Getting to the Bottom of the Flap About Free and Your Small Business

Nine dollars and forty cents! This is an outrage! If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it!
—Groucho Marx as Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera, to his dinner date after sticking her with the check

Dear readers and friends, crowd around. Having you join our luncheon once again, leaves me foot loose and fancy free. Groucho Marx would have a keen interest in Chris Anderson’s new book, Free. He was such a notorious penny-pincher that Dorothy Parker’s friend George Kaufman couldn’t resist writing lines like this one into his parts. I have a keen interest in the book, too, so much that I ran out the minute my bookstore called me to pay, yes, pay, for the privilege of being one of the first to read the book. Then I waited and watched as the controversy began to swirl.

In case you’re wondering, you may hold a lovely hardcover copy of the book in your hand, or—you guessed it—you may read Free for free on the web. Because the book’s left me in quite a state I’m not going to provide you a link for either, but I know you’ll find the way that’s best for you. My two-sentence review: I love/hate the book and its premise, I found Chris Anderson occasionally rambling and obtuse, and I kept waiting for him to say something fresh instead of mashing up what I felt were ideas that have been around for a long time. You’ll do equal amounts of head-nodding, head-scratching, and yelling your head off.

It’s a sensitive word for bloggers, and for companies who are hoping to shift part of their business online: Free.

Free authorship, ironically, is not what I do for a living, though almost all of you might be forgiven for thinking it is. Don’t get me wrong, I love and adore this work, but if y’all wanted to pay me for my time, I reckon I’d have to start directly attributing at least one new client to this blog every day, for about six months.

Feel free to assist.   😉

The reality is that if you write a blog in support of your business it’s no different for you. We do this in support of our businesses—and if you’re a zealot like me, maybe you have a crazy need to spread the word about your field, too. We trade subscriber numbers and comment counts and PageRank Stumbles and Tweets and mentions from the big bloggers for dollars. Not exactly willingly, but hey, doesn’t information want to be free? So we give information away, demonstrating our expertise in snippets every week, banking on becoming thought-leaders—because until Chris Anderson wrote this book, you thought that was how you were finally gonna feed your family with all the work you do online.

I almost titled this The Doomsday Post. We see newspapers and magazines floundering. Free is kicking their butts, supposedly. Or maybe they aren’t what we want, and they’re as done as last year’s Crocs. We hear major advertisers say they can’t make a thin dime off the web, and little guys saying the ads they allow to ugly their sites are a step below worthless. We wonder how much business we’ll ever drive with the relentless promotion-monster that is a blog constantly demanding feedings. Talk about pain points!

And just when you thought the 50–75% failure rate of bricks-and-mortars was too frightening for you to start a business offline, most estimates indicate that a whopping 90% of online businesses fail.

9 in 10, people.

Even when you are giving so much away to entice your visitors to fall head over heels in need with you. If Free doesn’t make you a sensation, what’s left, you ask?

No wonder Free strikes fear in the hearts of everybody but Chris Anderson, who says Free can work for you, prob’ly, maybe, and Seth Godin, who says it is what it is.

So the time has come for MCE to share what some other folks are thinking about free, the price, Free, the book, and free, your friend and one of your biggest competitors.

I’ve invited new friends and old to share their fresh perspectives today. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know them—leave them a comment, and come on back to share your thoughts around the Maximum Customer Experience Round Table!

Malcolm Gladwell, who I think the world of, took Chris Anderson to task and we were off and running. His book review at The New Yorker, Priced to Sell, is a wonderfully well-reasoned indictment and a great place to start. Many of you, my well-travelled readers, may already have seen it. For me it doesn’t get to the heart of our small business worries, so off on some less-obvious tangents I go.

Tim Berry takes on that sticky problem of whether it’s free, or the changing times, or management stubbornness causing the newspapers to gasp for their last breaths in Who Should Decide What News Matters at Planning, Startups, Stories. Just re-title it “Who should decide whether your business matters” and I think you’ll see why I like this post. Last year’s Crocs, indeed.

Trusting relationships in business—can they save you? It depends. Charles Green reminds us that sometimes payments themselves can backfire, then goes on to a neat discussion of trust in Markets, Relationships, and Trust at Trust Matters. When it comes to trust, small business will always have an edge that pricing wars can’t erase.

This delightful post by Steve Sammartino at Start Up Blog captures many of my own thoughts about the book and the concept: Free Is Not a Business Model. Rather wish I’d read it before leaving a comment at The Ad Contrarian when Bob Hoffman wrote Not So “Free” After All, saying essentially the same thing: I could have just linked to Steve’s smart writing. Well, now I have.

Maybe the question is Free vs. Freely Distributed? Mark Cuban at blog maverick seems to think so, but it doesn’t work for me. The comments, however, are worth the price of the blog post.

How does Free resolve with studies like this one? 80% of Recession Shoppers Want Companies with a “Human Face” at This is in line with my own experience and it’s well worth remembering, dear readers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, that the closer we get to free, the fewer human faces we’ll see. So if it’s true we have an insatiable, irrational desire for free, we’re going to have to accept that we’ll be making some big sacrifices in the name of that desire.

My sentimental favorite this week is a post by Jonathan Fields, who writes so eloquently Why I Hope the Free Brigade Got It Wrong. In all that I’ve been absorbing, since I read this little book with the big buzz attached to it, this is the one that really digs in to how you and I are looking at it. Jonathan doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s got all the questions just right, and when Seth asks “who cares,” he answers that one perfectly: I care. Spoken like you’ve got skin in the game, Jonathan. Don’t we all.

By the way, if you want to read something fresh about free, almost two years on you still can’t do better than this by Dan Ariely and colleagues: Zero as a Special Price: The True Value of Free Products (pdf). And if all this talk of free has you jonesin’ to spend a little cash, I heartily recommend the recently revised Predictably Irrational, also by Dan Ariely. The book is all Wow from word one to the end. And yes, that’s an amazon affiliate link… click that link right back there to buy it and some day I might be able to grab a Lindt truffle with the change.    🙂

Thanks, as always, for the pleasure of your company and your commentary. Let’s do lunch again soon.

Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Learn something fantastic as you clicked around? Think I missed the best one of the week? Have your say in the comments—you know you want to!


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

If you’re going to write, don’t pretend to write down. It’s going to be the best you can do, and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you.
—Dorothy Parker


Last time, Mrs. Erickson and the Vision Circle (that’s you) entertained:

The Fundamental Things Apply…

Craving dessert? Click here to see all the posts in the Round Table series, along with other great recommended reading from MCE!