An Essay on Service | Why I Often Opt to Work for Free

A Shimenawa binds two sacred rocks together in Japan

“I just don’t get it. Why would you be willing to make us a marketing plan but not want to charge anything? What’s actually in it for you?” Sighing, I tried to remember whether it was the third or fourth time that he had uttered some permutation of this line since arriving the day before. I mean, this wasn’t exactly the first flabbergasted consultee that I offered to help pro bono. In fact, similar reactions were starting to get all mixed up in my head. Despite this not being my debut at the proverbial rodeo, I admittedly still cannot formulate a satisfactory response to this common query. There’s just no way that all the people I help for free would be able to understand that I’m actually the one getting the better end of the deal in these arrangements.

Confused already? I guess I really should first begin by providing you with some context so that we’re all on the same page. OG followers will likely know this but for all you new readers, understand that I support myself and fund my travels by working full time at an agency. As I detailed in a rather controversial article titled Rejecting my Ikigai, writing has never been my main shtick and instead I’ve opted to make my money via other means. The rationale behind this seemingly strange decision essentially boils down to not wanting to create an actual business. While I am confident enough that I’d somehow make things work as an entrepreneur, I’d much prefer to just earn a salary via a low stress job that enables me to travel ad libitum.

The distinct separation between my financials and my writing puts me in a unique position amongst my peers. When visiting a destination, the last thing on my mind is determining whether or not it will be monetarily ROI positive. Because of this, I need not concern myself with worries such as how much the local government will compensate for sponsored posts. In turn, this gives me tremendous leeway when deciding which places I will cover. If I was trying to make a buck out of every article, I’d never get around to visiting cool locations like Tokyo’s old school neighborhood of Shibamata. These places simply don’t have budgets for influencer marketing and consequently will only ever be a minor add-on to a bigger itinerary.

In addition to not needing to fret about how lucrative a paid partnership is, having a synergistic but entirely separate gig is also liberating in multiple ways. For example, I am able to offer free consulting services to any of the local areas that seek out my assistance. Since I am not beholden to securing funds, I can offer honest marketing advice to those who will actually listen to what I have to say. At the same time though, I need not lose any sleep over headache inducing matters such as red tape, incompetence, or regional infighting. Were I actually trying to turn a profit, I imagine that I would need to completely overhaul my approach to convert and retain clients.

Seeing from Both Sides

An influencer in Shibuya takes a selfie at the famous Scrable Crossing

In addition to the aforementioned flexibility, one other advantage of having agency experience is that I intimately understand both sides of the influencer marketing equation. You see, most other content creators only comprehend logistics from their perspective. At the same time, many decision makers within the tourism industry operate with a limited grasp on social media. This narrowed outlook results in rather strange press tour itineraries that are not conducive to creating content that will actually budge the needle (e.g., there’s not enough time for the influencers to get all the shots they need). More than once, I’ve had to intervene during the early stages and attempt to explain the potential shortcomings of a given program.

This all said, I have yet to address why the hell I am motivated to give free assistance to those who need it. Here, I honestly don’t have a good answer for you other than to say that pro bono work provides me with varied opportunities in which to make a difference. For reasons that escape me, I’m altogether infatuated with the challenge of putting more of Japan’s hidden gems on the radars of foreign tourists. It’s the mission that the universe given unto me and the pursuit of this charge brings untold meaning and purpose to my life. What’s more, whenever I am not aggressively pursuing this problem, I end up spiraling headfirst into a depressive rut.

In addition to having another chance at bat, I also get to set the expectations and limits of the interaction. Since I don’t ask for any monetary compensation, I can walk away at will without getting bogged down in the tedious monotony of the day-to-day implementation. At the same time though, I am still deriving a deep sense of fulfillment from being of service. Frankly, this freedom to remain detached is worth far more than what any local government could reasonably ever offer to pay. Indeed, generating an impact on inbound tourism is like oxygen to me. Is it any surprise that I often feel like I’m the one who gets the better end of the deal when it comes to assisting local areas?

When Worlds Collide

Donny Kimball’s influencer world and marketing worlds collide

Despite my predilection towards working for free when I can, my identity as an agency man and my identity as a travel writer have become irrevocably intertwined. Honestly, these days, it’s hard to tell what’s what. As many domestic companies aspire for a slice of the inbound tourism pie, I’m now inundated with opportunities to apply connections I’ve made with fellow Japan-based influencers. Additionally, many of the skills and tactics that I’ve developed through producing my own content have in turn, informed my job. For example, I am frequently distilling what I have learned along the way in regards to digital marketing into educational materials for staff training.

Until recently, I have been primarily using my nights and weekends to handle all of the content sourcing and voluntary consulting I have been doing with local areas. As my social media following continues to broaden, I find myself running short on time trying to keep up with the numerous press tour offers. As one viable solution, I am running a number of my paid influencer gigs through the agency. Nevertheless, this strategy has resulted in a rather odd situation where I am now essentially an in-house freelancer. Honestly though, the position is the best of both worlds; I have none of the inherent risks of actually being a solopreneur.

Alas, conducting travel projects as an influencer on company time unfortunately means I am now required to bill for those hours. After all, it’s not entirely my time to give away and I need to somehow justify the salary I collect. Regardless, I still try to provide free consultations whenever possible, many sponsored press tours often end up falling smack dab in the middle of the workweek. Unfortunately, when these situations present, my current work obligations necessitate that I either pass entirely or quote my going rate (hint: invite me on the weekends and I’ll probably come for free if it’s on brand).

After just going on a bit of a tirade about how I like to work scot-free, I realize that my current dilemma can seem somewhat hypocritical. Regrettably, it’s the only way that I can take on additional work volume while still paying out of pocket for the remainder of my travels. Given many of the locations I introduce have no marketing budget for overseas promotion, I’m of the mind that it’s in the spirit of the greater good. Hopefully you can follow the logic here and agree that it’s better that somelike like myself accept these opportunities rather than a clueless #OOTD fashionista.

From Here on Out

The former post town of Magome in Gifu Prefecture

Before wrapping things up on this article, allow me to end by reaffirming my commitment to keeping my content free for all to enjoy. This blog, and my social media channels, have never been about building an audience to later sell to. In fact, when I started producing content about Japan’s hidden gems several years ago, I knew immediately that my online persona would never be an endeavor that I’d seek to make my job. My writing has, and always will be, about sharing my incessant love for Japan’s many hidden wonders. While I may participate in the occasional press tour as an influencer, I do so only to offset the massive amount of capital that I’d invest in going there on my own.

In closing, though I know that many of you vehemently disagree with my choice to separate my income from my passion yet this odd set up just works for me. From time to time, I have certainly entertained ideas of striking it out on my own; however, doing so would demand a more business-minded approach in regards to my content. When considering the foreseeable future, I remain committed to being able to feature the off the beaten path locations I champion on this blog.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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