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The Pro Bono Problem

Let’s face it, starting a business isn’t easy. Heck, if it were, we’d all take a crack at it. As the old adage goes, “with great risk comes great reward”, and no truer words have ever been spoken than in the case of starting a business. But what happens when you’re ready to take the risk, can taste the reward from a mile away, but don’t have the means available to take your business from conception to completion? And just so there’s no ambiguity, by “means” I’m explicitly talking about money (coin, dinero, paper-whichever term suits you best). With this particular set of circumstances, you may be tempted to try your hand at pro bono opportunities, enlisting the help of friends, family or even strangers. In today’s post, we’ll explore why that may not be the most attractive option in terms of long term business and personal satisfaction.

You Get What You Pay For In a past life, I was a hairstylist. Actually, it wasn’t really that long ago, but it seems like it’s been ages (I’m not really that old, I swear). From time to time, customers, especially first-timers, would come into the salon with coupons for free haircuts, with the purchase of X, Y or Z. So, for example’s sake, let’s say a wife gets a wash, cut and set of highlights for herself. She presents the coupon to her stylist so that her husband, who most assuredly could care less, can receive a free haircut. Unbeknownst to the couple, the free haircut (in most cases, not all) is of a substandard nature, inferior in every way to that of the wife’s services and performed by a stylist who most likely completed cosmetology school the week prior. As the contractual obligations delineated by the coupon have been fulfilled, both parties part company, one leaving with an all too imperfect ‘do.

Just as the example above illustrates, sometimes free/pro bono work can be below par in quality, substance and appeal. When starting a business, it’s important to ensure that the product presented is satisfactory by your own standards. You may only have one opportunity to make a lasting impression with your customer base and it’s critical to your overall success that you leave them wanting more, not less.

Returning the Favor (Barter Bother) Say, for instance, you’re a general contractor that’s trying to branch out on your own. When it comes to tools, electricity, plumbing – you’re the man (or woman), but you don’t know a lick about building a website. Your buddy, Gene, is the grand pooh-bah of all things tech and he graciously agrees to get your site up and running. He uses a template-based website builder to create a simplistic aesthetic, completing the task within a couple of hours. In other words, the website is “builder grade”, no fancy bells or whistles, but as far as you’re concerned life is great! Fast forward a few months; Gene’s got a major leak in his guest bath and the water damage is all over his house. Who’s he gonna call – not Ghostbusters. That’s right, Gene, frantic and in a panic is making a beeline straight to you, expecting the job to be completed in return for the work that he did on your website. I’m no contractor, but I’m sure the few hours of work that Gene did in no way compares to the manual labor and material cost it’s going to take to fix the water damage in his house.

Likewise, that may be what you are up against when accepting free/pro bono work in an effort to start your business. Make sure terms and conditions are clearly communicated and, if need be, documented so that no surprises are in store for you down the road. Although it may be a pain at the time, it could save you time, money and friendships in the end.

Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day I’ve heard it said that we as mankind are like microwaves; we want instant gratification and we’re not too keen on waiting for things to happen. This kind of attitude can be detrimental to your business value and personal value as well. It does take money to make money and you have to believe that you will achieve success, even if that success does not happen overnight. You’ve already done more than most by taking a leap of faith and trusting in your idea or service; now it’s time to believe in yourself and look forward to the future. I am in no way saying that pro bono/free work should be avoided at all costs, but it is important to place a value on your business and not settle for mediocrity.

Brittany Borden

Project Manager/Freelance Writer

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