Photo: Look!, YFS Magazine, Adobe Stock

Time Is Money – Are You Too Generous With It?

Julie Bee, a business owner burnout strategist, reveals how to set boundaries that protect your valuable time without alienating potential clients.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve probably done your share of unpaid work: helping a family member or friend, or volunteering to do some work for your child’s school or a favorite charity. You’re happy to help. After all, these projects crop up only occasionally and don’t take up large swathes of time.

Photo: Julie Bee, founder of TJB Media and BeeSmart Social Media | Courtesy
Photo: Julie Bee, founder of TJB Media and BeeSmart Social Media | Courtesy

But what about the pro bono work you do on a regular—even daily—basis? Many entrepreneurs spend countless hours doing work with no reward, says small business fixer Julie Bee. The culprit? Unpaid consulting.

“In order to secure new business, entrepreneurs have to do a lot of up-front thinking, strategizing, and advising,” says Bee, author of Burned: How Business Owners Can Overcome Burnout and Fuel Success. “While you do need to show potential clients that your business can deliver a quality product or service, it’s easy to let this stage drag on way too long—to your own detriment.”

During the initial call or meeting with a prospective client, you go all out to demonstrate your value. In a week or two, you schedule a follow-up…then another, and another. You continue to share advice, strategies, and ideas in hopes that you’ll close the business—and maybe even get a bigger commitment because of your hard work. But instead, it becomes an endless loop of calls where the prospect picks your brain, and you get nothing in return.

“Too often, you’re ghosted or told that the prospect decided to go with another option,” says Bee. “You’re left feeling resentful, tired, and broke. Even when the client does sign a contract, it’s frustrating to look back on all the non-billable hours you’ve spent to get this far.”

Worse, when unpaid work becomes habitual, it can lead to burnout. Constantly exerting effort but getting nowhere can make you feel demoralized and “stuck” with no end in sight.

In her book, Bee acknowledges that situations like this happen to all business owners. Burned provides tactical advice on how to make space for dealing with periodic stress, struggle, and even burnout while running a company and leveraging the lessons you’ve learned.


How to set boundaries and protect your valuable time

So, how do you stop giving away so much of your time and expertise—both on the front end and throughout the project? Bee has a few suggestions:


First, practice your new mantra: “My time is valuable.”

Before you set boundaries with clients, you must change your own mindset. It’s easy to assume that if a conversation isn’t costing you materials or product, it’s not a huge deal.

“Not so,” says Bee. “How much could you have charged a paying client for that hour? How much closer could you have gotten to finishing a project or implementing a new idea? For that matter, could the prospective client take what you’ve shared with them and leverage it to make more money on their own? Never forget that your time is an asset.”

Photo: Look!, YFS Magazine, Adobe Stock
Photo: Look!, YFS Magazine


Set a time limit on unpaid work or initial consulting.

“I know a business owner who has a one-hour initial call with prospective clients,” shares Bee. “If they want to continue the conversation after that first hour, the clients have to purchase a package of this entrepreneur’s time, which she sells in five-hour increments.”

If you want to follow this business owner’s example, set expectations up front and be consistent with every prospective client. Explain that you want them to get a taste of your work and acknowledge that an initial conversation is necessary to determine if your business is a good fit. Then let the prospect know how much you’ll charge for your consulting time going forward.


Get your post-consultation budget out front.

When you share your consultation fees, it’s also a good idea to give prospective clients an idea of how much the actual project is likely to cost. Being up front about the expected budget will help you weed out “tire-kickers” who may not be serious or who just don’t have the funds.

Bee suggests, “Say something like, ‘We normally work on a six-month retainer. Our range is $X to $Y, with the average contract being $Z. Is that within your budget?’”


Don’t assume that the budget has dried up mid-project.

Sometimes entrepreneurs end up doing unpaid work because they think a client doesn’t have the budget to cover everything. This often happens mid-project when you’re already locked into a contract. You believe that the consequences of not doing the work would be worse than spending some nonbillable hours. Maybe it’s true that the client’s dollars just aren’t there, but always ask and verify.

“If you believe budget will be an issue, you can ask the client, ‘What is your budget at this point?’ or say, ‘This is what I usually charge for a project like this,’” shares Bee. “Then see where the conversation takes you. Perhaps the money is available after all. If not, maybe the client’s expectations can be modified.

“One more option,” she adds. “If there isn’t enough money to cover you, see if you can negotiate another form of payment. Maybe the client can help you out with admission to an industry conference, give you access to attendee lists, trade one of their own services, etc.”


If you do it for free, do it without expectations.

Maybe you’ve decided that charging for your time after an initial consultation isn’t right for your business, or you believe you’re justified in making an exception. (Or perhaps you’re doing an actual premeditated pro bono project!) Whatever the circumstances, do this unpaid work without any if/then expectations.

“In other words, don’t justify the work by saying, ‘If I do ABC, then the client will respond by doing XYZ,’” explains Bee. “This type of thinking is what fuels seemingly infinite consulting cycles. You’re working toward a hoped-for outcome that the client has not agreed to (and may never agree to). Either be okay with not being compensated or put a payment plan in place.”


Proceed on a case-by-case basis.

Some prospective clients need more time than others to commit. Maybe they are cautious by nature or constrained by a tight budget. Perhaps the desired project is particularly complicated and legitimately needs multiple conversations to talk through.

“You don’t always have to shut people down if they don’t immediately commit, but you do need to recognize when discussions are likely to drag on so you can shorten the cycle,” says Bee. “Also, in my experience, clients who require a lot of your time and energy on the front end will continue to do so throughout the project. This isn’t necessarily a reason to end the relationship—but it is helpful to be aware of as you plan your workflow.”


Become your best advocate

Remember that you’re your best advocate. If you find yourself feeling resentful about the unpaid consulting you’ve already given to a prospective client and have another meeting coming up with them, you can still advocate for yourself.

“Send an email to the prospective client as far in advance of the scheduled meeting as possible to let them know you’ll need to charge for the upcoming, and any future, consulting sessions,” recommends Bee. “But also give them an out to cancel the meeting with no hard feelings.”

If you feel like you owe the prospect one more meeting, that’s also okay. Just make sure that budget and billing for future consulting sessions and strategic research is at the top of the agenda for that final freebie.


Do your best work, no matter what.

“Free” does not equal “lower quality.” Always give 100 percent, whether you’re being paid or not. If you cut corners or deliver a half-baked pro bono service, it can hurt—or even ruin—your brand.

“Dissatisfied prospects can do plenty of damage to your business with a few keystrokes,” says Bee. “On the other hand, folks who are impressed by your work can be some of your best ambassadors—even if they don’t sign a contract! For instance, ‘It turned out that I needed some services Julie’s company didn’t offer, but I was so impressed by her ideas and communication. You should give her a call!’”


Watch out for “brain-pickers” in social settings.

When you’re in a social setting where people know what you do for a living, it’s inevitable that some of them will want to “pick your brain” or “get your professional opinion.” Bolder individuals might even ask you for “a quick favor.”

“If you genuinely don’t mind sharing your expertise at a family cookout or on the sidelines of your nephew’s soccer game, go for it!” encourages Bee. “But if you’d rather not spend your off-hours talking shop (or giving away free advice), have a few responses prepared. For instance, ‘It’s been a long week, and my brain is fried! Let’s circle back,’ or, ‘Let’s talk about this during the workday, when you’ll get my full attention. I’ll send you my calendar link to set up a time.’ Then move the conversation on to a different topic.”


Walk away if you need to.

Not all business is good business. When you’re in the unpaid consulting stage, use your instincts. Ask yourself, Is this relationship one I really want to be in? Is this person impossible to satisfy? Are they legit but slower to move…or are they consciously trying to take advantage?

“Eventually the takers, timewasters, and chronic complainers will wear on you and drain your time, energy, and mental health,” says Bee. “Scout them out early and don’t be afraid to ‘pass’ on their business if you believe it will take up too much of your professional or personal bandwidth.”

“For most entrepreneurs, a judicious amount of unpaid consulting is one of the best ways to build your brand and attract new business,” concludes Bee. “But too much of a good thing can leave you frustrated, struggling to make ends meet, or even burned out. Most clients don’t abuse the system intentionally, but if you want to end the unpaid consulting cycle, it’s up to you to set the boundaries. Very few people are going to say no to a continued stream of free ideas!”


Julie Bee is the author of Burned: How Business Owners Can Overcome Burnout and Fuel Success. A business owner burnout strategist, Bee has been dubbed the “small business fixer” by her clients and peers. With over 15 years in the entrepreneurial field, she has solidified her reputation as a dynamic consultant, a riveting speaker, and a leader who sheds light on the darker side of business ownership. Having been celebrated by Fast Company and Forbes, her insights are in high demand across the industry. For more information, please visit thejuliebee.com.


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