The “Free” Dilemma – Bits vs Atoms

The “Free” Dilemma – Bits vs Atoms

By Rajesh Setty on Tue 12 Jan 2010, 12:10 AM – 15 Comments

Photo Courtesy: Julia Manzerova on Flickr

I have written about the power of “free” multiple times before. Here are are a few links:

1. The Business Case for Giving Away Your Best Work for Free

2. The Case for “Free” (Again!)

Every time I write about free, I get a few emails about the topic. Every email is different but at the heart of every email are a few things:

1. I like free. I believe in it. How will I make money if I give something for free?

2. I don’t have enough time to give things for free.

A blog post can’t do justice to properly respond to the “free” dilemma. However, if “free” is something that you want to experiment with ( I strongly advise you do ) then you should understand the one of the differences between atoms and bits.

  1. Atoms don’t scale. Bits do.
  2. Incremental cost of work by atoms won’t decrease with more work. Incremental cost of work by bits is almost zero.
  3. Atoms take up a lot of resources to work. Bits don’t.

Your “free” strategy should be mostly based on bits (of course, you require atoms to create those bits) if it has to scale. This means you have to create content that spreads without your ongoing effort to provide the fuel for the idea to spread.

  • Providing 1-1 free consulting is atom-based. Creating a free report on the top ten mistakes to avoid is bit-based.
  • Doing a free security audit is atom-based. Providing a free tool to a self-service audit is bit based.
  • Creating “office hours” is atom-based. Conducting a webinar and providing replays of the webinar is a hybrid model (first part is atom-based and subsequent replays are bit-based)

Use the atom-power to create remarkable bit-based free stuff that spreads :)


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15 Comments so far, Add Yours

Brad Gosse  on January 12th, 2010

“Atoms don’t scale. Bits do.”

Absolutely brilliant. I love the idea of putting your best foot forward digitally and letting them hire you organically.

How would you class sending out physical copies of your product for review? Atom or bit ;) ?

SallyBeam | Self Help Friend  on January 12th, 2010

Thanks for highlight the difference..Atom vs Bit

Rajesh Setty  on January 12th, 2010

Thank you Brad.

Physical copies of the product for review is a hybrid model although I can say that it’s 90% bits and 10% atoms.

It can’t scale as fast as an eBook but it’s almost there :)



Tim Bursch  on January 12th, 2010


This is so helpful. I can see how this could leverage my time and ability to earn more.



Srinivas N Jay  on January 12th, 2010

Hi Rajesh,

Could you please tell me, what do you mean by

“Incremental cost of work by atoms won’t decrease with more work. Incremental cost of work by bits is almost zero”

Thanks a lot.

Steven Diamond  on January 12th, 2010

wow… i never thought about it from this perspective before. However, my accountant has accused me many times of giving away too much for free. If someone truly needs my product and they can not afford it and the case is compelling, I have been known to often just give it to them for free. To date, I have never had a situation where I regretted this action.

Rajesh Setty  on January 12th, 2010

Thank you Tim, Srinivas and Steven:

Srinivas, on your question – here is a quick explanation.

Think of a simple work by Atoms – giving a speech. If you want to give another speech it takes additional effort – time, energy and money.

Think of a simple work by Bits – a recording of a speech. Once recorded and uploaded to YouTube, to be viewed by another person, it costs almost nothing.

Hope this helps.



Srinivas N Jay  on January 12th, 2010

Hi Rajesh,

Wonderful thought, thanks a lot for explaining.


Rajesh Setty  on January 12th, 2010


You are very welcome.

Have a great morning there.



Tom Asacker  on January 21st, 2010

Great post Raj!

I have now added you to my very small list of Masters of Metaphor!

Stay passionate!

Rajesh Setty  on January 21st, 2010

Tom, thanks for stopping by and for the super kind words here.

At some point in time, I would love to see the list of names on the “Masters of Metaphor” :)

Thanks a ton.



Just thirty minutes… | Life Beyond Code  on March 10th, 2010

[…] Free Dilemma: Bits vs Atoms […]

Shree  on March 19th, 2010


This is very insightful.

I was not such a regular reader of your posts!

Now I have decided to become one!



Rajesh Setty  on March 19th, 2010

Super kind of you Shree. I put my heart and soul into this so your comment means a lot to me.

Have a great weekend.



Why some smart people don’t help other people? | Life Beyond Code  on March 25th, 2010

[…] Bits scale. Atoms don’t. Smart people are also human beings. On the same day two social media stars Chris Brogan (Redrawing) and Jason Falls (Some social media housekeeping around the Explorer) opened their heart and shared why it is difficult to continue to engage the way they were engaging. […]

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