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This has happened to almost every freelancer: a client reaches out to you and wants to work with you. You’re excited about the chance to work with this clients, and you let them know that you’re available. Then when it comes to discussing payment, the potential client tells you that there’s no budget for your work and you’ll be getting paid in exposure.

If you’re a small business or a freelancer, you’re responsible for generating your own paycheck. Working for exposure can kill your profit margins. Do it too often, and it can kill your business.

Some people will tell you that it’s never worth it to work for exposure alone. One person working for free drags down the value across the market. It creates the idea that unless you’re a huge brand, your work doesn’t really matter. This is bad for you as an individual and your industry as a whole.

Whether you’re an illustrator or a plumber, you want people to value your work and skills. Working for free works against that ideal.

Others will tell you that with the right client, exposure can be a game changer for your career. Here’s how to determine if getting paid in exposure is worth it for your career.

Here’s how to determine if getting paid in exposure is worth it for your career.

It’s a Dream Client

If your dream client walks up and knocks on your door, you might consider working for free. A dream client will be fun to work with, give you a great project to create, and provide a high level of exposure that advances your career.

Say you’re a graphic designer and Coke asks you to design an image for their latest novelty can. You might want to take the exposure. You’ll have an international brand under your belt, and your work will be seen by billions of people. It could open doors to other clients that will pay you.

It’s A One Time Thing Only

A client may ask for a one-time arrangement where you work for exposure, to be followed by paying work. If a client promises that you will be paid after the first project is over, don’t simply take them at their word. You need to get that agreement in writing. An email agreement doesn’t count- write up a contract and ask them to sign it.

The exposure from the free work will beef up your portfolio, and with a written contract any other work will be paid. Be clear and upfront about your expectations about both sides of this arrangement. You’ll want to have all the details ironed out before you agree to create work for free.

The Exposure Level is Irreplaceable 

Shakira is one of the most successful music artists in the world. She’s got a rabid international fan base, and her albums routinely go platinum. If someone with the reach of Shakira wants to wear your t-shirt at the Grammy’s and asks that you send her one for free, you should send her one.

That type of exposure is irreplaceable. You couldn’t buy that. People in countries from the US to Australia to Chile will see your work. Plus, associating with someone like Shakira will bring other clients on that level to you. It can open doors that would otherwise remain permanently closed to you and help you level up your business.

Working with a superstar also means you can charge other superstars accordingly. With just one powerhouse client, you can create more demand, which can change your whole business model.

When It’s Not Worth It

There’s a sassy response some freelancers use when asked to work for exposure only: “People die of exposure.” It’s true- the drain on your business and creative juices can definitely be a net negative.

Getting paid in exposure is not worth it if:

  • It creates more stress for you
  • It’s work that doesn’t move you forward
  • You don’t absolutely love the client
  • You can make money on the same project elsewhere
  • It doesn’t align with your company values

Ultimately, getting paid in exposure should only be something you do if it clearly leads to paying work, or amplifies your career in a way that nothing else will. For any other projects, working for exposure instead of actual pay is not worth it.

It’s a fine line to walk. Have you ever worked for free? How do you determine if getting paid in exposure is worth it?

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Kara Perez is the founder of Bravely, a company that connects women and money. She freelances in the areas of personal finance and travel, and she eats peanut butter straight out of the jar.

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