Why You Should Definitely Work For Free (and when you shouldn’t)

There’s a lot of info online that will tell you that you should definitely never work for free.My business wouldn’t be where it is today had we not created opportunities by working for free, especially when we first started. Even if there’s no money on offer there are many opportunities that can really help your career, you just have to learn how to find the value and harness it.

Here are the four most important assets you can gain;


  1. Exposure!


Many creatives on a regular basis hear; “We can’t pay you but it’ll be great exposure!” and I know that a lot of you reply with “Sorry, my landlord doesn’t accept ‘exposure’…” I get it, but if you’re an artist, writer, musician or any sort of creative then you *do* still need exposure. It is a valuable currency; it may not pay your rent today, but it could help you pay it tomorrow. This inverted pyramid is how I look at marketing as a creative;

At the top, the big chunk is the number of people that are aware of you or your business, the middle portion is the people that are fans of you; they follow you socially and engage with your brand and at the tip is the sale; the clients that use your services. The more exposure you have, the more people will enter the top of your pyramid and start to filter down. In order for someone to buy from you they must know about you first (duh!)

Working for free in return for exposure can absolutely work in your favour, just be smart. Make a clear agreement with the other party as to what you’ll get from the partnership. Is it a blog post, 3 posts on Instagram and a mention on their story, a tweet or an introduction to a potential new client? Be specific.

Creatives are understandably wary because, most of the time, the promise of ‘great exposure’ falls flat; most clients offering it can’t actually deliver. Some will make claims just to get your work; others do mean well but have an overblown sense of their own follower’s loyalty. If they actually are able to offer you a tonne of exposure, is it the right kind? Not all audiences are created equal. If you’re a yoga teacher then a post on the page of, say; a car influencer, even if they have a million followers, is not particularly useful to you. An engaged audience of 100 is of far more value than an audience of 10,000 people who have nothing to do with your niche.


  1. Social Proof


Social proof is incredible. It’s why we buy the clothing brands that celebs wear, it’s why we read Amazon reviews and it’s why comedy shows use a ‘laugh track’. In real life, humans copy what other humans do and look to the group to make ‘safe’ decisions. When we first started Graffiti Life we had no clients and therefore no social proof. As soon as we had managed to talk our first big name client (Adidas) into taking a chance on us, we suddenly had a little bit of social proof and by displaying their logo on our website it showed potential clients that we were legit and could be trusted. After working for a few more big names we started finding pitching in meetings was easier and we were getting more email enquiries. We started going round collecting logos for our website like Pokémon trainers searching for gym badges. How do you think we managed to get some of the most high profile brands in the world on our client list? Yup; free work.

There’s a reason why people say they are ‘building a business’, every project you do is laying foundations. Use the free gigs to showcase your work and to show that you’re in demand in the circles you want to move in. Offer your services for free to the clients you want, use that social proof to appeal to more. No one needs to know that you’re working for free!


  1. Network and Portfolio


Enjoy the fact that you have all the power when you offer your services for free, you should demand as much creative freedom as you can. Use this opportunity to build your portfolio or to tick something you’ve wanted to do for a long time off of your list. If a client has a vision or a demand for how the work should be; that ain’t free. Free work = your vision.

Looking busy on social is good for business; if regular work slows down and you have nothing to upload then a free project can help your momentum and you’re gaining experience. In my opinion, it’s better than being quiet and posting nothing. Remember that social media isn’t just a place to show free content; it can also be a sales tool. Set a goal of one sale per month that has come directly from each platform that you use. Leverage a free project to do this and directly try to create at least one paid job from each free one. Focus on your own social channels in your free time, write a blog post or two, create as much of your own content as possible.


When you offer your services for free, do your best to over-deliver. Going above and beyond would seem counter-intuitive when they’re not even paying you but it’s important to remember that you’re doing this for you. If you’re going to get the most out of the project then do your best work and build your portfolio. Wow the client by being amazing and there’s a good chance they’ll be back and at this stage they’ll have to pay (and many will be happy to). Stay in touch after the project to check in with them, remind them how awesome you are. Maybe they have some new (paid) work for you or they can refer you to someone that they know. Don’t be afraid to ask.


  1. Money


Yep, you heard correctly… Some free projects that you work on will actually end up being paid for! ‘We don’t have any budget’ is a common statement, rarely is it true. I have worked for free on a number of occasions, I’ve donated my time but I will never accept a project that will cost me money. Ask for your travel, materials, food or any other expenses to be covered, they almost always will be. If the project changes, for example, speaking engagements are booked for the day and they are moved to the evening or you’re asked to make a painting that’s 2m x 2m and the size changes to 4m x 4m; ask for financial compensation. Additionally, you can offer a basic package for free but any ‘add-ons’ are to be paid for, get in the door with the offer of free and then ‘upsell’ 😉

Every now and then we convert a ‘no budget’ opportunity into paid work. I once got a sales call at our studio, trying to sell us a stand at an exhibition. I explained that we did often appear at exhibitions but that we were normally paid to be there. After a quick convo I was given an organiser’s contact details and we ended up being booked and paid to appear at the event!

Barter. Does the organisation that wants to work with you have anything of value that they could exchange? Trade work to learn new skills. Maybe you’re a graphic designer and a friend asks you to illustrate her website for free in exchange for helping you set-up your e-store. Adam and I took on a speaking engagement at Apple a few weeks ago. They didn’t pay us, but they did give us each an Ipad pro and Apple pencil, worth over £2000 in total. David Choe painted Facebook’s offices in 2005, instead of paying him they gave him stock in the company; now worth $200 million.

A friend of mine is a musician. His band’s most financially successful release happened this year when he tried something different; a ‘pay what you like’ download of their new album. Download numbers were vastly higher that prior releases. A lot of people have downloaded the music for free, yes, but those that have paid have given more than double and sometimes triple, what my friend would normally charge for an album. The sales of those paying, more than makes up for those who stole itdownloaded it for free!


If you don’t think you can gain exposure, social proof, portfolio or money then;


  • Don’t agree to anything if the value exchange doesn’t feel fair.
  • Don’t do free work on the promise of paid work in the future.
  • Don’t do free work for competitions, it’s exploitative to expect thousands of artists to create for a brief that only one will be paid for.




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