Don’t ask founders for free products

1/13/2015 Update – Since writing this I’ve had a really nice exchange with the person I mention below. We understand each other and I feel better about it.


A few days ago someone emailed me and asked for 2 free SoHelpful accounts. It wasn’t an unreasonable request – he volunteered to work on a project that would give my work additional promotion. It wasn’t a project I asked for (and I’ve never seen the results). But he put a lot of hours into it – so I don’t blame him for for expecting something.

So why did this innocuous request bother me?

I didn’t know – so I took a few days to think about it and decided to write about my feelings.

I’m dedicating this post to founders and other creative professionals everywhere – those of us pouring our lives into our work in the hopes of making a living doing it.

When you ask for a free product you’re asking the founder to pay for yours

You see, it isn’t free. Somebody has to pay. Software is f$%#ing hard to build. We spend hours a day trying to improve our interface with Google’s (not so great) API. That’s why most free products are crap – and why we don’t have a free plan.

Support isn’t free and we refuse to skimp on it. In our case we not only have to support a free user but have to support everyone who schedules a call with that user. And since we don’t do creepy things (like sell our customers’ information) free accounts just cost us money.

Somebody has to pay – and that person is the founder

They have to pay out of their own pocket. Or through the equity they give up to their investors.

So before you ask for a free product first ask yourself: “Would I ask the founder to take out her credit card and pay for my subscription?”

Because that’s exactly what you are asking. And maybe that answer is, “yeah, I would” – if so you should feel justified in asking for a free account.

But is the founder’s respect important to you?

If so, what not support her work? Sure, it is a generous thing to do. But there are selfish reasons for supporting founders.

Founders are unique people to know because you never know who is going to change the world. A small act of support for someone’s side project might build a relationship with someone who is about to make it big.

That’s why founders help each other – out of respect

When I started SoHelpful and struggled to get our first paying customers I had a conversation with a (now) friend about the project and what I was trying to do. The next day he paid for a subscription. A few months later I noticed he wasn’t using it much and followed-up with him. Paraphrasing his response:

“Hey Kevin, great to hear from you. I haven’t had a lot of time to use SoHelpful but I share your vision and want to support what you’re doing.”

I knew this person was struggling and did not have a lot of money. I will never, ever forget what this person did for me.

Founders have unspoken camaraderie

Ever watch someone leave a big tip because “he used to wait tables and knows how tough it is?” Being a founder is kind of like that – an unspoken club.

We know how brutally hard it is trying to change the world while being responsible for our employees’ livelihoods and investors’ money. So we buy each others’ books, courses, and products as a “kickstarter” campaign.

Of course I don’t buy all of my friends products – but if offered a free account or book I’ll usually turn it down and just pay for it.

Do you want really to be know as “that guy who …”?

At the risk of annoying you I’m going to tell you what nobody else will – when you ask for handout or try to take advantage of a founder’s generosity you are just ruining your own reputation.

I am positive nobody ever intends to send the message:

“Hey Founder. I’d like to get your product – you know the one you’re pouring your life into? – for free. I know your other friends pay for it but I don’t really respect what you’re doing enough to hand over a few bucks. Oh sure, my apartment is full of worthless crap I buy from multinational companies – but I’d prefer to support them instead of you.”

But when you ask a founder – who might be worried about making payroll next week – for a handout that might just be what they’re hearing. They won’t say it, but you’ve just sent a pretty strong message that you’re not in the club.

Don’t trade away your personal influence for nothing

Jason Calacanis gave me some great advice in one of his newsletters a few years ago. He advises entrepreneurs to “always pick up the check”. When he was just starting (and had practically no money) he always bought lunch or dinner because “everyone remembers the guy who pays”. To save money he would organize dinner at a Mexican restaurant, order a bunch of food and beer and then pick up the check.

That’s how you build your influence. Here is how you trade it away:

Sign up for a founder’s free trial, use the product and then cancel just before getting charged. Then ask her out for coffee a week later – for advice and help on your startup idea.

Will she meet you for coffee? Have a pleasant conversation? Sure. But what you really need is support, warm introductions to potential investors, customers, and employees. And you just traded that goodwill away for the cost of 2 Pumpkin Spiced Lattes.

Yep, true story.

People are not trying to take advantage of founders

They just have a false impress of founders’ success.

Your friend who just raised a round of funding? He probably is making less than you.

The team that got accepted into Y-combinator? They will probably spend years working on a project that will fail – and they know it.

Your friend with employees, paying customers, a slick looking web site, and an interview in the NY Times … might be worried about paying rent in 2 months.

So how did I respond to the person who asked for free accounts?

I tried to explain how I felt – and then offered to pay for them myself, on my own credit card. So far no reply.

I’m still not sure if I did the right thing. Perhaps a few years from now I will.

Photo credit: Handup or Helpout


  1. Sunil December 5, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    I think what you did is absolutely fair. In a related case, I have heard instances of CEOs paying full retail price for their own B2C products, when they buy / consume for their personal purposes. While some can argue that it eventually goes back to him and stakeholders, its still a mark of true leadership in my opinion.

  2. Amanda March 12, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    I am so glad that you posted this, thanks for sharing 🙂 Lately I’ve been working in customer service (I’m actually in marketing, but the two blend on my current client’s project and I don’t mind talking to customers). Except in my client’s particular business, everyone expects at least one freebie (if not freebies-forever-for-no-reason). I just might try your method of offering to pay on my credit card the next time one gets snippy or insulting!

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