A friend runs a restaurant consulting firm: concepts, planning, financial models, operations—the works. 

Except now work is in relatively short supply. Many restaurants have had to close this winter, others have turned to curbside- and delivery-only, and very few have the cash flow to pay for outside consultants, even if new ideas are exactly what they need.

When he asked, what was my advice? “Give some work away for free.”

He hated that idea. Spend money that won’t generate a return? In this financial climate? No way.

Actually, yes way.

Hold that thought.

The anteambulo

As Ryan Holiday writes in his book The Obstacle Is the Way, successful people paid artists and performers to produce art. Think of it like keeping Shakespeare on your payroll.

But these artists also carried out other duties. Like toga-clad personal assistants, they smoothed the professional lives of their patrons by delivering messages or coordinating functions. They served as an anteambulo, a Latin word that means “one who clears the path” by walking in front of the patron to clear a way through crowds. Literally, and also figuratively.

Clearing the path could extend to making connections, eliminating obstacles, solving problems. In simple terms, it’s doing things that help another person succeed.

And this also benefited the anteambulo. Not only did they get commissions and stipends to produce art, they were given the time and opportunity to improve their skills, develop their talents, and make their own connections. 

To clear their own paths.

Which takes us back to my restaurant consultant friend.

The gift that might keep on giving

“I’ve invested significant time and money in building our firm’s expertise,” he said when I suggested giving some work away for free. “We provide real value and deserve to receive a fair return.” 


But when customers are in short supply—when the demand for your value and the commensurate return has dried up—then in effect that value is, for want of a better way to put it, “worthless.”

In business, value is always defined as what a ready and able buyer is willing to pay. Right now, he has few able buyers. But there are plenty of potential customers in need.

One example: Earlier in the year his firm conducted a massive traffic pattern flow and volume study for several major roads and intersections in a large city. That data was used to analyze potential restaurant sites.

But that same data could easily be used to help other businesses in the area, informing signage decisions, cooperative advertising and marketing strategies, and so on. Other businesses could definitely benefit from some of the insights.

While they might not be able to pay for that data, the resulting relationship could lead to paid work in the future. The effort could lead to expanding his consulting firm’s capabilities. 

And then there’s this: He doesn’t have enough paid work to keep his staff busy, so what does he have to lose? 

Putting a little time into spec work that won’t take time away from tasks that generate revenue is just one reason to give a little work away for free.

Here are some others:

1. You can evaluate whether a market exists. 

While his business helps restaurants, many of the services he provides could have broader application. Business plans. Marketing strategies. Financial modeling. Process optimization. None of those functions are exclusive to restaurants.

The question is, will non-restaurant customers engage his firm? Good question, and now is the perfect time to try to answer it. 

And to answer not just through cold calls, but by providing genuine “samples” of the work he can provide. Converting restaurant financial models to general retail. Converting restaurant direct-response marketing strategies to fit service providers. Applying cleanliness and hygiene processes designed to meet the challenges of COVID-19 for food service operations to other businesses that also “touch” customers.

When target customers are in short supply, expand your target. But open those doors with something tangible. Something valuable. Something a potential customer may benefit from.

Do that, and the response will prove whether a new market exists.

2. You can gain new skills, risk-free.

Paid work obviously generates revenue. That’s great, but paid work also means you must deliver. Customers don’t expect that you’ll be learning on the job. 

But when you do work for free, “reasonably good” is better than nothing. (By definition, the customer received more than they paid for.) 

In the process, you get real-world experience. You get real-world feedback. You get the best training of all: on-the-job training.

I took a similar approach when I first started ghostwriting. I had no track record, no testimonials, no referrals. Ghostwriting is a little like Fight Club: the first rule of ghostwriting is you can’t talk about what you’ve ghostwritten. 

So I told potential clients that they didn’t have to pay any money up front, and only had to pay me if they were happy when the project was complete. While that sounds like a risky strategy, it worked. Every client paid. 

And even if a few hadn’t, while that would have meant I did the project for free, I still would have increased my skills on a real-world project. 

Approach the process strategically, and doing a little work for free is an investment in yourself, your capabilities, and your expertise.

3. You can build long-term customers and connections.

The goal of networking is to connect with people who can help: land a sale, gain a referral, make a contact, etc. People network because they want something.

But the only way to make a real connection, to establish a real relationship, is to give—without, oddly enough, expecting anything in return. 

When you help someone who needs help, they’ll never forget you. Offer information to someone who can’t afford to access it otherwise, they’ll never forget you. When you step forward in a time of need to provide a product or service to someone who can’t afford to pay, they’ll never forget you.

Make a genuine difference in someone’s life, and they’ll never forget you. 

Which creates the kind of bridge no amount of marketing can ever build.

When to give work away for free

While doing something nice just for the sake of doing something nice has a value all its own, the key is to be strategic.

  • Look for minimum input with maximum benefit. Modify what you already have. Adapt what you already do. Leverage resources, skills, and expertise that you already have to work with and apply them to new customers, new markets, etc. 
  • Look for opportunities to expand skills and capabilities. Simply doing more of what you already do may gain you a few more customers, but a better approach is to seek some degree of personal return on your efforts.
  • Look for opportunities to expand your network. Since referrals are the lifeblood of many businesses, providing genuine value to people in a position to refer friends, partners, colleagues, and so on to your business could generate a significant return on your “give work away for free” investment. 

While you can’t help everyone, and you can’t give all your time, products, and resources away, you can help a few people who really need help.

Especially if you currently have the time to do so.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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