How to get paid for what you do for free

Bartenders make $500 a night in tips. Baristas make $20.

Their drinks are equally complex. They serve similar numbers of clients. They perform the same job, but during different hours and in different settings. Why do bartenders make so much more?

It isn’t performance. Some bartenders are sloppy, and some baristas are excellent, but their compensation will never go up or down enough to reach the other, no matter how good they are, so quality has very little to do with it.

Could it be an issue of how much we order? Bar patrons order several drinks, but rarely have as many in a Starbucks. Would baristas get better tips if the size of drinks were smaller? Maybe, but that doesn’t seem right either.

To be treated, and paid, like a bartender you should act and put yourself in the context that bartenders are in. After all, we feel like bartenders deserve their dollar, but it’s the rare individual who’d tip a barista the same.

Bloggers have the same problem with speaking events. They work for whuffie but aren’t sure how to be taken seriously or get paid. They move from one Podcamp to another, hoping to make it onto a bigger stage but often, it doesn’t seem to work.

I think I have an answer as to how to make it happen, but it doesn’t involve doing more speaking events, though practice helps. It’s about gaining credibility, changing context and applying leverage.

Method 1: Testimonials/Word of Mouth

A few weeks ago, I was introduced through Twitter to Erwan le Corre. Erwan is the founder of MovNat, an exercise method which is founded in evolutionary principles and usually goes hand-in-hand with my paleo diet. I already thought it was cool stuff but my opinion was changed when I found out that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, had done it.

This, of course, is totally irrational. Taleb is a smart dude but the system itself doesn’t change based on whether he knows about it. He isn’t even in good shape, really, but I’m still influenced. I can’t help myself. I hold it in higher esteem because some famous dude did it. You might too.

What we can learn from this is that the more passive the method through which other people find out about you, the better. If you make it look like you worked for it, it cheapens the recommendation, but if you are just sitting back while someone else hears about you, you’re doing great.

Word of mouth is actually how I get the majority of the speaking gigs I do. This method works, but only if people really do think that you’re great, are willing to talk about it, and those people are highly credible in other circles. This brings us to #2.

Method 2: Your Easy = Their Difficult

I love how impressed we are by movie stars, how we feel that they’re talented, etc., no matter how they got there. In a way, it gives the impression that the end justifies the means despite the fact that all our moral teachings tell us otherwise. Sons and daughters of movie stars, specifically, are clearly not selected by talent but rather by proximity. This is the same thing I’d like you to take advantage of, in your own way.

What is easy for you that’s hard for others? If you’re loaded, fly everywhere and meet everyone– it’s comparatively difficult for others, so you’ll gain an advantage. If you have a ton of time, produce more content than others so you’ll get on people’s radars easier. It’s all about the gates you can cross but others can’t.

One of the big lessons from this method is that it isn’t impressive for you to be a social media expert in the social media space.. everybody can do it, so nobody cares. You have to bring your expertise to a place where it’s magical, and show them stuff that’s bleeding edge to them, but normal to us. As Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What you do isn’t magic in your circle, so you have to go somewhere where it is.

Method 3: Be Aggressive

I loved this so much when I saw it on Put This On, so I have to share this advice with y’all as well. Often, you are already speaking at an event or getting asked to come, it becomes a kind of “well, we have no budget, etc. etc.” conversation that heads back down the slope of free. You have to fight this with an actual belief that you are worth paying for. Here’s the best quote from the post:

Pretend you’re giving it all up and going back to school in a year. Act like you have one year to make it work before you give up and try something else. What haven’t you done? Where aren’t you being aggressive enough? Go do it and embarrass yourself with your pushiness- after all, you’ll be doing something else in a year anyway, so who cares what people think? Push until you feel uncomfortable, and then double it.

I wouldn’t go as far as this, but it’s still great advice. We are so shy about doing what we do, and not being self-promotional, that we often sell ourselves short. We become the unsigned hype instead of becoming Jay-Z, all because we refused to hustle.

This final method is a third form of social proof, one that completes the equation with the other two: proof from others, proof from the environment, and proof from yourself. When you put together all three, you have evidence on all sides telling everyone that you’re worth a premium. Apply enough pressure on each of these, and you’re golden. But don’t apply enough, and there will be a lack of congruence when people look around, so they won’t believe it.

Here’s the thing though: You actually have to be good at this thing you’re doing for free. You can be average and apply all of these methods I mention and still get paid, but people only feel good about it once they’ve gotten great value from your work. So you might be able to convince a few people, but then you’ll quickly go back down the ladder again. When you start to get paid, realize that you need to up your game very seriously and it’ll keep you up there. That’s when it’s even more important to work your face off.

Have you ever had success with any of these methods, or others? How did you make it work for you?

(Hat tip for inspiration: Taylor Davidson)





24 responses to “How to get paid for what you do for free”

  1. CT Moore Avatar

    I think the bartender thing can be explained in the same you explain how your tipping on a meal changes according to whether or not you order alcohol with your meal.

    When you eat in a restaurant, you’re supposed to tip 15% (unless the service sucked ass). But if you order beer or wine, that should probably go up to at least 20%.

    Why? Because alcohol is more decadent. It’s a celebratory thing.

    And etiquette dictates that if you’re so fortunate to be celebrating and spending money on a non-necessity, then you should spread the love/karma around.

    So maybe the problem with speaking for free at a Podcamp is that Podcamps are free. Maybe speaking for free at a conference that people paid a few hundred bucks to attend will help more with the value perception that the audience has of you as a speaker.

  2. Michael Bigger Avatar

    I suffer from the issue you raise in #3. I get intimidated quickly when selling my financial stuff to the smart and very well spoken people I pitch to. Being French Canadian living in New York, I sometimes come across as a poutine. I love the stuff btw.

    The other day my wife told me: “Look, you are a Physics major with all these great insights about Twitter, ants community, algorithmic trading, how to make money with it, blah, blah, blah. Bring these clients on your playground and play your game and stop whining”. Play the game you can win. I guess this is what you say in method 2.

    Great post. Thanks.

  3. Blaine Rumsey Avatar

    I have always considered my self a solutions provider. I have an ability to take a step back look at whats going on and find a multitude of solutions. Only recently have I started to get paid for it. Great article.

  4. Whitney Avatar

    It comes down to “You teach people how to treat you” and if you don’t value what you do, why should anyone else?
    Yet for creative endeavors, sometimes we overly value our effort compared to object valuation from outsiders- there’s a great section on this in Dan Ariely’s latest book- I think you’ll love it.

  5. Hamish Avatar

    Recently, I heard a professional speaker, say “everybody pays.”

    Maybe they don’t pay in cash, but you get something of value, like the testimonial listed as Method #1.

    I had a similar experience to Michael’s when I put together my training business. After stressing out over my rate card for one month, my wife said, “you’re providing a service that will deliver real business results, don’t charge less because you want people to like you.”

  6. Jeff Goins Avatar

    This is excellent.

  7. Lynette Young Avatar

    Not written about me per se, but this speaks to me on a pretty deep level. A lot of it stems from the fact I see what I do as ‘easy’ and don’t assign as much value to it as I should.

    And while recommendations and exposure are great, speaking at Podcamps for years and years doesn’t pay the bills or feed the family.

  8. Rick Avatar

    I’ve been asked this a few times over the past week, and this is the best post and subsequent conversation on the topic I’ve seen. I’ve found like others here that doing it long enough gives you an amount of cred, and working hard at it adds to that value for anyone looking for help. “Working hard to redefine easy for you” has popped into my mind and posts from others this past week as well.

  9. gregorylent Avatar

    context is much ..

    paint on a t-shirt, one price .. same painting on a canvas with a frame, another, higher price

  10. Joe Sorge Avatar

    Wow Julien, what a great post. There’s no way I got it all in my first or second read. *Bookmarked* Thank you.

    1. Julien Avatar

      Thanks Joe. 🙂

  11. Alan Rae Avatar

    What a great analysis

    That’s why I’ve stopped talking about social media on twitter

    But in horticulture or with engineers – It might as well be magic

    I always like your stuff – and was well impressed with the tattoos! 🙂


  12. Jason Keath Avatar

    I think the opening analogy is way off, but the 3 points of advice are spot on. Love the tips. Valuable for anyone looking to get paid to speak.

  13. Ana Avatar

    Julien, it just occurred to me that you co-wrote ‘Trust Agents’ with Chris Brogan, so, since it’s on my coffee table half read, I can so relate.

    You were really speaking to me here – my ultimate goal this year is to spend more time making money than spending it by not charging people for the coaching, consulting and insights I’ve shared with many without an incentive to hire me an ongoing basis. All that is changing and I’m redefining myself every day – your post helps to illuminate the way. Thank you!

  14. zane aveton Avatar

    Hi Julien. I think I mentioned this last time I commented, but I like your writing style..

    This post is excellent and needed.

    You know what? I tip a bartender because – and let’s be honest – I am “supposed to.” The establishments pays wait staff and bartenders less on purpose because someone along the way decided people should get paid less by their employer because other people might hand them money.

    Yes and that is another soapbox. Back to point: I tip at the Starbucks register because I see a cup there. Hmmm…this might surprise people, but I didn’t know you can tip the Barista directly (maybe I am via the cup, but at moment, I’m just feel I am tipping the Registerista for taking my order and TAKING MY MONEY!) I just didn’t know Barista tipping [on top of Registerista tipping] was the “supposed to” because I have seen someone do it… That’s education of the CLIENT.

    The rest of the TIP is driven by skill, attitude, connection.

    Zane translation: If the bartender is average and ordinary, he/she receives an average tip. If they are above average and extraordinary, they will receive an above average tip from me. If they are extraordinary and make me a Zanetini without showing me that my instructions on how to make it is ridiculously long…AND it’s yummy – then they earn my maximum tip-ness.

    I just recently found out people don’t get paid for speaking at a lot of the social media events. I just assumed, because I thought all people who took the time, effort and moxie get up in front of people to share & teach should get paid – UNLESS – they are selling something and bartering eyes for wallets.

    Have I made a point yet? I’m just being funny.

    Point 1: Educate the people who are supposed to pay you, that YOU GET PAID.

    Point 2: I’m not sure we need all these events were having with speakers who are not getting paid. We have to be careful not to eat our young.

    Point 3: Be EXTRAORDINARY. (not EXTRA ordinary)

    Point 4: Do what you were born to do, because NO ONE can be better at THAT than you….and you can charge a whole lot of wallet for “THAT.”

    Luv. @zaneology

  15. zane aveton Avatar

    Oh NOES. Correction re: Tipping the Barista sentence!!! I left out “NOT” — “I have NOT seen someone do it”

    Dang. I hate when I do that. Messed up the whole sentence. 🙂 xo @zaneology

  16. Kneale Mann Avatar

    Further to Zane’s point, perhaps we need to put a cup out front more often. People pay what they can get away with and if there is value for what they want, people will pay it. But as some of us business coach/consultant types continue to navigate the drinking establishment called Prospects, perhaps we need to aim higher than a few quarters in a cup.

    If you can’t say your price in front of a mirror with a straight face, it won’t matter whether you’re wearing a nice shirt or a green smock when you’re in front of a client.

  17. Katie Avatar


    I feel this is SUCH a timely article for me. As a senior in college, I know I still have a LONG way to go before people start taking me seriously (i.e. paying me for things like speaking or consulting). However, I’ve had a few opportunities to “shine” lately, where I’ve been hesitant to also be aggressive in asking/expecting respect and pay for my contribution.

    I particularly found your second point to be interesting as I continue to develop my personal brand (Zane, your point was right on the money, in clarifying “Be extraordinary, not EXTRA ordinary”). Thanks for an inspiring post!

  18. @mckra1g Avatar

    Speaking to Kneale’s point: “You don’t ask; you don’t get.”

    FWIW, I was a bartender in college. Made great tips because I helped our clients participate in an event. Grabbing a beer w/co-workers became a celebration rather than the cartoon lineup at Moe’s: people hunched over their beers, numbing themselves.

    I haven’t spoken professionally at any conferences. However, I have had my oil panels hung at various places and sold a few commissions – an outgrowth of a hobby I built to let some steam off. My point is that people paid me to do something I liked to do for free.

    People pay for what they percieve they cannot do. They pay for the alchemy you as an individual bring to the process. The most universal way we’ve been trained to show “appreciation” for talent is money.

    Know who you are, what you can bring to the table, and ask for what you deserve.

    Great post! I, too, have bookmarked it. Lots to distill. Best, M.

  19. Matches Malone Avatar

    Filmmaking has become more accessible, and everyone is finding it easy to create content. Sturgeon’s Law is in full force, and I believe he was an optimist….

    As a result, everyone believes they can make a film, for not a lot of money. Ok, fine, go ahead and do that, however, you don’t get my expertise. There’s a Biblical principle here, but not quite sure where to find the specific verses involved….

  20. Shawn Carpenter Avatar

    I have spent the past few months working out a plan to get paid for all of my free work. Very interesting article, thanks for posting!

  21. karim kanji Avatar

    Glad that more people are talking about getting paid. I just hope everyone here doesn’t complain when it’s time for us to pay. 😉

  22. Alton Gholar Avatar

    Any time you’re placed under general anesthesia, there is danger invovled. Fortunately most plastic surgery procedures are low-risk and there is a very good chance that the surgery will go over without issues Prior to surgery, you must be evaluated by your surgeon to see if you are a good candidate for cosmetic surgery. If you have any medical problems, be sure to tell the doctor. He or she must know everything that may be prohibitive to the surgery.

  23. Terra L. Fletcher Avatar

    You do need to decide that you WILL NOT work for less than you’re worth. (Of course exceptions may be when speaking in your own town or for a non-profit.) Remember that value is often directly correlated with what you charge. People believe they get what they pay for. What is your perceived value if you don’t charge enough? I’m also a firm believer in positioning yourself as a subject matter expert. Testimonials are great. So is word of mouth. Market yourself. Make some phone calls. And don’t apologize for your price.

Leave a Reply

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