When (If Ever) Should Creative Entrepreneurs Work for Free?

Have you ever been asked to work for free in your creative business?

Maybe you’re a talented graphic designer who’s just been approached by a potential client. They love your work and have an “amazing opportunity” for you. 

The catch? 

They want you to design their entire website for free. In return, they promise to share your work with their massive network, potentially leading to paid gigs down the line.

Or maybe you’re a freelance writer who’s been asked to contribute an article to a well-known publication. It’s a chance to get your name out there and build your portfolio, but they’re not offering any compensation.

Sound familiar?

As a creative entrepreneur, you’ve likely been faced with the age-old question: should I work for free? It’s a dilemma that plagues many in the creative industry, and the answer is not always straightforward.

In this blog post, we’ll explore when (if ever) it makes sense for creative entrepreneurs to work for free. I’ll share the 4 most common types of unpaid work, the 8 factors you need to consider before taking any unpaid gig, and real-life examples to help you make informed decisions for your business.

The Great Debate

The debate around working for free as a creative entrepreneur is a heated one, with some adamantly believing that you should never, under any circumstances, work for free, while others argue that there can be instances where it’s beneficial. 

The truth is, as with most things in your creative business, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I know it’s not the easy, cut-and-dry answer you may have been hoping for, but it’s the truth!

The right choice WILL always depend on your unique goals, circumstances, and desires, and working for free (or not!) is no exception.

When in Doubt, Don’t Work for Free

That said, when in doubt, DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. I highly encourage you to avoid lowballing yourself or offering discounts you don’t want to (or can’t afford to) give. 

Don’t agree to work for free due to a lack of confidence, feeling pressured, or being swayed by shiny promises that seem too good to be true (spoiler alert: they usually are).

Your Creative Work Has Value

Your work has value. Your creativity has value. It’s always baffled me why some people think they can undervalue creatives and their work. 

It could be because we do work we love, and so our level of talent, passion, and sheer effort can be misconstrued as something we’d do for fun, even if we weren’t getting paid. Or maybe it’s because, as creatives, it can feel icky to assign a price to our work or to “sell” ourselves. 

After all, we’re generally not given the support and training we need to navigate the business side of things. (Trust me, I’m trying to help change that!)

Common Advice

You’ll come across a lot of advice from business gurus and industry experts who vehemently argue that you should NEVER, EVER work for free. 

They’ll say things like, “Don’t do spec work, don’t work for trade, don’t work for exposure.” And honestly, I generally agree with this sentiment. In fact, even I just urged you not to work for free whenever possible.

Why is this such common advice?

Well, more often than not, offers to work for free are made as a way to avoid paying you what your work is truly worth. These “opportunities” can be tempting, especially when you’re just starting out or trying to build your portfolio, but they rarely pay off in the long run.

However, while I believe this is solid advice in most cases, it’s not a hard and fast rule that applies to every situation. No matter how definitively some experts may present this advice, there are some nuances and exceptions to consider.

The Struggle Is Real

When it comes to taking on unpaid work or pricing your offers, it’s not a simple equation – there are a ton of factors at play. And the thing is, even as you gain more experience, it doesn’t necessarily get any easier to figure out the right approach.

I’ll be totally transparent here. 

Even after more than a decade in the creative industry, sometimes I still find myself grappling with pricing my work, whether it’s for a one-off project, a contract, royalties, or an advance. 

And I’m not alone!

Just the other day, I spoke with a client who’s been in the game for 13+ years and has major brand deals under her belt. Despite her experience and success, she still felt unsure about the counteroffer she wanted to make for her next project with a long-time partner

Shameless plug: this is where working with a business coach comes in – I help my clients decide how to price their offers based on their current and ever-changing circumstances.

The Truth

What I want you to know is this: there is NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. The right choice for YOU depends on a whole bunch of different things, and we’re going to unpack those next.

The Four Main Types of “Free” Work

Before we dive into the factors to consider when deciding whether to work for free, let’s first define the four main types of “free” work:

#1 Work for Exposure 

This is when a client promises to “make you famous” or get your work in front of others, essentially not paying you because they say others will pay you for additional work down the line after seeing your work here.

Example: A popular Instagram influencer asks you to create a custom piece of artwork for their feed, promising to tag you and share your work with their 100,000 followers.

#2 Build Your Portfolio or Resume

This is when you take on unpaid work to gain experience or showcase your skills and capabilities, with the goal of attracting future paid opportunities or strengthening your professional profile.

Example: A recent graduate agrees to design a website for a small business at no cost to add a tangible project to their portfolio and demonstrate their web design abilities to potential employers.

#3 Spec Work 

Spec work is work that you are asked to do for free to prove you can do the work in order to be hired for a job or project.

Example: A potential client asks you to design a logo for their business as part of the “application process,” with no guarantee of payment or future work.

#4 Pro-bono Work 

This is work that you are not compensated for but do in support of a cause or organization you believe in.

Example: A local non-profit organization reaches out to you to create a series of social media graphics for their upcoming fundraising campaign, aligning with your passion for their cause.

Alright, so now that you’ve got a handle on the four main types of “free” work that might come your way, it’s important to remember that not all opportunities are created equal. 

Some might be totally worth your time and energy, while others might just be a total waste. The key is to take a good, hard look at each opportunity and figure out if it aligns with your personal goals and professional values at this moment in time.

Circumstances can (and will) change. Three months from now, you might find yourself in a completely different situation. You may need the money you could have earned in the time it takes to complete an unpaid project, or the exposure and audience you’d reach may no longer align with your goals.

There are so many factors that can shift over time.

So, really, truly, only you can decide what’s right for you right now. Trust your gut, do your research, and don’t be afraid to say no if something doesn’t feel right. 

Remember, what might have been a great opportunity in the past might not be the best fit for you in the present or future.

COO Tip: While some people may try to exploit your creative talents, other opportunities can be extremely valuable and mutually beneficial. The key is to approach partnerships strategically and protect yourself from getting burned. If you’re interested in learning more about how to build successful creative partnerships, check out this blog post that dives deeper into the topic.

8 Factors to Consider When Deciding to Work for Free

Now that we’ve covered the four main types of “free” work, you might be wondering how to decide whether an unpaid opportunity is right for you. 

The truth is, not everyone can take the same chances. The same exact opportunity may be right for some, and not for others, even in the same line of work and at the same stage in their career.

To help you navigate this decision-making process, let’s explore eight key factors to consider when deciding whether to work for free:

  1. Motive. Are they trying to take advantage of you, or are they genuinely proposing a win-win opportunity where you both benefit or cause an impact you believe in (in the case of pro-bono work)?

  2. Capacity. Can you take on this work at this time? How much capacity will it take up? How will it affect your ability to take on paying work?

  3. Short-term Impact. What are the short-term impacts, financially, mentally, emotionally, and physically? Do you need the money now for the time, effort, and skill you put in?

  4. Long-term Impact. How long is the proposed ROI going to take to kick in? Can you responsibly weather that?

  5. Realistic ROI. What realistically is the benefit you can receive from doing this work for free? Is it exposure to an aligned audience who are likely to purchase your offers? Will it open doors for your next big project?

  6. Rights & Protections. Do you maintain the IP (intellectual property) and copyright for the work you do for free, or is it still considered a “Work for Hire” even though you are giving it away?

  7. Beliefs.  If it’s pro-bono work, does it align with your values and beliefs?

  8. Resentment.  Will you feel resentful doing this work for the compensation (or lack thereof) proposed? If so, don’t do it.

By carefully considering each of these factors, you’ll be better equipped to make a decision that aligns with your unique circumstances, goals, and values.

Real-Life Examples

To drive these points home, let’s look at two real-life examples from my college days at RISD

I had two friends, one from a wealthy family and another from modest means. In the studio, our circumstances didn’t matter all that much. We were all in the same classes, doing the same projects, and on track to graduate the same year with similar GPAs.

Upon graduation, both were offered prestigious internships (unfortunately the sacrifice for prestige was lower pay)

The one who could afford it took a low-paid internship (my memory is fuzzy but it may have even been 100% unpaid) in Silicon Valley, while the other couldn’t swing it and instead took a solid, much-better-paying internship closer to home. It was a good internship but nowhere near as exclusive.

The friend who took the Silicon Valley internship went on to work two highly sought-after jobs for less than minimum wage before offering to work for free at a famous firm to gain experience and get her foot in the door. She eventually started getting paid appropriately, then made partner at the prestigious firm, and eventually used that as a launching pad to open her own successful studio. 

The other friend worked her way up at a boutique agency, became partner, and eventually opened her own successful business as well.

I’m sharing this story to illustrate that both of my friends took different paths based on their unique circumstances. 

The first friend did a significant amount of work for free or below market value because she had the financial means to take those risks. She was absolutely certain that these opportunities were worth it for her long-term goals. When I spoke with her about these choices, she expressed no resentment; instead, she celebrated them as the key to her success.

On the other hand, my other friend didn’t have the same financial cushion. She supported herself through college and beyond, which meant she needed to earn money from her work from the very beginning to cover essential expenses like rent and food. Despite the different approach, she also achieved her goals and reached her desired destination. It did take her a few more years compared to our friend who worked for free, but she got there nonetheless. Looking back, she recognizes that her path was the right one for her situation.

Both friends took different paths based on their circumstances and goals, and both achieved success in their own way and time.

Is Working For Free Right For You?

In the end, the decision to work for free as a creative entrepreneur is a personal one that depends on your unique circumstances, goals, and values. 

By considering the factors outlined in this post – motive, capacity, short-term and long-term impact, realistic ROI, rights and protections, beliefs, and potential for resentment – you can make an informed decision that aligns with your definition of success.

Remember, your work and creativity have value. Don’t let anyone undervalue your talents. If you do decide to work for free, make sure it’s a strategic decision that benefits you in the long run.

Build Pricing Confidence

If you’re considering working for free, you’re likely grappling with some of the mindset challenges that come with owning the value of your creative work. Let’s be real, confidence doesn’t just happen overnight. It comes from education, seeing what’s possible from other creatives, and putting it into practice. 

This is where my pricing blogs can swoop in to fill the gaps that art school likely didn’t teach you about the business side of your creative work.

Ready to kick your pricing fears to the curb and start charging your true value?

I’ve got your back. Check out my collection of free blog posts that’ll help you confidently price your creative work, whether you’re a fresh-faced newbie or a seasoned pro, no matter if you’re slinging services or peddling products.

Erin Cantwell Co. Pricing Blog Collection

  1. Navigating The Evolution of Your Pricing with Confidence
  2. Unlock The Psychology of Pricing
  3. Harnessing Customer Feedback For Strategic Pricing
  4. Beyond Pricing: Building a Sustainable Business Model

Erin Cantwell Co. Pricing Resources + Tools

If you want more, I’ve created paid tools that can help guide you every step of the way as you price your products or services as a creative business owner.


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