10 thoughts on working for free in exchange for “exposure.”

A multi-billion dollar company wants my friend to do free work for them in exchange for exposure.

The company makes billions of dollars a year and wants to pay him zero dollars for the honor of working with them. This kind of thing often drives me crazy.

A lot of companies are doing that these days. “We won’t pay you for your designs, writing, photos, code, INSERT SKILL HERE, but it will be great exposure for you.”

The challenge is that sometimes it makes sense to do some free work. It’s not a black and white issue, there’s a whole lot of gray.

Here are 10 things you need to keep in mind.

1. If someone asks you to work for free because it will be great exposure, ask them to specify what that means. If they can’t, don’t.

2. Exposure that can’t be detailed or explained is fake exposure. Here’s the difference: Real exposure = “We have a mailing list of 100,000 people and will send an email to everyone on March 9th with links to your site or social platforms.” Fake exposure = “Our people will love your work and will definitely check you out.” Get specific or don’t expect anything valuable.

3. It’s on you to make sure they deliver on the exposure. Don’t wait for the company to send out the email or post about your work. Do your best to be persistent without pestering.

4. Exposure comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. In addition to a new audience finding out about you, working with the right clients can legitimize you. If you need to build up your resume, the ability to say, “I worked with Apple” has real value.

5. If you’re going to be shy about using the street cred that exposure gives you, don’t bother doing the work for free. Exposure you don’t cash in on is useless.

6. Dear companies who take advantage of the free model, I just came up with a new idea. Here it is, “You get what you pay for.” When you demand someone work for free, don’t be surprised if the work isn’t amazing. If you wouldn’t work for free, why do you expect other people to?

7. Play the system. In some industries, to get your foot in the door you have to work a free internship. If that’s the case and you want the job bad enough, play the system. I would have loved to be paid for every speaking gig I did when I was starting out, but guess what? I wasn’t good enough to get paid. I had to earn that. That wasn’t failure, that’s how that process works.

8. Beware the free client. The most difficult and demanding clients I have ever worked with are the ones who wanted me to work for free or at a grossly reduced rate. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but I promise it’s true.

9. Volunteer for free when you want to. That’s ultimately what I dislike about this whole game, it removes your ability to be generous. Donate your time. Give your skills and talents to causes you’re passionate about. But don’t let someone force you to.

10. Joy is pretty amazing form of currency too. I still do some free work just because it’s fun. In the grind to build a business, don’t forget to smile.

Should you work for free? No. But also yes.

Do you deserve to be paid more for what you do?

Maybe, if you’re great at what you do.

To get great, read my New York Times Bestselling, worth $1,000 but on sale for only $15 book, Do Over.

Considering it took me 18 years of employment to write, that’s practically free.

But maybe I needed the exposure.

About Author

Jon Acuff
Jon Acuff


  1. Thank you for this article, it really hits home for me. I have discussed this topic many times with the College Fishing anglers I am mentoring at UGA. One of my favorite stories is telling one of my long time fishing sponsors that I was moving on & I could not work for them any longer. The person I reported to could not understand why I would not work for free product. My final explainanation worked the best, “What will happen if you go down to the bank and pay your mortgage with a hand full of fish hooks instead of cash money?” His response, ” Oh, Oh I understand now!”

    Thanks Jon… Keep chasing that dream!

    Your friend, Tom, Jr.

  2. This is fantastic – Thank you, Jon. Number 8 does make sense because the perceived value changes when someone isn’t paying. I was a server in college and I could always spot the secret shopper, getting a free meal, because most of them were jerks. I love the last two, Give because you want to and because it’s fun.

  3. Carol

    This is very helpful. I believe it will strike a chord with your audience, many of whom are presentedwith these “offers.”

  4. Good post Jon!

    It is a fine line. Sometimes the ROI of everything you do isn’t crystal clear when you start. One thing to think about is the phase of business you are in when you do free work in exchange for exposure.

    Phase 1: Just starting out –

    At this phase realize that every is incredibly fragile. The slightest bit of encouragement, the smallest mention on a blog, the tiniest of retweets can mean the difference between you quitting and persevering for another 6 months.

    For these people I’d say – DO ALL THE FREE WORK YOU CAN. Just get out there and hustle. Figure it out as you go. When you feel taken advantage of, don’t do that again

    Phase 2: Once you have some traction –

    At this phase realize that focus is INCREDIBLY important. However, usually at this stage people tend to look at relationships as more of a commodity and transactional. They can be both of those things, but those relationships are really important.

    Don’t be taken advantage of.

    But if you’re gut tells you doing some work for free will build a long term relationship, do it.

    As always, if you feel taken advantage of, run the other way.

    Phase 3 – Building your empire –

    At this stage you have significant traction, a pet tiger and an entourage.

    Do whatever you want.

    Pro Tip: DO free work for people below you at this stage. You’ll blow peoples minds with your generosity and create raving fans.



    One more tip: Volunteering to do free work for peoples whose vision you believe in is one of the fastest ways to grow your business. I did this with Jon in December of 2013 and it changes my life.

    Be generous. Just don’t be a pawn.

  5. Thanks so much for writing this! As a designer, maker and handmade business owner, I have found that the requests for free items in exchange for exposure are endless. I have learned (the hard way) that getting specific details about the “exposure” is the the only way to determine if an “opportunity” is worth it. In my experience, bloggers and companies who can offer the most exposure because they have large followings, usually aren’t the ones who ask for free items; they usually purchase items from my shop and post about it on their own. I think that If people genuinely love your product, they are willing to pay for it and share it because they love the work you do. Thanks again for your perspective on this.

  6. KC

    Loved this: “Do you deserve to be paid more for what you do? Maybe, if you’re great at what you do.”

    Too often we seem stuck in a hyperbolic struggle with the competing forces of imposter syndrome and entitlement. The fear of being found out a fraud swing us one way while demanding attention (or compensation) we don’t deserve swings us the other way.

  7. Marie-anne

    The most awkward is when you are in a car of in-law family and you so far quite like this one relative, and she talks about how she needs a new (and a good quality creative cover, in fact, she wants 5 of them) for this educational material she’s making in her actual profession where she gets to do what she loves (teaching kids to play instruments), the intent of the material is good and about things like teaching kids to learn music…..and than…it comes: she was asking me to do it for free. She said, it would give me exposure.

    If this was for a charity project you know, fine… for kids in poverty or something.

    At first I figure “well maybe….”
    But than she says she sells these books, they aren’t free, and she isn’t a non-profit.
    I’m thinking to myself “Wait, what?! you are making MONEY off this stuff already and you want ME to help sell byusing my work on it for FREE?”

    Apparently she is using a Google image right now as cover, that alone is enough of a problem since I’m sure she had no permission.

    and I told her I’d have to be paid than but obviously hesitantly, especially in front of the others, as maybe they think I’m spoiled or unwilling to help others (there are elders in the car, and they basically own everybody, what they say goes…imagine what they think of me now! oh, spoiled selfish “millennial”).

    She said I should be doing free stuff to get my self out there. I agreed to doing free things for non-profits (hint hint lady, non-profit means you don’t make money off my work for your own wallet, big difference),

    But after that, the conversation or the air feels a little awkward. She doesn’t realize it’s not a wise idea to ask family to do things for free when they aren’t well off enough to not actually ‘need’ that extra income, let alone ask of it and to make money off of it.

    Now I feel like our relationship is sort of….you know. There feels like there is a bit more of a wall now, though I am not sure how tall or thick it is.

    She was 1 0f 2 relatives in my married side I felt I could actually connect with really over anything(especially art, most of them are anti-arts), but she kind of hurt this chance.

    Lesson here for all: do NOT sabotage your close or family relationships to get a cheaper deal in your business, you WILL hurt people, directly or indirectly. Even if you don’t care anymore once you make someone mad, your kids will certainly care if they liked seeing that uncle or auntie and the stop showing up! especially if their uncle’s son was their primary playmate…don’t do it. Seriously. I was one of those kids who missed their relatives over our parent’s disputes in family business.

    I’d say if you need exposure with free work, at last, stay away from family’s own projects. If anything is go wrong, you cannot just simply walk away and never hear about it again, it can come back to haunt you through rumors and other things families do.