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Giving Things Away for Free Has Helped Me Build a Six-Figure Business

Sharing your knowledge for free can be scary as a service provider, but this founder has found it builds her business while supporting a more equitable world.

Jun 5, 2023 6 min readFlow
Photo of Adebukola Ajao
Adebukola Ajao

Founder of BDY Consult

When I started my digital marketing company, BDY Consult, seven years ago, I kept running into a problem that’s all too common for mission-driven founders. The customers who I most wanted to serve—small business owners and solopreneurs, particularly in historically underserved communities—could rarely afford my services.

I’d hop on a free consultation call with prospect after prospect who was so excited about how I could help them grow—but when it came to talking about cost, they’d admit they were operating on incredibly tight budgets. These businesses just didn’t have the capital to hire marketing companies like mine, but not having an effective marketing strategy was one of the biggest hurdles to their success.

Coming from a scholarly background in political science and Africana studies, I understood that the root of much socioeconomic inequality is people not having access to the information they need. I wanted to be the one to help fill that gap, and it felt like there was no sense in gatekeeping information from business owners who couldn’t afford to hire me anyway. But I also didn’t want to lower my prices and undervalue my time and expertise.

So, I decided to launch a free content platform, For All Things Digital. For the past four years, my team of six and I have collectively spent about 20 to 25 hours a week creating and curating free resources for small business owners that we share on our social channels, email newsletter, and blog.

Clearly this takes time, but by doing free work at scale instead of lowering our agency prices, we’re able to maximize the impact of that time. And, while it didn’t start as a marketing scheme, these free resources have ultimately created a funnel that drives new paying customers our way. We have over 7,000 followers across our social channels, and about 5,000 subscribers to our newsletter. I’d estimate that about 40 percent of our agency customers start by engaging with our free resources, contributing to a stable, six-figure business—and allowing me to do work that’s truly meaningful to me.

Here’s why this approach has worked for us, and how our team is able to funnel so many followers of our free work into paying customers.

We’re not afraid of sharing the “what” because people will still need us for the “how”

Too many knowledge-based small business owners are afraid that, by giving away too many of their secrets in free content, prospective clients will never hire them.

A conversation I had with branding expert Ronne Brown really flipped that narrative for me. As she put it, when it comes to marketing advice, the what to do is free. Even if you’re not putting your knowledge out there, someone else is, and anyone can do a quick search and find the guidance they’re looking for. The how to do it is not free. Just because business owners have the information on what marketing tactics will help them succeed, doesn’t mean they want to put in the labor to actually implement them. Once they understand the work that needs to be done, they’re more likely to see the value in outsourcing it.

So, every weekday, we post at least ten Stories full of resources, from trending marketing tips to grant opportunities. We regularly include a call to action to sign up for our weekly newsletter to nurture followers deeper into our community, offering access to even more exclusive funding opportunities or event invites. Instead of having to go to multiple sources for information, we’ve created a central resource hub, and followers gain so much from our platform that they better understand the value we can provide and want to engage with us further.

In that way, succeeding is more about the implied result of building a relationship with our followers and making the connections that will help their companies succeed. That might not lead to a sale today, but that interaction will stick with them.

We streamline content creation by tapping into our networks and oversharing information

Where do we find all this content to share? A lot of it comes tapping into the rooms my team and I are fortunate enough to be in that our followers may not have access to.

For instance, if we get invited to an exclusive conference, we’ll share the notes and insights on what we learned with our audience. I’m also a part-time professor at Northeastern University, so I learn about all the cool entrepreneurial opportunities they offer, like pitch competitions. I can share those with my audience, giving them access to opportunities they may not otherwise be privy to. Being a part of networking communities like Dreamers & Doers helps me learn about a lot of resources for entrepreneurs, and I can pass relevant ones onto my followers.

Thanks to relationships my team and I have developed over the years, we now get a pretty steady stream of opportunities sent our way from collaborators we trust, like Hello Alice, Small Business Digital Alliance, and Norby. Since my team always vets opportunities to make sure they’re legit and our followers aren’t going to get scammed, working with folks we already know and trust significantly cuts down on the workload.

It still takes significant effort to curate and create all this content, so we look for ways to get the most out of it. We’re very big on recycling content. I always try to remind myself that, just because we posted something once, doesn't mean everyone saw it. Reposting ensures more of our audience accesses the information while ultimately making our jobs easier. We also started cross-posting our newsletter as a LinkedIn newsletter late last year, which has been incredible for getting us in front of people outside of our network—we already have about 1,000 subscribers there.

We help people find the funding to hire us

You might be asking: If these small businesses can’t afford our services in the first place, how does this whole strategy help? Don’t we continue to run into the same budget problem after we’ve invested months into nurturing these customers?

There are three ways this plays out in our favor. Sometimes, once they see the value we provide, they’re able to reallocate budgets to hire us.

Other times, it’s a matter of nurturing the relationship until they do have funds down the line. But, here’s the real kicker: As part of the free resources I provide, I’m also helping founders find the funds that they can then use to hire me. For instance, I collaborated with the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation to share their Empower Digital Grant program, which offers funds for small businesses to invest in services to improve their digital marketing. Because I promoted this grant to my followers and helped them through the application process, when one of them won the grant, I essentially won the grant, too—they were typically thrilled to be able to use the money to turn around and hire me. I’ve had the same thing happen when subscribers won pitch competitions they learned about through my newsletter.

Outside of that, if someone comes to us wanting to work together but without the funds to do so, my team tries to help them find resources to bridge the gap. We’ll send them to organizations I partner with, like Small Business Strong, the Center for Women Enterprise, the Black Economic Council, and SCORE mentors. These all offer programs that cover some of the cost of our services to give our target audience more affordable access without requiring that we lower our rates.

All of this comes down to goodwill, which I feel like isn’t discussed enough in business. As service providers who love people and supporting important missions, why do we feel the need to be cutthroat, instead of trying to find ways to help others succeed?

As one of my clients who’s a nonprofit leader always reminds me, you can do good and make money at the same time. I recognize that the way we’ve chosen to do good is not an easy approach, and don’t think it’s the right path for everyone. In fact, we’ve recently decided to start charging for some of our content through a subscription model, but will keep some freely available.

But, no matter what, I think every company can find a way to be generous with their time or resources. It could be publishing one article a month sharing your insights. It could be giving away one free consultation by application each year. Or it could be on a case-by-case basis, like offering a certain number of lower-rate consulting sessions for lower-income clients. At the end of the day, it’s all marketing—and it’ll make your work that much more meaningful, too.

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