There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or is there?


February 10, 2013 by Sian Rowland

So far this year I’ve been thinking a lot about money. Mostly because I spent January wrestling with my very first tax return but I’ve been thinking about the value we place on goods and services. I think I’m willing to pay for a good service but expect value for my money. There’s nothing as irritating as spending a lot of money and receiving a shoddy service or feeling you’re not getting a decent service.

As a freelancer I don’t receive that neat little payslip at the end of the month any more so am even more conscious of how I’ve earned every penny in my bank account. A couple of incidents have made me realise that not everyone sees money in this way.

I recently took part in a market research project. I was part of a group discussing a new product from a well-known company. I won’t say what it was as but let’s pretend it was a sports and fitness company who wanted to explore new technological applications and wanted to discuss with possible consumers how this might work. We talked about how we might access the products and support- via a computer or via a phone app. As a group we came up with a plan of action: there would be access to a massive database of sports activities, fitness tips and how to guides. There would be videos with advice from experts, trainers and famous sports people. You could enter your data and have an expert analyse it and develop a personalised programme for you that would be tracked and you’d receive daily, tailor-made advice. There was even talk of links to shops and venues where you could order equipment, book gym time and have your schedule recorded for future visits and orders. Maybe the app could even link to your gym and have the machines programmes ready with your requirements and alerts letting you know when they were ready.

It sounded fantastic if somewhat far-fetched in part (don’t forget I’m making up the product but not the general ideas). Then came the all-important question: how much would you pay for this? I generously suggested free access to the main database to get people interested and then a quarterly subscription rate to the personalised elements. I suggested a figure I thought would be good value for money.

Then another member of the group was asked. I’d pay 69p he said, for the app. As a subscription? Nope, 69p as a one off fee for the whole kit and caboodle, the celebrity trainers, the personalised support, the ability to link to gyms and sports activities for ever. He expected the fitness world on a plate for less than the price of a daily newspaper.

This made me realise that there are people out there, perhaps potential clients, who expect a huge amount of service for very little cost. We’re all more careful with money nowadays but even so…

I was at a school a few days later undertaking a project funded by the NHS. I was chatting to a teacher who told me that she was due to lead a staff meeting the following week on the same subject and was really struggling with how to present it. Her eyes suddenly lit up. I don’t support you’d come and do the staff meeting for me? She asked. Of course I would, I said but then added, just in case it hadn’t clicked, you know I’ll have to charge, right? I gave her my very reasonable charge for staff training and her face fell. There was no question of paying, she hoped I could come in for free. I explained gently that delivering training and support was how I made my living and much as I would love to help her for free, I had a business to run and bills to pay too. She sympathised and understood but there still wasn’t any money for staff training. Not even at a reduced price. It’s a big leap of faith for schools who used to have free access to consultants and training whenever they needed to consider what they would be willing or able to pay for now that local authorities have been slimmed down to skeletal proportions.

I did wonder, however, whether we would invite a plumber round to install a shower and be surprised when he handed us a bill or book theatre tickets and expect a free performance with backstage tour and a candle-lit dinner with one of the actors. Maybe I should try offering 69p.

But perhaps there are occasional valuable freebies out there. When it comes to marketing I don’t mind admitting I’m still a beginner and have been looking round for a course that sounded like it might help. I found the Accelerate Profits Seminar on Twitter and had a little dig around. Run by successful businesswoman Alison Miles-Jenkins, it sounded like just the ticket. I liked the idea that it was specifically aimed at trainers and would offer insights into what works and what doesn’t based on Alison’s personal business experiences. I suspected I wouldn’t feel like the class dunce. But the most interesting aspect of this course was that it was free. Who offers a totally free day of training in a central London location at no cost simply because they want to share what they’re learnt about marketing? In a fit of new year enthusiasm I booked my place on the February workshop event.

I still wasn’t convinced that I wouldn’t be sold a timeshare apartment or end up married to a Moonie on the day but thought I would take my chances. The email acknowledgement and joining instructions sounded friendly and helpful and much as I searched I couldn’t find where I had to sign away my worldly goods to a cult or fill in my account details.

The seminar was on Friday in the pin-striped heart of Chancery Lane’s law land. The other delegates were normal and friendly with barely a suit or high heel in sight. Alison herself was friendly, glamorous and refreshingly honest. I have to say I enjoyed every minute of the day. The time flew by, I wrote pages and pages of notes and left feeling renewed and invigorated. I didn’t have to sign away my kidneys and I don’t part own an apartment in Magaluf. There was no catch.

What I did learn is that there is such a thing as a good, high quality freebie out there but perhaps clear communication at the outset is always the key to selling and buying services. 

11 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or is there?

  1. scribedoll says:

    Yep, you certainly acquire a different perspective on money when you’re a freelancer. Thank you for putting it so well.

  2. Gill Hines says:

    Good to have you back. I am reflecting on freebies now, so good work partner. XG

  3. nutrinsightdave says:

    She’s back online and telling’em how it is. All good stuff. So true every penny counts, one mans value for money really isn’t everyone’s.

  4. Loved this article and am in complete agreement with you. My work in as an independent consultant, trainer and writer is now in its sixteenth year!!
    It reminded me of one of the (late) local authorities(LA) with whom I had a contract (a few years ago now). My usual practice (in agreement with them) was to submit my invoices on a monthly basis. My invoices are always clearly marked “Terms, strictly 14 days”; this is on advice from a lawyer and accountant.*
    If you’d like to read more about what happened to me, have a look at my latest blog on:

    *It means should payment be late one is entitled to charge interest on the delayed money at a % above base rate, should you so choose.

  5. […] blog today has been inspired by a well respected colleague, Sian Rowland’s recent posting:… For the last 16 years I have been working as an independent consultant, trainer and writer. This […]

  6. Tim says:

    Hi Sian. It’s proving increasingly difficult to monetise any product these days, in particular something like an app or any other service which has an online equivalent. Newspapers & magazines are a prime example, where people are abandoning them in favour of websites and blogs. But journalists DO add value that is worth paying for – they are more factually rigorous (well, most of them), do deeper research and know how to weave a compelling narrative. Unfortunately too many of them are now taking shortcuts and using social media such as Twitter as a source of breaking news and opinion. Dangerous, very dangerous.

    My oldest son is now five and starting to research subjects for school projects – I’m already starting to educate him about which websites he can trust (CBeebies, dedicated learning resources etc) and which ones he shouldn’t automatically (Wikipedia, any random website).

    As with many things in life – frozen beef lasagne, for example – you get what you pay for. If you expect something for nothing, you shouldn’t expect to get everything. As modern consumers, it’s a tricky business assessing ‘value’ for services – much more so than it is for physical goods. It’s a lesson we all need to learn and adapt to, I think.

    • Sian Rowland says:

      Good point about journalism- we citizen journalists fulfill a role but there is still a need for professional journalists and their skills and expertise and it will be tricky for the younger generation to negotiate through a wealth of sources. Well done for teaching your little ones at home- it’s something we’ll need to address more in school too. Love the point about the lasagne too. Pay peanuts and you get…well, not monkeys in this case, but you see where I’m heading!

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