For a start-up the one to one coaching that I offer is expensive, so it is only really appropriate if a founder has a sound concept, clear objective and is ready to press the green button on their business. Because of that I only end up agreeing to work with about one business for every ten approaches that I get. 

So, what do I do with the other 9? Well, often when they email me, I know straight away that they aren’t ready to hire me but up until now I have always offered them time to talk through their plans with feedback and direction from me, otherwise known as free work. This week I did another session like that. After the call ended and a few days passed and I didn’t even get an email thank you or social media shout-out something inside me said ENOUGH and I stood back to have a think.

Could it be, I thought that all this time when I thought I was being inclusive and supportive of the start-up community that actually I was just training people not to value my time or the time of other coaches? Could it be that I am so conscious of not appearing elitist or exclusive that instead I have been undermining my own value and wasting my own time?

I’m considering the possibility that my ‘get-to-know-each-other’ sessions are a habit that I have got into that don’t stand up to commercial scrutiny. I started offering them four years ago when my baby was born. I had just moved out of my flat in the west end, back home to the seaside where I knew no-one. I had given birth alone with no financial support and only statutory maternity pay and I had no plan at all with regard to returning to work or how and when that might happen. I knew that the fees I had been charging in London wouldn’t work down here so I started doing bits and bobs of work cheap or for free.

The strategy worked in one sense; that I made enough money to support me and my baby but it also established a pattern of giving people ‘free sample’ time to show them who I was and what I did which I am only just starting to realise is bad value not just for me but for other people who do the same type of work as me.

Working for free feeds the problem of elitism and white privilege…

I don’t have the answers yet, I know that working for free is really a thing in the creative industries and that a lot of people struggle with it. I understand that when we are trying to establish ourselves it is tempting, that it is supported by the culture of internships, that it is complex.

The uncomfortable truth is that working for free feeds the problem of elitism and white privilege in the creative industries. I can afford to work for free because I live in a house that my dad owns, my god-children can afford to intern at Google because they live rent-free with their parents in Putney, it all kind of stinks a bit when you pan back and look at it with that perspective.

I am, as I write this, formulating a plan to change the way I charge and extend the amount of free work to do ongoing meaningful work with founders from under-represented groups and to ask everyone else to pay from the beginning, to pay to even get me in the room. It’s strange that as an expert in my field with 15 years’ experience, that this still feels bold. Maybe it is a risk but if me working for free it makes it harder for less experienced people to charge what they are worth then it’s a risk I’m ready to take. I don’t want to be complicit in that, I want to be better.

So, what do I do?

Of course, because I’ve been around the block a bit I’ve been in similar situations before and I have processes in place which I use to work whether I am just having a bad day or if something needs to change. These are the things I do to before making drastic changes.

1: I sleep on it, sounds simple right but so often we start firing out emotional emails without giving our decisions time.

2: Phone a friend, I have half a dozen female entrepreneurs who I trust to offer me a different perspective to consider before I push the button.

3: I get on Google and LinkedIn and snoop about how people in the same field are working and see if the changes I want to make are the industry norm if I will really be asking my clients to accept a new way of working.

Usually my initial, gut reaction ends up being my decision but I really like the discipline of these kinds of actions to re-assure me.

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About the author

Fleur is a startup expert with 14 years’ experience both launching her own product ranges into major retailers and using her success to help to help other founders achieve. Her client roster includes Pip & Nut, Miso Tasty and Rosa Bloom. Fleur has lectured at UCL on Business & Branding, co-hosts the Courier podcast and has a regular column in the magazine. She regularly contributes as a speaker, podcaster, presenter and writer on all things modern business.