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Pro-bono. Who are you kidding? You need a better solution.

27 November 2013

“Dare to love yourself as if you were a rainbow with gold at both ends.” The River of Winged Dreams.


The definition of pro-bono is to undertake a task a task without compensation for the good of the public. Highly successful professionals who undertake pro-bono work are at the heart of helping people at times when the need is high and ability to afford such qualified services is low. This is honourable and special. When new industry professionals looking for work offer pro-bono services there’s a problem. Is this called pro-bono or is this called ametuer? Ameteur to me in this context is unskillful or inexperienced and offering free services as a way to enter a profession, and it’s very different to pro-bono. You need a better solution.


The problem many new professionals and new business owners face is establishing clientele and a sound reputation. A solution often considered is to offer to provide services free of charge in the hope that this will translate to either a client or referral to potential clients. Because the outcome the professional or entrepreneur is looking for is real clients and a good reputation, they offer free services to clients who can afford to pay. Time and time again I have met incredibly talented professionals and entrepreneurs who are struggling in business because they are a doormat of free services and are providing so much “pro-bono” work they are starving literally while suiting up to look professional pretending all is okay for their so called clients. This is not pro-bono, this is ameteur.


In February 2013, Dunn and Bradstreet reported that small business failures in 2011 had risen by 48%. The largest impact was cash flow, with a knock on effect impacting other businesses.  More than 60% of businesses are receiving payments after 30 days. The key message being touted is for small businesses to mitigate their cash flow risk. This would seem impossible if starting your business has been on the platform of free services. Perhaps another issue is at play, and this is often a factor I identify when working with new professionals. It comes down to self esteem and internal challenges about self worth and ability. I find myself quoting the words of the late US Psychiatrist, M Scott Peck, “Until you value yourself, you won't value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. ”


How do you set a price and get started? With many professionals I suggest that they take steps to test the market. I also follow this strategy with health professionals I mentor. It’s okay to start your first client low, the next one you step up a little, then the next a little more. Or you set thresholds, choose a price for the first 10 hours or first 10 clients and then step up from there.  As soon as your time fills, you increase again for new clients. You’ll soon find your equilibrium level. This level is where you are maintaining hours or clients and demand is slowing. You’re busy. Then every year, take an inflation price rise, even $1. This way you start as you intend to progress, as a business person, exchanging services for fees. Then when you are basking in your professional glory, established and with a fine reputation, you can offer pro-bono services to someone who truly cannot afford you and needs your help.


Two warning lights to be aware of. The first is what if business takes off really slowly and you are at your lowest price too long? Well you are still in a much better place than free doormatting yourself. Look at ways to add services and upsell with the clients you have or change your offer to suit a wider market. The second warning light is the problem of getting really busy fast and not increasing pricing fast enough. Create scarcity by being aware of your thresholds and sticking to them.
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