After years of paying to wear your favorite shoes, they’re now paying you to be seen in them.
After years of speaking for free and paying to travel, they’re now paying you to speak.
After years of ordering your favorite drink, they’re now paying you to drink it.
After years of buying your favorite jewels, they’re paying you to wear them.
After years of writing for free, they’re now paying you to contribute.
I’m fascinated by this transition…
I call it the “brand hand” moment.
It’s the point where the value of your brand and contribution becomes so self-evidenct or clearly expressed that it gives you enough power and leverage to start getting paid cold hard cash for the very thing you were paying cold hard cash to do the day before. I’ve often wondered what happens in that moment?
Sometimes, you can peg this shift to a specific happening. You write a book that becomes a massive bestseller. You win some kind of industry award or accolade that anoints your arrival into the land of Brand Hand. You give a talk or post a video that explodes online. You build a company, venture or event that defines a moment and becomes a phenomenon.
I call this “booming” your way into Brand Hand.
Sometimes, it’s that.
But other times, it’s a much slower, more grueling and gradual evolutionary process. Every day, you build a bit more social currency, value, brand equity. Over time, months or even years, your brand evolves to a point where instead of paying to wear, consume or contribute, you’re now being paid to do the very same.
Truth told, this is the way it happens for most people. Going from paying to being paid is a blend of perceived value and demand.
Let’s take the world of speaking as an example.
You start out believing you have something to say. Truth is, you may or may not. And even if you do, it’ll take a lot of work to develop your message, voice, tone and presence to a level where you’re contributing serious value. How do you do that? You practice. You talk your way into any conference room, gathering or stage where people will have you. In the beginning, it’s not about money, it’s about not sucking. Because we all do in the beginning. We’re supposed to.
Your compensation at this point is data. It’s having someone else pay to create the forum for you to practice and hone your craft, message, presence and voice. There is value in that.
Along the way, you start to get better and people start to lean in a bit more when you talk. You learn to tell a better story, give information in just the right way, entertain and inspire. You learn how to engage emotions and modulate your spoken voice. You develop a point of view and language to share it that is uniquely yours. You cultivate a sense of physicality on stage that draws people in.
You start to move from being a newbie on a quest to learn to being an evolving brand. You get invited to share your brand-in-process with larger and larger rooms. But still, you’re speaking for free. Except that you’re not. You’re getting paid, you just haven’t crossed the “cash-threshold” yet.
Your compensation at this stage is the opportunity to leverage the resources of the organizer to bring together increasingly larger numbers of people who’ll be exposed to your work and start to build your community, your personal brand, your following and position of thought-leadership. Your compensation is the forum that, well-leveraged, gives you the opportunity to move closer and closer to that moment where you land brand hand.
Over time, the blend of your maturation of craft and skill and brand as a speaker leads to so many opportunities to speak that you can’t keep up the pace for “free,” which we know really isn’t free. So, you start to charge a small bit of money to speak at places where the size of the event or the alignment of the audience does not provide adequate “compensation” to build your brand. And, very likely, you continue to speak without cash changing hands for communities and groups you’re just drawn to serve, regardless of the economics or brand opportunity. Because that’s just what you do.
Then, it’s starts to happen. You’ve built a name, lots of people know you, you’ve got something powerful to say and the craft to say it in a way that makes people line up to hear it. You’ve built enough brand hand that you become what’s known as “a draw.” People will come to the event BECAUSE they know you’re speaking. They want to hear from you and, likely, meet you.
Still, this is entirely relative. You may now have enough brand hand to be a draw at smaller or more tightly-niched events, but not massive national ones. So, the organizers of the smaller ones proactively ask you to attend and pay you cash money to come. But the bigger ones still expect you to speak “for free.” Because, at that level, they’ve still got brand hand over you. Over time, if you keep working and growing and building, you end up the best at what you do, and you build brand hand on a national level. You become sought out by organizers of the largest events, offered plum keynote positions in the lineup and paid not just in brand-building opportunity, but in money. And you gain exposure to more high-level organizers and, if your business is built upon a broader basket of services or products, you gain access to potential clients.
A good friend of mine, a multi-time New York Times bestselling author who gets paid 5 figures for big keynotes, still does a handful of events every year for free. Why? Because, he’s not actually doing them for free. He’s well aware of the non-cash elements of compensation. So, he chooses those events very strategically. He looks for gathering that will either build his positioning as an industry expert, give him access to an audience of direct-match prospects for his consulting company or give him “green room” access to other speakers who are high-level decision-makers at potential client firms. Almost entirely on the back of this strategy he’s built an 8-figure consulting firm. The non-cash compensation he’s mined in these “free” opportunities has massively exceeded the value of the highest cash-based keynote fee he’s ever been paid.
This, by the way, has been my journey. I haven’t boomed my way into the bigs. It’s been an evolutionary process. I’ve spent a lot of years paying to go to conferences, then going for “free” in exchange for speaking while I built my brand and craft and then getting paid to speak at bigger and bigger gatherings. It’s taken years.
I now have a reasonable amount of brand hand, but still nowhere near the top circuit speakers who make their entire living doing it. Funny enough, while it’d be nice to get paid what they earn, I don’t aspire to ever be speaking at the level of frequency it takes to get there. I love being home, playing with my girls and making cool things. The speaking part is more about sharing what I’m discovering along the way to making stuff that matters.
And here’s the thing. Had I taken the stance in the early days that cash is the only form of compensation I’d accept every time I stepped in front of a room, I would’ve missed out on the immense “non-cash compensation” that was being offered. The ability to leverage someone else’s resources and efforts to assemble a group of people in a venue to serve as a forum for me to practice, get good, connect with future organizers and potential clients and build my brand. And, also serve. At every step along the way. I never would have grown or made it to the point where I have enough brand hand to speak on the next level, then the next and the next.
I hear a lot of people, especially early in their careers proclaiming they’ll never work for anyone for free. They’ve got value. I agree with this statement.
What I don’t agree with is the notion of cash as the only form of value or compensation. Money is not the only currency. Depending on where you are in your professional journey and brand development, it may well be the least valuable type of compensation you can receive.
When making a decision about whether to work for “free,” consider the full scope of potential benefit and the less “quantifiable,” yet often far more valuable forms of compensation that come bundled with the opportunity.
Consider things like brand association, reach and exposure, relationship-potential, exposure to potential clients, thought-leadership positioning, brand-building potential, associative positioning (“I was on stage with…”), the opportunity to hone your craft, voice, presence, introductions to the “right people,” a way to give or serve and the probability that each of those added elements are forms of very real compensation. Look at the potential that each will march you increasingly down that path to brand hand on a level that will both allow you make the shift from non-cash to cash compensation and potentially build something much bigger than that more immediate exchange of value.
Does that mean you should take every opportunity, whether cash is on the table or not? Of course not. I’m simply inviting you to look at the fuller opportunity and take a longer horizon. Look at what’s really being offered. Own where you are on the brand hand spectrum at this moment in time. If you’re not consistently being offered what you believe you’re worth, then either you’re not worth that yet (which is okay, we all start at the beginning) OR you haven’t done the work to clearly demonstrate your value. That’s not on the people who want what you have but won’t write a check, it’s on you. Create more value, or learn to tell your story better so that others understand what you have to offer.
If you’re at the beginning, that’s cool. Be there. Fully. Continue to look for those rare opportunities to “boom” your way down the spectrum. And, yes, look too at the risk, the ethics and likelihood of any and all promises being real or just smoke and mirrors. That all goes into it.
Then, make a decision not just on the money or lack thereof, but on the full basket of potential benefit being offered. Because that bigger scope of possibility is often a far more linear path to brand hand, which is also another word for freedom.
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