Free MakerPro stuff: What's the real cost?

January 13, 2017

Perhaps I should start this article off by talking about my "free" dog, Evie. My wife and I adopted her at no cost when she was few weeks old, and she...

Perhaps I should start this article off by talking about my “free” dog, Evie. My wife and I adopted her at no cost when she was few weeks old, and she’s provided an enormous amount of love and enjoyment. On the other hand, she has cost us thousands of dollars in food, veterinarian fees, a ruined pair of glasses, and many other things damaged or ruined.

In other words, getting Evie was one of the best things we’ve ever done, but there was certainly a cost to it.

I’ve found this to be analogous to getting free stuff in the MakerPro world. If part of or all of your business is showing off what you made to the world, as you gain some semblance of influence, companies may offer you free items to use in videos or to otherwise promote. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes, even though it’s a good product, you probably would have been better off just buying it rather than figuring out how to get it for free.

Your time is valuable

The most obvious cost to something like this is your time. Using round (and not necessarily representative of my income or anyone else’s) numbers, let’s say you can make $100 per hour producing videos, writing, or developing new products. You’d like to have a certain widget that costs $10, so you spend time researching the companies’ press department, send off a few emails or tweets, and wait for them to respond. They say yes, which you think is great. Then, after having spent an hour of your time in total, and delaying whatever you were trying to do slightly, you get the product.

So you spend $100 of your time to get a product that would have cost you $10. Plus, you now feel obligated to use the item in your endeavor, whether it’s good or not. You also should also probably disclose your relationship with them so everything is on the up-and-up. That is a pretty high price to save $10.

Of course, if you’re talking about something that costs $1000, the math becomes different. The value of your time, however, is something to consider before you start worrying about saving a few dollars.

The potential benefit

[An early picture of my ZTW router in the process of being set up.]

Like a free dog, though it might not make immediate financial sense, sometimes a free product can lead to a very valuable relationship that’s beneficial for everyone. From my experience, as I was just starting to get into making stuff and blogging about it, a company called Zen Toolworks (ZTW) gave me a very significant discount to start using their ZTW CNC router and blog about it. This computerized tool allowed me to make all kinds of interesting things, but what benefited both of us was that as I set this router up, I wrote many articles about the product – in fact, my blog’s CNC archive is mostly about this router, currently starting at page 31, with 92 entries. This gave me a ton of content for my site, and lots of MakerPro writing experience. ZTW got the benefit of having their product featured many times, hopefully helping business along the way. It was a win-win scenario.

On the other hand, there have been times where I’ve regretted taking a free or discounted product, either because it didn’t perform as I would have liked, or it just wasn’t worth the effort to do what I’d promised in exchange (usually a video or review).

When evaluating which “freebies” you should take, really consider the cost beyond just dollars. Will it help you build valuable relationships? Is it a product you want to use and can honestly recommend? Will it restrict or expand how you can pursue future projects? It’s a lot to think about. Just make sure that what you get out of a free product, however you personally measure it, is worth it for you.

Jeremy S. Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can see some of his exploits on the Jeremy Cook’s Projects YouTube Channel

Jeremy Cook, Engineering Consultant