Your Core Business Is Not Free

Understand your core business, and give away things that support it. Never give away your core business itself.

I call myself primarily a writer and a speaker. I’m not a vendor of tools or products. I’m not a consultant selling coaching services. And I’m delegating Management 3.0 courses to other trainers as much as I can.

It means that I try to earn an income as a full-time writer and speaker. This is sometimes difficult, when people ask me to do many things for free.


I am very pleased that my brand new Champfrogs presentation, which I gave yesterday at Agile By Example in Warsaw, and last week at Ágiles in Lima, was hailed as “outstanding”, “best talk of the conference”, and even “best slides I’ve ever seen”. Last week in Lima someone told me that I could easily earn USD 10,000 per keynote with my new talk, in other industries (unfortunately, not in the Agile space).

Not surprisingly, people on Twitter often ask me, “Is there a video online (for free)?” or “Where can I download the slides (for free)?” The words “for free” are not really mentioned, but obviously implied. The correct (but for me still difficult) answer is, “When you invite me, and pay me, like they did in Poland and Peru.” Yes, I did many talks for free in the past. But I’m now much better, and more focused, than I was in the past.

Sometimes conference organizers ask me, “Can you bring some of your books (for free)?” or “Can you give a workshop (for free)” or “Will you participate in the whole conference (for free)”. Of course, I very much enjoy the attention people give me, and I appreciate all the requests that are usually born out of pure enthusiasm and interest.

But I can’t do everything for free.

Core Business

When you give away things for free you reduce the perceived value of those products or services. Because if it’s free, it can’t be that valuable, can it? This might not be a problem for activities that support your business. But it is a problem for your primary business. I spent four weeks preparing and producing my new Champfrogs presentation. For me it’s quite valuable. It is my core business!

My books and talks are slowly but steadily becoming my main forms of personal income. Giving away all presentations for free can make sense for tool vendors and consultants, because they have other business models. And their presentations are not called “worth at least USD 10,000” and “the best I’ve ever seen”. On the other hand, I will never earn the compliment “best consultant ever” or “best tool vendor ever” because that’s not my kind of business.

So, what is the lesson here for creative networkers?

Understand your real purpose, and give away things that support your business model. But never give away your core business itself.

p.s. And no, I’m not charging USD 10,000. Yet. 🙂

p.p.s. It’s strange I sometimes feel uncomfortable asking for payment. As Michael Hyatt said last week, people who ask services for free often get paid for their own work, and would never consider doing their work for free. 🙂

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  • Dimitar Bakardzhiev

    If your core business is selling books then it does make sense to consider all the talks/presentations you give a PR campaign. You are lucky enough there is somebody else such as a conference willing to cover the costs of your PR campaign.

  • Paul Kuijten

    The more they pay you the more they like you.
    The more they pay you the more they will listen to you.
    There are many purposes of price, and the exchange of money is just one of them.
    I think Gerald Weinberg stated something along these lines.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    No, I said my core business is selling books AND speaking.
    My talks are not simply a “PR campaign for my books”.
    Almost no author is able to live from book royalties alone.
    Same with me.
    The suggestion that my talks are just a book promo tour is actually quite insulting.

  • Jorgen

    I get your general point – and maybe I’m misunderstanding you – but are you saying you will no longer share slides for free because you consider that your “core business?”.
    I would submit the slides are not your core, it’s the presentation of the slides – the experience you add to them – that makes them unique and indeed worth a healthy penny.
    I think of people like Daniel Pink (or perhaps Henrik Kniberg, given the Agile context). They freely share videos of their presentations, slides and other materials, understanding that what makes people hire them is not the raw materials, it is the finished product of which their brand is integrated. Lots of people borrow their content and adapt it as part of their own — but they are OK with that, because they know that when it comes time to going from ‘being interested’ to ‘being serious’, they are going to be the first ones they call.
    I’ve been very impressed by your frequent experimenting with different business models and concepts, but I am surprised this was the conclusion you came to. Sounds more “closed” than what I would expect from Appelo, Inc.
    Then again, few people understand your business like you do and it has certainly worked well so far, so I may be completely off the rocker. 🙂
    Best wishes!

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks, you’re raising good points. Actually, all my slides are available for free. That is not my main concern.
    You are right that free slides and free videos are good marketing, and they can help to sell the “really valuable thing” which is my personal availability (as a speaker).
    On the other hand, when one of many presentations is not available for free on the web (on video, for example), customers allow me to charge more, because the talk is “exclusive”.
    Now that I’m changing my personal business model, I need to find a good balance between making almost everything available for free (90%) and keeping just a few things exclusive (10%).

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