Speaking of unretirement, starchitect Frank Gehry is 91 and continues his daily work – making cityscapes slightly weirder and more interesting. He’s currently overseeing 12 design projects worldwide.
Gehry may be global (I once waited in line for 3 hours to see his newly released Bilbao Guggenheim from the inside) but he won’t work just anywhere in the world.  He says:
“We’ve been asked to do stuff in Saudi Arabia. I went there a couple of times, and they tried to be nice, but it was somewhat insulting. They offered me lots of projects, and they said, “Pick a project, you design it, bring us the design, and if we like it, we’ll pay you.”
That’s not winning without pitching. Amazing that one of the most sought after creative professionals in the world is asked to pitch his work for free.
So it’ll keep happening to us, too, then, even if we build up a body of work as impressive as Frank Gehry’s.
What to do if you are selling complex products or services and asked to give free samples – design comps, product trials, code critiques, analyses of data, lengthy consultations, etc?
Change the conversation. One approach is what Jonathan Stark has articulated better than anyone as the “Why Conversation”. To avoid conflation with the Five Whys Conversation, and to be more precise and less me-focused, you could also think of it the “Why Us Conversation?”.
The conversation answers the question, “Why us: why are our two businesses a good fit for one another – or not a good fit?”
And it gets there through several why sub-questions.
- Why do anything at all?
- Why do that now?
- Why do you want me to help you do it?
The last one is tricky because the answer can be, “I’m not sure yet”. Which is why it comes last – it comes after you have had the chance to discuss the other why questions. Those consist of basic why questions like:
- Why not just do nothing at all? What would happen if you did nothing?
- Why not use an “off-the-shelf” software product to do this?
- Why do this now and not in a year?
And then slightly more advanced why questions, like:
- This project could be costly – why pursue it? Why not just cheap out on Fiverr?
- If this goes well, what will the result be in 2 years? 
The basic set of questions makes you explain the need to act; the advanced set speaks to the value of taking action.
If you can show that you understand the answers to these questions, then you can talk about the final “advanced why” question:
“Given what we’ve established so far, why do you want my business to help you do this?”
If both sides take the time to work through these answers, a fair fee based on value can be reached without one side having to give something away for free.
What if that doesn’t work?
It may there are too many unknowns to answer the question, “Why us”, especially on the customized services side.
That you can’t say for certain whether there is a good fit. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a good fit, it just means you don’t know whether there is, what it is, and you can’t price it. But you suspect there could be.
If you suspect there’s a good fit, other options can be presented – a productized service or a self-service product. With these options, you are basically saying, “Here’s something that solves most (not all) problems for most people like you.” And it does so at a fixed price that is probably going to be lower than custom services or implementations of software products that are based on a close fit.
For both sides, a productized service represents less risk and less value. It’s also a longer-term way to determine whether a deeper and custom engagement makes sense.
Meanwhile, follow Frank Gehry’s lead and don’t give it away for free. (Yet give away as much helpful, non-customized knowledge as you can).
Footnotes & Errata
- http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/frank-gehry-in-conversation.html ↩
- Protip: this is related to, if not equivalent to, what Blair Enns calls the value conversation https://2bobs.com/podcast/mastering-the-value-conversation. It takes intangibles though – lots of practice, confidence, and (in my opinion) examples of prior work you’ve done that closely resemble that profitable 2-year result. ↩