what people want to pay for, particularly in PR and marketing.  I realized that it was partly because many people reference publicity as free advertising and social media as free publicity.  The word free creates a false sense of the work that goes into these tasks.  While the platform of social media is indeed free the countless hours creating the page, drafting the editorial calendar, managing the content, engaging with people, adding, liking, commenting, monitoring, and measuring all take a great deal of time.  Remember that your value usually far outweighs the cost that you charge.  Be sure to use proper verbiage and educate clients of the process so they understand your value and why they pay the cost for it!

As a practitioner it is important to focus on value and results more than the cost.  So what are the take-aways? If you discount your prices you risk hurting your business, leave discounting for department stores, pro-bono clients should add value to your client roster, and the word free should rarely exist. 

What would you add?

Kia Jarmon is a brand strategist and PR coach with boutique public relations firm, MEPR Agency.  She speaks, blogs,mentors, and is soon to be an author.  You can find more information at her personal brand site,