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In Defense Of Free

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I have a friend Aliya that started shooting photos for friends and family a few years ago. She’s passionate, takes her work seriously and is a ton of fun to work with. She also gets amazing results from her shoots.

When I first met Aliya, she’d be happy to take pictures for you for most occasions, and often she’d do it for free. As a result, my other friends that were professional photographers made a point to run her down constantly when I’d hang out with them.

According to them, she was ruining the industry, slitting the throats of professionals like themselves that were “legitimate” photographers. It was around the time of the Wall Street crash, and my friends were fighting to find companies and individuals with enough disposable income to afford their big prices. My friends were frustrated and angry, and they were directing a lot of that pain toward Aliya.

In the meantime, Aliya kept doing shoots, often for free and sometimes for pay, and honed her skills. She bought gear with the shoots that paid, which upped the quality of her work. All of a sudden, she’s getting calls from corporations, fashion designers, and other people that need photography services. She has a ton of her best work online, and potential clients liked what they saw and chose her over my more established friends. She now has paying shoots almost every week, and often has a backlog of clients wanting her to shoot for them.

One of my friends was complaining to me the other day about her again, how she stole all of his work and kept him from making a living in his field. My friend is completely wrong for several reasons:

• Aliya’s successful not because she used to shoot for free. She’s successful because she’s really good at photography, has built a big network of people that think of her first when they need a photographer, and is just super-easy to work with.

• Aliya never stole anyone’s clients. She started working with the people that couldn’t afford photography, mostly younger people and people starting new careers. These people could never hope to afford my friend’s photography services, but they still needed quality photos. As they’ve grown, they’ve brought Aliya along with them. It pays to get in on the ground floor.

• By not being able to change and meet the needs of clients strapped for cash, my friend wasn’t able to scale his product in a way that allowed people to still do business with him under the current economic climate.

It’s vitally important to be able to scale your product to make it economically feasible for someone to work with you. That doesn’t mean that you go cheap. It means that you offer multiple options at multiple price points. My friend had to switch careers because he wasn’t able to offer enough options to clients that fit their needs and ability.

Free isn’t always the best model. Only you can decide what works best in your market. But don’t automatically think free is the four-letter word we should all avoid.

P.S. If you need photography, you can get in line here:

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