The 'Tom Sawyer' Strategy: How to Get Free Labor

Last Updated Jun 7, 2011 12:29 PM EDT

In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain described how Tom got his friends to do his work--in this case, painting a fence--for free. Tom was onto something; getting talented people to contribute to your organization's output for nothing is a profitable business strategy that numerous organizations employ. And if you understand the social psychological principles they use, you can become Tom Sawyer-like, too.

Many commercial organizations decrease their costs by getting labor-and in a few cases, material-for nothing. One noteworthy example is the Huffington Post, a company recently acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars that paid most of its content contributors nothing. The Advisory Board Company and the Corporate Executive Board are both publicly traded companies that sell benchmarking and other reports to their corporate clients. Both companies' share prices have increased more than 30% (compared to less than 18% for the S & P) over the past year. This is unsurprising, as both organizations follow the same business model: they interview professors and other experts to gather information and analytical insight for their reports-and they don't pay for the information.

Management consulting firms like these invariably charge their clients for consulting time and the information they provide, even as such firms use their (paid) staff to gather insight and information from the (unpaid) time of the executives and scholars they interview. No wonder that margins in many information-providing businesses are so high and consulting and report writing can be such lucrative professions-much of the "cost of goods" is zero.

The trick is to understand how these companies get people to "donate" their time for nothing. I personally know many who have semi-involuntarily provided their labor, and have done so myself. The underlying principles for getting something for nothing are both simple and effective:

  • Just ask. As research by social psychologists Frank Flynn and Vanessa Lake shows, people will often accede to requests both because people are socialized to be helpful and because the cost of saying "no" frequently seems higher than the cost of compliance. Plus, as any good salesperson will tell you, the worst that can happen from asking is that you get rejected and the best is that you will get someone to provide you help for nothing. Even if the other person says no, you are no worse off than had you not asked in the first place.
  • Drop some names. Most requests begin by telling you all the other (often high status) people who are contributing to the project, the website, and so forth. This gambit engages the powerful influence principle of social proof-we figure out what to do in part by observing what others are doing. If everyone else is providing expert help for nothing, then that must be the norm. Moreover, we are known by the company we keep-status is, to some extent, contagious. If we are listed in a report that lists many famous, high-status experts, that will reflect well on us and we will presumably get some benefit from our being part of the elite group.
  • Claim budget constraints. As social psychologist Robert Cialdini noted, the word "because" appears to provide a rationale for behavior. Once people have received any sort of explanation, it is as if their intellects stop functioning (one of my favorites is the airlines' excuse that "our plane is late because the incoming equipment arrived late," which naturally does not explain why that occurred). The fact that someone working for a financially successful organization seeking to profit from your labor doesn't have a budget to pay you never stuck me as being a reason for you to make that organization even more successful by donating your presumably valuable time. But the success of many such organizations in using precisely this strategy suggests that I am untypical in my thinking.
  • Flatter the target. Not everyone gets asked to donate their expertise, so make the request seem like an honor, as in "of all the possible experts we could query, we chose you because of your incredible expertise." Flattery is another potent influence tactic. While people are feeling good from being the subject of attention, they may fail to think about the cost of being seduced.
Twain's story of fence painting illustrated not just profound insight into human behavior but also a potent strategy for increasing profitability. See if you can get these principles to work for, rather than against, you.


  • Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. Pfeffer has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, and evidence-based management. He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human-capital software companies, as well as other public and nonprofit boards.