The False Promise of Free

It’s time to value our partners in the startup community

​“So, how do you manage to network within the community?” asked a fellow service provider as we were talking over tea (fun fact, I do not drink coffee).

He and I had connected when we sat on a panel together. We’d hit it off before and after discussing the startup ecosystem and why we had chosen to work in it. He came from Wall Street law and was looking for something more impactful. I knew all along I wanted to work alongside someone who had real skin in the game.

It seems that everyone today is starting a business. Shouldn’t it be easy to network?

The truth is, if you’re a service provider of any kind, it can be rough. When you shake hands and start talking to a founder, the conversation comes to a halt as soon as they find out what you do. Their eyes glaze over and you can watch them start searching for an escape.

It’s understandable. We’ve built a huge empire around startups. Incubators, accelerators, startup products, content, memberships, events… There are a lot of people making good money from the entrepreneurial craze. I like to call it StartupLand.

And that doesn’t include the not-so-savory service providers who see the founder, often a first time entrepreneur, as easy prey to upcharge or as a spring board to start their own freelance career, regardless of whether or not they actually have the skills necessary to provide the service they’re offering. Not surprisingly, they do nothing to help build trust.

Aware of all of this, I responded, “I build strong relationships with other service partners who work specifically in the ecosystem so that we can help our clients achieve their vision.”

…Did you catch it? I said service partner.

Founder and funder Jane Hollingsworth, currently Managing Partner at Militia Hill Ventures, says, “Having the right team doesn’t only help, it’s mandatory. Because we’re only ourselves…there’s only so much any one person can do…When you’re talking about a business, it’s all about the team.”

I couldn’t agree more. The most successful business leaders are the ones who rally people around their vision and motivate them to help put the bricks in place. Most importantly, they recognize their own limitations and seek people who can help fill in the gaps.

So, given that importance, why is it that so many conversations with startups include the phrase, “How much can I get for free?”

The free or ‘startup pricing’ option has come to be expected. Founders instantly claim that they have no money, and argue that there’s no other way to manage except to gain access to what they need without having to pay for it. And we have indulged that view to the point that many companies feel entitled to a free option. When they cannot get it, they often choose to do everything themselves.

We have made a mistake. We have led companies to believe that this is how business works. It’s not. There’s a reason why the phrases ‘startup costs’ and ‘startup capital’ exist. It’s because it takes money to build a business.

The inability to hire the necessary support, internal or external, will stunt growth. Weather it’s via the inability to grow beyond the shoulders of one founder, the stress of a burned out developer working for the promise of potential (but currently non-existent) money, or the service provider slimming down on critical offerings so they can exist as a free clinic, founders are selling themselves short. All of these choices risk starving your startup before it has gotten the chance to gain traction.

Even more so, we’re hurting our larger business ecosystem. Service providers that have elected to work specifically in the startup space — the good guys — are partners. They have primed their companies to meet the needs of this market, often taking a pay cut and working extra hours to make it all happen.

They are the people who are going to help a founder shape their company, right from the beginning. They will provide the key expertise, experience and support needed for a venture to succeed. They do it because they want to be your partner and work in the trenches alongside you to make your vision a reality. What does it say about your opinion of their value when you ask them to work for free?

We all need to do better.

Service providers only in the space to take advantage of StartupLand, aware that these aren’t really the right type of clients, and just hoping for that one-in-a-million chance of hitting the big one — go work with clients that provide the return you need, and exist within your area of expertise.

Thought leaders focused on the free option, make sure you also talk about the unseen costs and potential growth limitation that stems from undervaluing the expertise others bring.

And startup founders who have come to see service providers as pariahs who were made to serve at no cost because your business is just that cool, recognize the value that they bring to your company and start your relationship off in a way that says you want to work with them for years to come.

We are all here starting and growing businesses. My business, and a law firm, and a tech company may look different, but we’re all trying to make a living and, hopefully, to do good work for one another. We will all achieve more if we see each other as partners in one ecosystem. We will thrive the more we help each other grow.

Let’s get started.


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