When To Give Up Free

Photo Credit: Puzzledmonkey

When I first began dabbling in blogging, I had a free account on Blogger. It was all there really was at the time. Typepad was brand new and no one I knew knew anything about it, and WordPress was for self-hosted geeks who knew what they were doing. So when I wanted to learn about HTML/CSS, I began editing a Doug Bowman template on my blogspot.com blog.

As I learned about photography and shared photos with my family of my daughter and my new life in Indiana, I signed up for a free account on Flickr. I loved that I could quickly and easily get photos online and even post directly to my blog from within Flickr. I also loved that I could do just about anything I wanted to online and not pay for any of it.

As I started a freelance web design business and began getting a few clients, I recommended these free services to them as well, because I thought, why pay for something if you don’t have to?

The People Behind the Free Stuff

But then I started getting to know my peers in the web design and development arena. I socialized with them, pre-Twitter. That means by reading their blogs, commenting, visiting forums, and emailing now and then. As I read their blogs about code, about design, copyright, professionalism, etc. I became convicted in the face of their sweat and tears. All the late nights they talked about, about how many months and even years it took them to complete a viable web app, I felt weird using their service for free.

But that’s how the Internet works, right? People make stuff all the time and put it out there for free. They wouldn’t do it if they couldn’t afford to. Right? And aren’t they getting something in return anyway, lots of publicity, testers, new clients? That’s not doing something for nothing. Right? Right?

As I continued to justify this to myself, it occurred to me one day while working on a client’s website in a free coding app, that I had reached a point in which I was directly profiting from this free service. I felt dirty. So I looked up the website of this app and found a paid license, which incidentally gave me several new features I didn’t have access to with the free version. I felt good again.


About that same time I had a client who was writing (editing, rather) a series of books full of “chicken soup” type stories from Christians. Being a Christian myself, I thought the work she was doing was great and I wanted to help her with the new promotional website she asked me to build for her. I was jazzed for her until she came to me midway through the job and asked if I wouldn’t mind donating my services to the project. Jaw, meet floor.

We had already agreed on the scope of work and cost, and I was in the middle of coding previously approved comps when her solicitation came through my inbox. Aghast, but still committed to following through, I told her I would overlook the request and continue as agreed. A little later on, she said her publicist insisted her photo be more prominent on the page, ideally every page. I think this was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

What so turned me off here was that all of the content I was putting on this website was about God-loving people doing good and seeing good done, and often asking nothing in return. And yet on every page, it did ask for a return. It asked for $24.95 for a copy of each book for sale on the site. It asked for money for donations too, and for several other products for sale. It asked for money to pay for this woman to come and speak to you. This wasn’t a non-profit charitable organization, but a fully profiting business, and this business was now asking me not ask for money in return for my own services.

But wait. Isn’t this what I was doing, charging people for my design services while asking Blogger, Flickr, et al. not to charge me for theirs? I was a black kettle there for awhile.

If You’re Not Paying For It, Someone Else Is

Now I’ve moved away from web design over the last couple of years in pursuit of a childhood dream of owning my own shop. I sell handmade goods and curated goods from all over the country, to stores all over the world. It’s great. But it’s a business. It’s not a recreational personal thing and it’s not a charity; it’s a profiting business.

There are many other people I’ve met with similar dreams and businesses. The majority of these people appear to have started out much the same as I did, with Blogger, Typepad or another free blogging service to get them on their feet. A few here and there have moved to Squarespace and other more robust paid services, or have hired designers and developers to help them get set up with a self-hosted solution, but a huge number of independent sellers are still mooching, for lack of a better word. They’re profiting from the work of others without a return for their consumption.

As recently as last week, I was approached by a craft-related conference, running a “website” on Blogger. This for-profit organization was soliciting donations from my shop to include in their goodie bags to conference guests. Ordinarily I’m not against donating product for select events now and then, but as soon as I saw their website, I lost respect for what they were doing. To their credit, it appeared that they had hired a designer to give them something more than a template, but they might have had that donated as well. It’s hard to know. It’s easier to tell with those who clearly have put a lot of time, effort–and yes, money–into their event, such as SXSW for example.

This is in no way meant to pass judgment on anyone, but knowing as many designers and developers as I have come to know over the years (about half my twitter followers fit the bill), my heart breaks a little when I hear someone say “oh, just do such and such, it’s free.” I know as well as my friends do, it’s not really free. Every service, every piece of software, that you’re benefiting from cost SOMEONE something.

I don’t use Blogger anymore, though I’ll probably always have a Flickr account. But I switched to a paid account years ago. Every service I use, from Blinksale for invoices, to Mad Mimi for email newsletters, eChristian for my web hosting, Big Cartel for my store, even Paypal, charges a fee for their services, which I’m more than happy to pay. For what they’re giving me in return, I often feel like I should be paying more, and I’m grateful to these service providers for their help. Without them, I wouldn’t be successful as I have been.

When You’re Paid, Opt To Pay

When given the option for a free account these days, I stop and think about what it is I intend to do with the service. If it’s for business, I sign up for the paid account that fits and write it off as a business expense. If it’s for my own personal use and I don’t want any fancy features, I don’t mind using the free account. In fact, my personal blog, nataliejost.com, is run by the free service Tumblr (though I did pay for a better template). And sometimes, even for business, I’ll use the free account for a few days when testing a new service, just to make sure it will suit my needs. But as soon as it does, I flip the switch.

Again, not judging, just seeking to shed some light on this topic and hoping you’ll consider paying for (or donating to) individuals and companies who work so hard to give you these great tools, including indirectly helpful services like web magazines. ;)

Incentive To Switch To Paid Accounts

A few vendors have generously offered you a discount on services if you choose to switch to paid services.

eChristian Web Hosting – 20% off through 4/30/11 with code JOST

Mad Mimi is offering 1000 contacts free for your first month. You just need to write them and tell them you saw this article on Web Style and they’ll fix it up for you. You have 2 weeks from the date of this post. They also offer a discount to non-profit groups, so get in touch with them if you have that need.