How I Gave Away 15 Minutes and Made $5700

a gift
There are a lot of experts who say you should be very selfish with your time, and for the most part I agree with them. There are only 24 hours in a day (most of which aren’t billable) and between work, family, and friends there usually isn’t much left over. Oh yeah, and then there’s sleeping too. Sometimes, the thought of giving away free time seems almost preposterous.

But that isn’t always the case—in this post, I’m going to tell you how giving away my time literally lifted SmallFuel off of the ground, and how it could potentially help lift your business off too.

How 15 minutes lead to 3 new clients and $5700

It was late last summer, just a few weeks after we had officially launched SmallFuel. At that point, I was just beginning to get a bit discouraged—it looked like maybe not every small business needed marketing help after all (or at least they weren’t ready to pay us for it). I wasn’t sure where to go next, and I’m not the type who’s okay with sitting around and waiting for things to happen. Luckily, before that went on for much longer, I got a phone call.

I had just met the guy who called me at a trade show a few days before, and we had talked a lot about marketing, so I was hoping he was interested in our services. He wasn’t interested, as it turns out. What he wanted was for me to give a marketing presentation to a small networking group of his (and he didn’t want to pay me for it).

After a moment or two of deliberation, I decided that I had nothing better to do, and decided to give the presentation. Boy am I glad I did.

The following week I met him and the rest of his networking group at a coffee club (seems like everyone always meets there) and gave my 15 minute marketing presentation. Immediately after the presentation I was swamped with questions, and people wanting advice—which I gave out freely. When the dust settled, I had signed two clients and several thousand dollars worth of projects. Less than a week later I got another phone call and signed another client. My free 15 minute presentation turned out to be worth a whole lot more than I had anticipated.

Another giveaway, and more clients

Hot on the heels of my first experience with giving things away, I decided to try another round. After a few minutes of talking, Natalie and I came up with the idea of giving away 100 business cards (custom designed and professionally printed) to anyone who wanted them at the next trade show we were going to. It wouldn’t take much for us to design and print them, and I happen to be on a crusade to rid the world of homemade business cards. It seemed perfect.

Well, it wasn’t quite perfect, but it did work well. We ended up giving away a few thousand business cards, but unfortunately didn’t get any clients right away. Did everyone only sign up for the freebie? That’s what I thought at first, but by the second week we started getting phone calls. This giveaway ended up costing us a bit more time and money than the first one. By the end, though, it brought us together with even more people.

It’s not always worth it: how I wasted $700 on 9 hits

Giving stuff away doesn’t always work out as planned.—I found that out the hard way.

Last November, a favorite blogger of mine was holding a competition, and offered publicity to anyone willing to donate a prize. Giveaways were old hat to me at this point (or so I thought) and it was a no-brainer to offer a big prize so I could get some attention.

Let me just say that I jumped into the whole thing without enough research or information. I offered my $700 prize, which turned out to be among the biggest of the competition, and sat watching patiently while it was lost in the flurry of dozens of blog posts and hundreds of other prizes. I got 9 hits, and no new clients.

The moral of the story

Giving away your time can be extremely valuable. It can even transform your entire business if you do it right. If you decide to give something away, make sure that you can build relationships with potential clients in return. It also helps if you can get exposure in front of the right audience as part of the deal. Also, always remember to do your research before giving away anything, or else you might end up losing a lot of money.

Some people claim it isn’t worth the time or money—but in my experience giving away free stuff is one of the best ways to market a small business.

Reader Comments

Pixel Head
Jan. 25. 2008 2:56 AM

Sounds like pretty good advice to me. Maybe I need to sign up to give a marketing class at the local night school…Thanks for sharing, it gives me a whole bunch of ideas.

Steven Snell
Jan. 25. 2008 3:12 AM

Nice story and a great title.

Lucy Dee
Jan. 25. 2008 3:32 AM

I just figured this “giving away free time” business tactic/method not two weeks ago. I am officially a blog consultant and now I have one client with plans on increasing my client base. I am now setting up a “Beginner Blogging seminar” in my city, showcasing blogging basics. I am trying to target small businesses interested in increasing their online presence, and small business owners that would like to profile themselves as an authority in their field/industry. *fingers crossed*

Tay - Super Blogging
Jan. 25. 2008 4:30 AM

Very interesting read, and I agree with Steven - you came up with an excellent title for it! :)

Jan. 25. 2008 7:29 AM

@PixelHead - Glad I could help :) You’ll have to let me know if you end up running a class, and how it goes. I have one client who does them all the time to good effect.

@Steven - I was out of my element with the story, so it makes me happy to hear it turned out well.

@Lucy - That’s great to hear! Congratulations on the first client, and good luck getting more. I can certainly see that small businesses really need some good advice in the ‘online presence’ arena, you should have no problem finding clients. Thanks for stopping by : )

@Tay - I’m an avid reader of Copyblogger, and Brian loves headlines. I’m beginning to agree with him.

Shama Hyder
Jan. 25. 2008 10:16 PM

Hey Mason,

You used speaking (a GREAT marketing strategy) to attract clients. I am not sure I would consider it “giving it away”-because lots of professionals use this strategy.

Informative post though!

Jan. 25. 2008 10:30 PM

Hi Shama,

I called it that since I’ve done a lot of paid speaking before also. Many people I know see a sharp difference between the two, so I thought it would be good to distinguish.

I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

- Mason

John Montalbano
Jan. 26. 2008 2:22 AM

Exactly how would you research the offering of a prize?

Christine O'Kelly
Jan. 26. 2008 3:14 AM

Mason - I love this story!  Thank you so much for sharing your own personal experience - it’s fantastic!  I’ve already got some great ideas - and I learned the MOST from the last bit about how you wasted $700.  I think anyone would have thought this was a good opportunity to get some visibility - you’ve probably saved a lot of people a painful learning experience.  Thanks!


Jan. 26. 2008 8:47 AM

I’ve been blogging for about 3 years, with, hmmm, 3 blogs.  :)  Of late I have started a corporate blog which is new to me. I found, as did you, that offering up a “prize” (per se) to try to get traffic does not work for everyone. It all boils down to your “network”, effectively.

I’m still working things out ... and thank you for your post!

It’s a great article!

Mario Sanchez
Jan. 26. 2008 8:58 AM

Wow, that must have been some presentation…. would you mind sharing with us some general things about it like how did you structure it, what did you talk about, and how many slides did you use?  I’m paying increasing attention to presentation delivery these days and it would be interesting to see how did you make it work so well.
By the way, I enjoy reading your blog on a regular basis.  Lots of well crafted, thoughtful articles.  Thanks.

Stephen Hopson/Adversity University
Jan. 28. 2008 1:18 AM


I discovered your blog because both of us were mentioned at the blog of “Create Business Growth” at the end of this past week. 

This post was absolutely fascinating because it not only shared your own personal experience (making it even more compelling) but it also reasonated with me because I’ve also gone through the motions of wondering whether or not to give a free speech.

Here’s the dilemma - how do you know that a freebie speech will actually lead you to a fully paid engagement down the road?  While I am a very successful speaker, I never got a fully paid engagement from a freebie that i had given to all those service organizations.  I could never figure out why.

You mentioned the importance of doing research before accepting a freebie or giving away your time or products/services in hopes of gaining new business.  The question I have is what would you hope to find that would justify the possibility of receiving business after doing a freebie?

For example, suppose you were invited to speak at a Rotary Club.  They’re full of business people, right?  I’ve spoken to hundreds of them but never have I gotten a speaking engagement for a company they worked for.  So despite knowing in advance these people work for major companies around town, how do you actually know your time in giving a freebie will actually work out?

I do have to say one thing before closing.  There was one major exception to my experience in giving freebie talks.  I was invited to speak to a group of woman at a city club.  That engagement put me in touch with a lady from the audience who had a relationship with a prominent literary agent.  She helped me whip together a book proposal and got the agent interested in possibly representing me.  But while it never came to pass, I did get something out of that engagement.  It could have led me to a published book. 

Thanks for letting me share.

Stephen Hopson/Adversity University
Jan. 28. 2008 1:23 AM

p.s. I just stumbled this very interesting article - I look forward to hearing from you and the others on how we can make good use of “giving away” our time, products or services in hopes of gaining more business.

p.s.s. one more thing - have you seen how Seth Godin “gave away” his book in the form of a free e-book and then when it came out in hard copy, he sold millions (or maybe thousands) of copies?  How come it worked for him but not for others?  What’s the key ingredient, do you think?

Jan. 28. 2008 3:08 AM

Hi Everyone!

First—thanks to all of you for taking the time to comment, it really makes these posts a lot more interesting with a good discussion at the end.

Anyhow, it seems like there are two big questions that a lot of you have. The first one is: ‘How do you find/research/use giveaways or freebies to actually drive paying sales’.

The second big question seems to revolve around the speaking itself, and how to come up with a great presentation and get paying gigs from that.

The short answer to both questions is that you need to have the right audience,deliver the right message, and have a path or funnel that will attract further interest and lead them to your paying products.

For the in-depth answer, stay tuned as I’m writing a blog post specifically for each question (freebies and speaking).

Thanks again for commenting,

- Mason

Jan. 29. 2008 2:20 PM

Great Article.  I have used this same tactic with fantastic results.  Giving a little of your free time away and giving some valuable information can lead to huge profits.  I gave a way a free seo consulting class, with real information and by morning woke up to 9,000.00. 

The biggest key was to actually give this target audience information that can help them.  But not give it all away.  We are now trying our hand at recorded webinars.  Giving them for FREE and seeing how that route goes.  I will keep you informed

Very good article.  A big thumbs up.  I will be returning to this marketing blog as I enjoyed it immensely.

Great Day to you


Feb. 10. 2008 1:18 PM

Hi - I totally agree.  If you’re selling an expensive service - giving away time is essential because you need to establish a relationship with potential customers first.  People like to get to know you and see that you’re trustworthy before they use you.

Now, I did wonder about competitions.  Maybe competitions for existing clients would bring in more work.  If you’re running a competition on a someone elses blog, you can’t be certain that you’ll be reaching your target market.

Dave C.
Feb. 20. 2008 2:48 AM

I can totally relate to the “favorite blogger” contest because I signed up as well. It got us a little link juice, and a couple subscribers, but not much else. Still, I would probably do it again because we didn’t spend nearly as much as you and maybe the next time would generate some more appeal.

francez concepcion
Mar. 1. 2008 3:54 AM

very useful especially to a newby like me in the field.

Bill Canaday
Mar. 10. 2008 8:22 PM

@ Stephen ... Seth’s giveaway worked for three reasons 1) while not quite free, the costs of delivering an e-book are relatively trivial and the work of creating it was a necessary precondition of the printed version—two birds, one stone 2) the free e-book generated considerable buzz, but was limited to either the pages the customer printed out or tied to a screen. It’s not quite the same feeling as seeing the book on your shelf. 3) which leads us to the third point, the market for paid books is not necessarily the same group of individuals as the market for free books.

I would be interested in how that talk was structured ... what sales bait was left out where it could be seen but wasn’t so obvious as to keep the clients from taking the bait.

I met a guy who has a lawn care business and he mentioned that he wished he had a brochure to educate customers on a particular topic. I have expertise in that topic and the computer, so I whipped up a sample of that brochure in an ALMOST ready form. With the addition of his contact information and reduction to a single sheet of heavy paper, it should not only educate but sell. My pitch will be to give him a copy of the file that he can use, with his data already included, together with appropriate rights of reproduction, for a flat fee. He can then take this to his printer and make as many copies as his heart desires. There is a LOT of value in there for him. My pitch is “buy it once, use it forever, solve the problem for good”.

It contains the generalities the customer needs to know, but leaves the details to him, the professional. Every step of the way, it guides the customer toward the purchase and away from doing it themselves.

The free books provided that all-important word of mouth advertising boost for the bound version. This brochure will make my (new) client unique in his highly crowded field. Over time, that will generate WOM for me, too.

Apr. 12. 2008 4:51 PM

This is my first visit to SmallFuel and if this article is any indication of the quality of stuff you post, you’ve got yourself a new reader! ;-)

I really enjoyed this article and it got me thinking a little about what I’ve been trying to do with my own business. Now I have some ideas that I can begin to implement and hopefully see some results soon.


Mason Hipp
Apr. 14. 2008 11:04 AM

@Megan — it’s very true about needing to provide value. Free without value is the same as giving away trash.

@Catherine — I have not run enough competitions to speak confidently about them. Some have worked, some haven’t and I have not found a clear trend. I think a lot has to do with the nature of the competition and the relevance of the prize to your product.

@Bill — I usually draw the line at spec work like that. If it’s something really quick, then it can be a good way to nab a big client. But if it becomes a regular practice or expectation, than it’s not great for you or the industry.

@Annie — I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope to see you around on other discussions. Good luck with your new ideas, you’ll have to let me know how they turn out.

Mar. 19. 2010 11:17 AM

Thanks for the tips, might just be the kick I need. You’ve definitely encouraged me and I’m going to go follow your strategies and tips

French-Learn to Speak it in no time flat!
May. 6. 2010 5:45 PM

Solid information in this post. You should check out the book, Freemium, penned by the same author who wrote The Long Tail, Chris Anderson. The book gives insight on how, because of the advent of the internet, the price of services, tools, and products are dropping exponentially. Because of which, entrepreneurs, especially web entrepreneurs must consider adopting the model of “giving stuff away for free” in order to get deluged in new business leads. Food for thought.

~ Learn to Speak French Fluently blog

Learn to Speak French Fluently
May. 6. 2010 5:50 PM

I just realized I made an error on the name of the book. The concept is called ‘freemium,’ but the book is called Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson.

His first book is called Long Tail, The, Revised and Updated Edition: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

Best of luck!
~ French-Learn to Speak it in no time flat!
Jul. 10. 2010 6:59 PM

Interesting, still, you have to know how to talk.
Without talking very confidently you just waste your time.

Oct. 26. 2011 12:56 PM

Yes, giving away your time can be extremely valuable—in the right situation.  If you are giving your time away to one person who is not going to provide any value to you then it is a waste of time.  Giving a presentation to small business owners about marketing or SEO for example is extremely valuable.

Feb. 15. 2012 4:50 AM

Unbelievable there is someone out there in the business world that will try giving something for free. Give and ye shall receive.

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Garry Ponus
Jan. 11. 2013 11:53 AM

People have got to trust you before they will buy from you.  Giving away something for nothing in a gracious way will help build the trust enormously.  These are good examples - thanks for sharing.

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