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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Should you ever give away your services (or products) for free?

This has been an on-going discussion in the speaking community. And recently I found that the same debate is taking place in the magic community.

There are some of my speaking colleagues who are adamant that no one should ever give a speech where they don’t get paid. “Always a fee; never free” is their mantra. And there are quite a few magicians who are up in arms about a program called “The Magic Castle at Sea” where magicians agree to perform on cruise ships for no fee in exchange for a free trip.

What’s all the hooha about speaking for free? One concern is that if you do unpaid or low fee speeches, you will be labeled as such, making it harder for you to get full-fee speeches in the future. Personally I think this concern has been blown way out of proportion.

I make my living getting paid to speak. And yet I will, from time-to-time, work for no fee or at a reduced fee. This is always a strategic decision, and I turn down low paid/unpaid requests when they don’t meet my criteria (e.g., a good marketing opportunity, a good charity, highly desirable destination etc). However accepting these lower fee gigs has not branded me as a low-fee speaker and has not impacted my ability to get my full fee.

However, there is a bigger and trickier issue I want to address. One that is not about the individual, but rather the industry as a whole. This is the issue that ruffles the most feathers.

The belief is that if a speaker/magician/artist performs for free, they rob others the chance to be paid. Or if performers are willing to work for pennies on the dollar it devalues the market making it harder for everyone else to get their regular fee.

I believe that this is true to some degree.

I compete on a regular basis against people who charge less than I do. In fact, in my world of innovation, I am sometimes competing against the innovation vendors (e.g., innovation software providers, innovation consulting firms, etc.) who are not only willing to speak for free, they are willing to pay the event organizers tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor their speaking slot.

Competition is tough and it is getting tougher.

However, I am not one of the people complaining about the competition or pricing pressures.

I recognize that this is a reality of any free market. Markets change. What was valued yesterday may not be valued tomorrow.

Blackberry is probably upset that Apple introduced a smart phone that killed their market. But that’s a fact of life. Blackberry didn’t change when the expectations of the buyers shifted.

Taxi drivers are clearly upset that Uber charges less per ride and is eroding their monopoly. But it is inevitable that new entrants will dethrone the old kings. Getting regulators to shut down Uber is not the long-term solution. Just as hoping others will stop speaking for free is not a reasonable expectation.

Markets change, and we have to change with them.

Pricing issues are not the only concern. Technological shifts are also raising a concern for many in my industry.

Collaborative technologies have the potential to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings, reducing the need for speakers and entertainers. And there are some who believe that YouTube could kill the speaking industry. Their belief is that if you can get the entire speech for free online, why hire a speaker?

Technology will force every industry to adapt.

Speakers who give the same speech over and over with little interactivity should view YouTube as a threat. But for those of us who create a full-body experience for our audiences, we know that YouTube will never replace us. In fact, if used correctly it will generate more demand for our work.

Pricing pressures, technological advances, demographic changes (e.g., Millenials), economic downturns, and other market shifts will continue to impact every company in every industry. Although I am using performance arts as an example, my point applies to everyone.

The way I look at it, these pressures force me to up my game. If the traditional keynote speech becomes a commodity, I need to create new ways of delivering value. I need to think beyond the speech and ensure that I provide long-lasting results.

Am I concerned that other speakers are reducing their fees? Am I worried that new technologies may make my bread and butter business less relevant? Of course I am. Business would be so much easier if things never changed. But that is unrealistic, and potentially undesirable. I love innovation. I have dedicated my life to innovation. And I am a believer that innovation is the key to staying relevant and desired when competition heat up.

So stop your whining and start innovating!

  1. I AGREE whole hardheartedly!!!! I do free for the same exact reasons you do Stephen…and yes I try to give my participants an EXPERIENCE…not a speech…they are demanding it! I chuckle inside when I see sessions at conventions on “How to be more interactive in your speeches” or the new fancy word is “Gamification”! We have been doing that since we started our businesses. I think Associations and Organizations will ALWAYS have live speakers because they want the experience…and guess what…sometimes I do it for FREE because I know I will have at least 20%-30% spin-off from that one event…so there!

    • Thanks Candy. It is indeed funny how old school (interactivity/gamification) can become a fad. If speakers were only about content, people could simply read our books, watch our videos, or read a transcription of a speech. But when you provide something that can not be experienced in any other form, you have something special.

  2. I also agree. And you broached the subject masterfully. Change is good. It makes us grow. If you can’t grow, you don’t move forward. I’m with you to constantly find ways to move forward, change, adapt, be aware and still be me.

  3. Hi Steve,

    One of my favorite quotes

    “If you wish to have value for money would you give money for value”

    I agree we all need to adjust ‘our sails’ and find the fresh, stronger winds that move us all along, in both of our cases, around innovation



    • Thanks Paul. Love the quote! And I certainly don’t need to sell you on the need for innovation! Your “stronger winds” metaphor is great. So eloquent.

  4. Steve,
    Great post that reflects your great thinking.
    My response: ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!
    Look at Uber’s model of “surge pricing” which is where the fee reflects demand.
    You want some same-o, lame-o talking head speaker or dull industry exec who will bore people to tears? Great – that’s a low-fee or no-fee ride. You want a high-level pro to deliver massive value at a pivotal moment in your company’s or association’s evolution? Great again – that’s a 12:01am ride thru Times Square on New Year’s Eve. You’ll enjoy the ride if you pay the price.
    Should we as speakers, experts, authors, and thought-leading professionals be concerned when cheap or free speakers come on the scene? I don’t think so – does Tiffany’s get upset with Wal-Mart? Does BMW get overly concerned about Hyundai? No – fact of life. Competitive landscape. It’s all good.
    Have I ever “lost a deal” to a cheap or free speaker? Yes and no – meaning, I’m sure I have [technically] but on the other hand, if that client didn’t have my fee, then, frankly, they were never really my client. And what they DID get was on a magnitude very different from what I deliver.
    Finally – and this is your main point – as speakers, we must MUST innovate the types of conference experiences that we deliver. No more talking heads or lecture. Interactive, conversational, engaging, and tapping into the audience’s wisdom (even bringing them onstage!!) is the new name of the game. When I organized and hosted the first “America Talks Business” Conference, it was a meeting like none other because of these innovations. You can see the 3-min sizzle reel to explain what I’m talking about here: http://AmericaTalksBusiness.com
    Thanks for a thought-provoking conversation starter for our industry!
    — David

    • Thanks David. I particularly like what you said about losing deals to low/no cost competition. Of course we do lose work to them. That’s always a fact of life. Apple loses iPhone sales to flip phones. But that doesn’t mean the consumer gets the same value. And it doesn’t mean that Apple really lost a sale because they weren’t their right buyer. And yes, we need to innovation conference experiences. As the co-chair for the NSA 2016 Influence Convention, I am well aware of this and always looking for new ideas. I will check out your America Talks Business website. Thanks again!

  5. Great points Stephen and good analogy with Uber. As Uber makes transportation more accessible, so do other technologies make our content more accessible. Like a taxi company that once had a monopoly, we no longer can sit on our laurels and expect customers to bend over backwards for us. We have to come to where they are. That’s hard work and many would rather moan, complain, and wish for the old world. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • Thanks Chris. And you are so correct! Some people would rather be a victim and blame everyone else for their situation instead of taking the bull by the horns and doing something about it.

  6. Killer article, so much to agree with on so many levels. As a Speaker who showcases often for no fee, it is by design and lands me many events at full fee, it is a wonderfully easy strategy really, and I embrace it. The more who see me the more I know will want to hire me. Just hope it’s the right audience 🙂 However, where we fall short is in taking our own fee and devaluing it when, if we had the …. guts…. we would stick to what we feel it’s worth and really keep everyone honest. Problem is when Speaker A and Speaker B are both pitched within the same price range and Speaker B opts to under bid – then we get into ethical issues and that’s a potential problem. But it’s not my problem, it’s their problem. Meaning, their underbidding just makes me realize I must stand alone, higher, more valuable in some way, thus making me UP my game as you’ve suggested here. Like Apple, if I keep my prices the same whether at Apple Store, online, or Walmart, I have nothing to fear, because if they bring me in, they get something they couldn’t even conceive of getting with Speaker B. Thanks for the article, great learning from you my friend!

    • Thanks Jason. I appreciate the fact that you really got the point I was trying to make. The decisions we as individuals make is a personal one. We can accept free or low fee gigs – or not. But if other speakers reduce their fees, although it makes it more difficult as an industry to keep fees higher, it is simply the nature of free markets. Instead of complaining about what others are doing, we need to continuously innovate to create something of higher value than others. If we don’t we are just a commodity.

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