Yes You Can… But Can You Afford To?

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Remember that line from the old Popeye cartoons? Wimpy always wanted a burger but never had the money to pay. As an entrepreneur you’ve probably had a few Wimpy moments of your own. I know I have.

Building a business from scratch often means hoping others will extend some good will or credit (or a hamburger) to you. It’s not unusual to reciprocate with a bit of your expertise at no cost to them. A barter situation, if you will, but a temporary one. Many coaches, consultants, and other business development experts offer their services for free or low cost while establishing themselves as well. Others may volunteer a few hours of their expertise to a non-profit or other struggling business. These are fairly commonplace behaviors. There is an entire philosophy of behavior dedicated to the idea that “Givers get.” I subscribe to this philosophy as do most people I know. However, if giving is all you do then you don’t really have a sustainable business. The question becomes; when do you stop giving it away for free?

I was recently challenged with this situation. A trusted and valued colleague requested my expertise. We agreed to a fee. I began the process then went back to this individual to confirm the fee and pay schedule. Regrettably, I was informed that there was currently no money available. However, I was asked to continue in the hopes that the product I develop might be sold and I would then be paid for the delivery of the program I created. Quite the conundrum. Do I damage the relationship I’ve built over these past few years and say no and discontinue the work? Do I continue developing this needed training program since I’d already said yes and begun? I had to seriously consider these questions and a few others before I made my decision.

1) What will saying “yes” cost me?

By cost I’m referring to your time and potential earnings. If you’re busy doing something for free you are using valuable time that could be spent building relationships that could lead to paying clients. However, by saying yes you may be developing critical experience that will aid you in building your business and reputation. Before you say “yes” it is essential that you understand the current financial impact of working for free and whether you can truly afford to do so.

2) What will saying “no” cost me?

Depending on who is doing the asking you want to consider whether or not damage may be done to the relationship by saying no? Anyone who is in business knows how difficult it is to succeed. Asking you to work for free might be a win for them but a sacrifice for you. By the same token they ought to be clear on your needs, as a business owner, and that you might not be able to afford to give so freely. Saying no is acceptable. If it damages the relationship then it was most likely a one sided relationship to begin with, one that would benefit you very little. The thing to consider is whether “no” is the only choice. If the project is of value to you then creative problem solving and scheduling could be the optimal choice.

3) Did I already commit to this project?

This can be tricky. Finances change and if your finances change to a degree such that you can no longer meet the commitment then be honest about it. Working under the stress over lost finances may impact the quality of the work you provide which could sabotage the relationship anyhow. However, if the project isn’t time sensitive you may be able to delay it until your finances improve. Of course, this may be a bit further down the road than acceptable. In that case you might be obliged to make a referral to another expert. Regardless of which road you go down, transparency is vital.

Understanding your value and getting paid accordingly is the goal of any entrepreneur, or professional. Of course, there will be times where you give your services away, whether by volunteer (a tax write off, favor, etc.) or for promotional purposes. But if you’re a people pleaser you may have more difficulty with asking to be paid for something or have difficulty simply saying no. But as any business or career grows it’s important to recognize that compensation should grow as well. If you subscribe to the “Givers get” philosophy then it’s imperative that you map out the ways in which you are able to give in order to get and ultimately survive.

Dolores DeGiacomo is leadership and development consultant. Dolores focuses on helping professionals master success oriented behavior patterns. She works in corporate environments as well as with individuals and entrepreneurs.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com