Why I Work For Free – And How It Pays Off

“Advertising is the tax you pay for not being remarkable.”

Ever since I first heard this startling statement, my business strategy changed. Became different. And by not following what most of my peers and competitors were doing, I captured more attention.

Here’s how it happened.

Where everyone else was driven by the “gimme, gimme, gimme” attitude of wanting more things – more clients, more money, more recognition – even before they gave anything in value first, I took a contrarian approach… and it has made all the difference!

You see, I do a lot of free work. I’m blogging for free at Search Engine Land, SEOmoz.org and SEObook.com. I don’t get paid. Not for my articles, and not by selling books or services through my content. I don’t even get credit for “non-billable hours” by my employer.

So why keep doing it?

There’s a powerful principle behind it that I’d like to explore with you. It’s a winning strategy that’s rooted in an unconventional mindset – one that appears foreign and strange to many others in my specialty of SEO. And it’s an attitude that anyone – even you – can adopt in any niche or market to dominate it and succeed massively.

Striving For Value Based Relationships

When my colleagues (and competitors!) see how much I give away for free, they ask:

“Why not get paid for each article you write? Or for the work you invest into writing your books?”

I reply, “Because I don’t want to. And money corrupts my creativity and networking.”

And then, they look at me strangely!

You see, most people don’t quite get it. Let me explain in more detail, because there’s a deeper philosophy at play, which lies at the root of my success.

I’m not rich, though not poor either. I draw a decent salary, and am happy with the work I do, the company I work for, and the clients I work with. It’s been this way for years. I don’t even have a “bonus/incentive” clause that rewards me for bringing in more business.

But that’s by choice. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. My goal is to create a value-based relationship with people. As many as I can reach.

Over time, as I continually deliver value, these people follow me, listen to me, and come to me for help with their businesses. Not all of them do. It doesn’t happen today or tomorrow. Often, it takes several months, even years. But when they do, I don’t need to sell myself. My new clients already know me, like me, and trust me!

Business At The Speed of Trust

Best-selling business writer Stephen M.R.Covey share the case study of how a multi-million dollar corporate take-over was accomplished over little more than a hand-shake – when, typically, due diligence alone would take a year (or longer).

What was the magic ingredient that speeded things up?


On both sides. Based on past performance. And a genuine friendly liking between the parties concerned.

People do business with other people they know, like and trust.

Marketing is all about establishing that trusting connection with your audience of ideal prospects. And the surest and most effective way to begin and establish such a relationship is by delivering value first – without skimping on it, and without expecting anything in exchange. In a cynical, suspicious and impersonal online environment, providing value upfront can eliminate doubt and start off a relationship on a solid platform rooted in trust and respect.

That’s why many of my clients seek me out for help. Lucrative consulting contracts begin with a friendly message on Facebook or LinkedIn, a direct tweet on Twitter, or an invitation to meet over lunch. And I can start to focus on earning more money for them right away – without worrying about first establishing trust.

How To Sell – Without Selling

I’m not a good salesman. I’m really not. There are many others in my company who can do a much better job of convincing hesitant prospects to sign on the dotted line.

The good news is that I don’t need to “sell” that hard. Prospective clients who have read my informative articles or reports already know that they need help, like me, and want me to help them. I’ve subtly gained entry into their hallowed “private circle of trust”, and so business becomes different from a classical “buy-sell” scenario.

I’m good at relationship building. I’m good at my work, as an expert in SEO. I’m empathic and care about my clients. All of this is communicated through my free work and content. That is often enough to land a good deal. Because they begin from a position of trust, these client relationships get better results, and are also more enjoyable.

Does Building Trust Translate Into Business Growth?

How often do potential clients contact me? Well, it varies – but I get requests literally every week. Not all of them are a good fit. But I’m always honest with prospects. If my services are not suitable for their present needs, I will often refer them to other consultants or companies who may be able to help them better – even when there are large sums of money at stake. (They often come back years later, when circumstances change!)

Why send them away? Two reasons. Chemistry and energy. Working with an unsuitable client for 12 months can be destructive to one’s motivation and energy.

Now here’s what is amazing. Often, sometimes many years later, these same clients will come back to me when their circumstances change – and become high-paying clients with whom I enjoy a very satisfying and mutually profitable professional relationship.

Good Things Can Come From ‘Free’

My next book (titled ‘SEOnomics – SEO for Business‘) will be given away – for free!

It will be ground-breaking work that could transform the way business owners have viewed the role of SEO in their business, showcasing it in the context of their overall business growth. Writing it has involved hundreds of hours of research and analysis of my past experience, and plenty of hard work (plus considerable expense) in creating the manuscript, having it proof-read, edited, fact-checked, and then published.

And I’ll be gifting it to everyone – at no cost!

If you’ve read my articles and special reports, you’ll know that they go deep into detail about several elements of SEO and business growth. I’ve chosen not to create shorter and simpler “Top 10 Lists”, even though they are easier and even more popular with a broad, general audience.

There’s a reason why I differentiate my content in this manner and exclude so many people through my style – and that’s because I’m not looking to please everyone, only my “ideal prospective client”. The “artist” who thinks like myself. The business owner who is inspired, and sees me not as a peddler of SEO services, but as a strategic solution for business growth.

Making Deeper Connections Through Content

Personal connection with clients is important to me. I’m more interested in working on long term projects, where I’m given enough resources, time and talent to overcome hurdles and ensure business growth, than in just blindly rushing around to secure higher rankings and install SEO “quick fixes”.

My goal is to work with passionate people who focus with insight and creativity to establish trust and deliver value to their market. That kind of working relationship brings out the best in me.

I thrive on close, personal contact with consulting clients. I enjoy helping with their business development and ‘growth hacking’. I love leading customers and seeking connections, synergies and overlooked opportunities in their business.

For this kind of client, I will happily go the extra mile. Often. Many times, I’ll work crazily long hours, doing marathon stints that wear me out so much that I sleep through entire weekends, completely drained… because I’ve given the project everything I had. Because I’m ALL in – all the way.

But here’s the thing – I’m still super-motivated. Why? Because I’m working for the right client. Doing the right kind of work. Delivering the right kind of value. That gives me energy and “meaning”.

When you’re engaged on purposeful work, it’s okay to sacrifice a few weekends, even suffer a few days of work-induced exhaustion or illness from pushing your body too far.

It’s what I love – and WANT to do.

It’s why I give away so much for free – because it helps me attract the right kind of clients.

Giving -> Trust -> Profits

There is no script for leadership, but I believe in “giving” and “connecting” without requiring anything back. On several occasions I’ve been contacted through email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn by people who have stumbled across my freely shared material, and it has led to client relationships.

Large amounts of money have been made – on both sides of the table. Trust, mutual respect, and a creative mind combined with motivation has been the catalyst in these cases.

Do you see the magic here? I don’t need to “sell myself”. My clients are already sold on me. So, I can focus straightaway on shipping results. Not rankings, but actual business growth that puts cash into my clients’ pockets!

SEO is so much more than merely gaining a higher position on SERPs. I’ve been in this industry for over 10 years. I’m a specialist at growth hacking in the online ecosystem. And people who have contacted me after reading an article or book I published are aware of this. They trust me to deliver the kind of results they want.

Give – And You Will Receive

This Biblical phrase is relevant even to business. It works very well in my SEO consulting. It will work for you in any other line of business, too.

Now, let’s be pragmatic. “Giving” doesn’t pay my bills, and it won’t pay yours. But I’ve found that whenever I focus on my “art” (and not on the money), the money seems to follow automatically. And I’ve been doing this for years.

The company I’m employed at sees what I do as valuable, and has increased my salary several times – after they’ve seen what I can do. After 6 months of observing my performance, they made me a partner.

Will this always happen? Probably not. But ask yourself this critical question. If you’re adding value to your company or employer, but don’t get compensated in proportion to it, why would you choose to stay on?

Remember, you are the Chairman/CEO of your own life. If your job or work is not energizing, or not paying you fairly, it’s time to do the math, calculate the value you’re contributing to your company, and discuss a revision in your salary package. You may be pleasantly surprised at the difference it makes, once you can showcase the value you bring to the table.

And what if it doesn’t? Well, perhaps you’re not at the right place. Maybe someone else will see the value in having you working for them!

But keep this in mind. First, you must give value. Only then can you justifiably ask to be compensated appropriately.

I work with several important strategic-minded clients. I’ve become friends with many famous people, both clients and competitors. They don’t see me as a threat. In fact, some even send me their clients for advice. They respect, like and trust me – because I am loyal to them, and give them my best.

Developing good personal relationships and thinking out of the box, keeping the long-term perspective firmly in mind, is important. There are enough clients to go around. Enough for everyone. We don’t have to fight, argue or bad-mouth each other for more of them.

What motivates me and keeps me going are a strong work ethic (I’m not afraid to work 10 to 15 hours a day, for weeks – or even months – on a client project), and keeping a watchful eye open for big, long-term clients who share my point of view.

  • This challenge gives me a positive feeling, and I keep going.
  • It gives me stability and what I seek.
  • It also means less stress and better business results.

So give more gifts. Try more. Try again. Stay positive. Don’t be mediocre. Don’t be average. People don’t seek out ‘average’. They’re looking for ‘excellent’.

Give them ‘excellent’ and they’ll seek you out for more. They will pay you willingly. Pay you higher amounts. Do it without any hard selling campaign. And keep doing it for as long as they benefit from your expertise and experience.

Step up and ship.

is an SEO consultant and founder of Search Planet, and Columnist at Search Engine Land, and blogger at well-known websites like MOZ and SEOBook. He can be found on Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and his Norwegian SEO blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *