I tend to push a product’s free tier pretty hard.

I’ve been using the same free Dropbox account for 11 years (originally 2 GB, but permanently upgraded to 22 GB through various referrals and promotions long ago). I have several free Zoho email accounts grandfathered into supporting custom domains, SMTP, and email forwarding (they still offer a free tier with custom domain support, but without those latter features). I use free Inoreader while compensating for its restrictions by layering on free equivalent RSS services like Kill the Newsletter!, siftrss, Grepfeed, and Pocket.

As a college student, this was easy to justify—I didn’t have much money to throw at, say, online appointment scheduling software. Now, I’ve got a job and can afford to pay $8/mo for something that I use regularly; I’ve lately1 found myself wondering if I should just start defaulting to paying something for the products I use2, rather than riding out the free tier as long as possible.

There are probably many ways of answering the question, “Should I begin voluntarily paying for something that I could get for free?” Here are a few angles I think about most often that are in support of maxing out the free tier.

Constraints breed creativity

It’s just good, ol’-fashioned fun to see how far you can push a free feature. I admittedly get a bit obsessive and fixated on just trying to get it to work without advancing to the paid version—not unlike the way I feel while security testing.

By trying to maximize the functionality available to me in the free tier, I get deeply familiar with a product’s limits and edge cases; compare alternative products that offer different functionality that may narrowly meet my needs better; and occasionally come up with an out-of-the-box solution that’s not offered by any existing product.

Getting down in the details of the free version may bring you to more deeply appreciate the difficulty of whatever problem the product solves, and therefore appreciate the value of the paid thing. You might instead discover that the problem that the product supposedly “solves” really isn’t that hard at all, and that the paid version isn’t worth the money. It’s harder to recognize that upfront without getting hands-on trying to solve the problem, and a free tier offers a way to jump into a partial solution as a means of understanding the problem space better.

Calendly is a great example of this. The existence of the solution (online appointment scheduler) helps you become more aware of a problem you have—namely, that haggling appointment scheduling over email is as horrible in 2022 as it was in 2002. Their free tier helps you quickly appreciate the value of the product, and trying to navigate around its restrictions helps one understand how hard it is to wrangle disjointed calendar services.

Free on purpose

A business won’t3 offer a free tier of a product at a total loss. Some combination of strategy and conviction4 moves them to open the door to let you in for free, and for an important reason: it gets you in the door and one step closer to the paid product. Or alternatively, gets you freely using the product as an individual so you’ll consider paying5 for it down the road for your enterprise-level use case.

It’s also possible that continued—and especially grandfathered—usage of free tier is simply a privilege afforded to early adopters.

Libre as in beer

If any of this seems obvious, remember that I’m primarily writing this to address my own acute crisis of consumer identity, and every bit of justification here helps me convince remind myself that I’m not just a freeloader6 for continuing to use a free version of a product that continues to meet my needs. Reading that last sentence, my wife said, “What? Do you really feel this way?” I suppose this might be some misplaced sense of duty on my part—conflating the idea of “good citizen” with “good consumer.” My general underlying concern is that an irresponsibly offered and overly used free tier might cause a company to go out of business; I’d suddenly lose access to the thing I was enjoying for free, and it might have been prevented if I were willing to pay a few bucks earlier on. I realize that this burden is outside the scope of my responsibility but I do feel the need to vocalize it—perhaps in order to dispel it.

It’s also worth noting that as I age and gradually take on more responsibilities, I’m less able to trade time (experimenting with free tier) and more willing to trade money (paying at the get-go) for a product that’s valuable to me. As any vendor of calendar software will tell you: time is a precious commodity.

  1. After spending several nights in a row hacking together a combination of Koalendar, Zapier, and Google Calendar to approximate a free version of something that I’d have to pay Calendly for. ↩︎

  2. Yes, yes—“if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” ↩︎

  3. Maybe I should say shouldn’t instead of won’t. Or rather, that perhaps sometimes a loss is acceptable at an early growth stage where it’s more important to gain attention than profit. ↩︎

  4. Zoho recently expressed their intent to maintain a free plan, while noting that “almost all competition out there is moving away from free models.” ↩︎

  5. I haven’t used Dropbox at a company before, but I assume it may be a good example of this. ↩︎

  6. I did recently start paying $1.67/mo for Google One after using free Gmail and Google Drive for 15 years, so I’m clearly making progress. ↩︎