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The true cost of free labour — and how startup founders can find their way around it

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Starting a startup can be tricky. To make money, you need clients. To attract clients, you need a portfolio. To have an attractive portfolio, you need to… Well, you see where I’m going with this. A lot of founders offer their services for free to escape this cycle. However, there are plenty of issues with this approach. It’s certainly not the silver bullet it might seem. Here we are discussing this topic in detail.

Pic by Sanmeet Chahil / Unsplash.com
Pic by Sanmeet Chahil / Unsplash.com

Cheaper than cheap

We are biased against free stuff. It is rarely useful and almost never good. We enjoy books, but being given one is a recipe for never opening it in the first place. Think of something free you actually put to use. Hard, isn’t it? So what does this tell us about free online content, digital goods and other services?

They get a bad rep. So even an exciting offer, such as free samples of your product, may end up being viewed as manipulative. Instead of building a relationship of trust and substance, it will turn the client off. And that’s how you get passive aggressive comments. That’s how social media pundits tear your business apart, explaining what exactly you got wrong. That’s how people publicly denounce your company and warn their friends not to trust you. That’s why offering to work for free is a bad strategy.

To make things worse, your lack of accomplishment will be judged as a lack of competence. Clients will not be open to the possibility of your work being any good, but they will be on a lookout for a catch. They will expect the price of your product to be offset by the effort needed to clean it up. Nobody wants sloppy and unprofessional help. Thus, a proposition of free labour will always be met with suspicion.

Luckily, there are ways to prove your expertise. Producing educational content is one of them.

Reputation through content

The internet is filled with useless, often outdated things. Content related to your field of work is no exception. You can establish yourself by providing value to the community — your clients, buyers and users of your products — you’re going to be a part of. So, start by taking a look at what’s already out there. Make a list of all the major content providers in the field and study what they offer.

Pic by Kaleidico / Unsplash.com
Pic by Kaleidico / Unsplash.com

Pay close attention to how the pieces are received. Successful, well-received content will point at the things your community needs more of. Such content is likely to provide actionable solutions or shed light on current issues within the industry. Get to the bottom of what people are interested in, why it’s so popular and expand on it. Likewise, angry comments will reveal the systematic problems your community faces. Make sure you do not take this criticism lightly or blame it on a ‘vocal minority’. Silence can be a sign of mediocrity, but anger always exposes unresolved issues. An angry response, no matter how badly written, requires some effort. So, chances are, it’s because your audience was hit where it hurts.

Armed with this information, you can dive deeper into these subjects, offering in-depth analysis. These pieces will easily resonate with your potential clients, making for great discussion starters.

Reputation through education

Web development makes for an easy example of this strategy. Let’s say you want to start a web design business, and plan on using React. While there’s no shortage of getting started guides, half of them is outdated, and the other half is terribly written. The guides for absolute beginners are boring and repetitive. The guides for established programmers are boiled down and hard to navigate. You’d be lucky to find something concise and insightful that describes how things work, rather than what to do.

You can go through a dozen most popular beginners’ guides and try to complete them yourself. You will probably find parts that are badly written or hard to follow. Which means there were people before you who found them even more confusing – you’ve got your audience. What you need is to approach this problem in an accessible manner. Look for related StackOverflow questions and figure out the most frequent causes for these misunderstandings. Find a bunch of good programming content and see how it balances depth, logic and accessibility. Try to structure your article in a way that’s easy to digest.

Pic by Karl Pawlowicz / Unsplash.com
Pic by Karl Pawlowicz / Unsplash.com

Programming in general has a reputation for terrible educational content. So, start by describing your personal experience with the issue. An impersonal know-it-all perspective is best left for reference books. Explain how you see the problem and provide an overview of possible solutions. Ask for feedback. Encourage readers to propose corrections and amendments. Once you gather enough feedback, you’ll be ready to create your own tutorial, one that is guaranteed to be better and more accessible. When you complete this project, you will gain real-world problem solving experience, establish meaningful relationships with potential clients, and yourself as an active member of your community.

Reaping the benefits

The benefits of this effort can only be reaped further down the road. But, unlike giving away your products for free, marketing your expertise early on guarantees a much greater payout:

  • You will earn a reputation among your peers and establish your online presence.

  • You will work through and learn to live with the problems you’re going to face anyway.

  • You will learn to engage your audience in an open dialogue. Most businesses find this essential skill difficult to master, which inhibits their future growth.

In the end, you’ll have something to attract customers with, as well as a body of work outlining your workflow and values. This will serve as proof of competence and go a long way to eliminate your early clients’ distrust. However, you should be mindful of your online persona, and make sure that what you write accurately reflects how you approach your craft. The worst thing you can do is overpromise and underdeliver. Your clients will judge you by the quality of your work, so stay humble.

If you focus on making your community a better place, your own success will follow.

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