Of all the subjects I’ve talked about over the years, the one that’s been subject to the most discussion and misinterpretation is Pay-what-it’s-worth, or PWIW. I’ve been doing an ongoing experiment involving alternative value models, using them as a starting point to move beyond the paradigm of Exchanging Time for Money.

Where it Started

At its core, PWIW is very simple: The dominant system of remuneration in our Western society is exchanging time for money–after all, a salary is nothing more than a number of hours multiplied by a certain rate. In my opinion, that dates back to piecework. In other words, it’s based on the idea of manual labor.
Even though millions of people are working in the knowledge industry these days – in other words, using their brains – our system of remuneration is still based on ‘using your hands’.
That makes ‘exchanging time for money’ the default.
For the past several years, I’ve let the people I’ve helped in some way determine for themselves what they think that help was worth; after the fact, of course. After all, it still baffles me that people seem to know in advance what one of my presentations is worth. I never know in advance what value I’ll add, because there is no audience interaction at that point. That way, I can quickly use my distinguishing capacities to fully focus on the question at hand. It also tells me whether I am where I’m supposed to be. Besides, if you pay me what you think I’m worth, my value becomes much clearer once I’m up on that stage.

Conference Industry

I regularly speak at conferences, and all too often, speakers are something of an afterthought. Curious, really. Organizers spend tons of money on flyers and other promotional materials. Sessions take place at expensive conference locations, the catering is top-notch, and the conference MC is usually a celebrity of some sort. And then there’s the matter of paying the speakers. That’s usually where the budget runs out…
Over the past year, I’ve repeatedly come up against conference organizers who defend their low budget by saying how difficult it is to get enough attendees to sign up for their event. After all, PR is expensive, and it doesn’t leave much room in the budget for speaker’s fees.
I think they’re taking the wrong approach. When you focus on booking the right speakers, that will create a social media buzz all by itself. And when you aspire to feature only the finest speakers and the most compelling stories at your event, people will be lining up for their ticket with their proverbial sleeping bags in tow.
In my experience, a great conference is determined by its content; by speakers who bring enthusiasm and commitment to the table. Everything else is extra. In my case, I wait until after my presentation before asking whether the organization wants me to send an invoice–and, if so, for what amount. Sometimes, that amount will turn out much higher than I though it would be. Sometimes, I receive much less. Overall, I’m reasonably satisfied with the results.
Some people think that my idea of PWIW means that I don’t care what I’m paid for speaking at an event. Nothing is further from the truth! Time and time again, I’m curious to find out how the organizers think about remuneration and wonder what the result will be.
I take a macro perspective, looking at the big picture. At those things in our society I think ought to change. I want to move people. Inspire them. Innovate. Develop. But in the end, I’m only human, and I have a personal sense of what I’m worth. That’s the micro perspective side of things. Fortunately, most people deal with that just fine.


Recently, I was paid much less than the other conference speakers, while my performance received nothing but praise. That felt like an imbalance. As far as I’m concerned, if I add as much–or more–value as much as the best-paid speaker, I should be paid at least as much as them. To me, that would be only fair. Of course, that’s the inherent risk of the PWIW model. I’m still thinking of a way to circumvent that issue in a way that honors the concept.

How do I pick where to speak?

First of all, I take a look at my calendar: Where am I the day before the event? What about the day itself, and the day after? For example: it makes very little sense to travel from one end of the country to the other, three times a week. That’s one thing to consider. Another thing to consider is the organization. Who is behind the event? Where is it held, and how much time will I have? What subject do they want me to speak on? Who is the audience? What is their budget, and who are the other speakers and the conference MC? All of these things are important when choosing whether or not to accept an invitation to speak. Of course, it’s hardly ever an exact science.

What I’ve learned

Most organizations aren’t able to handle PWIW, and will secretly decide in advance what to pay me. I don’t mind, exactly, as long as they don’t tell me. That might seem inconsistent with what you just read, but I greatly value the sense of freedom that it involves. At its core, my decision to work with PWIW is not about maximizing my profits. It’s all about the freedom to act in the moment. About raising awareness: act first, assign value later.

Many people think PWIW equals not having to pay anything, and will try to book me for free. That’s why my agent has taken to asking about the available budget, should I turn out to have added great value to the event. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind not being paid to speak, as long as the organizers are upfront about it. That leaves me with the freedom to choose.