The Myth of Working For “Free”

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After years of paying to wear your favorite shoes, they’re now paying you to be seen in them.

After years of speaking for free and paying to travel, they’re now paying you to speak.

After years of ordering your favorite drink, they’re now paying you to drink it.

After years of buying your favorite jewels, they’re paying you to wear them.

After years of writing for free, they’re now paying you to contribute.

I’m fascinated by this transition…

I call it the “brand hand” moment.

It’s the point where the value of your brand and contribution becomes so self-evidenct or clearly expressed that it gives you enough power and leverage to start getting paid cold hard cash for the very thing you were paying cold hard cash to do the day before. I’ve often wondered what happens in that moment?

Sometimes, you can peg this shift to a specific happening. You write a book that becomes a massive bestseller. You win some kind of industry award or accolade that anoints your arrival into the land of Brand Hand. You give a talk or post a video that explodes online. You build a company, venture or event that defines a moment and becomes a phenomenon.

I call this “booming” your way into Brand Hand.

Sometimes, it’s that.

But other times, it’s a much slower, more grueling and gradual evolutionary process. Every day, you build a bit more social currency, value, brand equity. Over time, months or even years, your brand  evolves to a point where instead of paying to wear, consume or contribute, you’re now being paid to do the very same.

Truth told, this is the way it happens for most people. Going from paying to being paid is a blend of perceived value and demand.

Let’s take the world of speaking as an example.

You start out believing you have something to say. Truth is, you may or may not. And even if you do, it’ll take a lot of work to develop your message, voice, tone and presence to a level where you’re contributing serious value. How do you do that? You practice. You talk your way into any conference room, gathering or stage where people will have you. In the beginning, it’s not about money, it’s about not sucking. Because we all do in the beginning. We’re supposed to.

Your compensation at this point is data. It’s having someone else pay to create the forum for you to practice and hone your craft, message, presence and voice. There is value in that.

Along the way, you start to get better and people start to lean in a bit more when you talk. You learn to tell a better story, give information in just the right way, entertain and inspire. You learn how to engage emotions and modulate your spoken voice. You develop a point of view and language to share it that is uniquely yours. You cultivate a sense of physicality on stage that draws people in.

You start to move from being a newbie on a quest to learn to being an evolving brand. You get invited to share your brand-in-process with larger and larger rooms. But still, you’re speaking for free. Except that you’re not. You’re getting paid, you just haven’t crossed the “cash-threshold” yet.

Your compensation at this stage is the opportunity to leverage the resources of the organizer to bring together increasingly larger numbers of people who’ll be exposed to your work and start to build your community, your personal brand, your following and position of thought-leadership. Your compensation is the forum that, well-leveraged, gives you the opportunity to move closer and closer to that moment where you land brand hand.

Over time, the blend of your maturation of craft and skill and brand as a speaker leads to so many opportunities to speak that you can’t keep up the pace for “free,” which we know really isn’t free. So, you start to charge a small bit of money to speak at places where the size of the event or the alignment of the audience does not provide adequate “compensation” to build your brand. And, very likely, you continue to speak without cash changing hands for communities and groups you’re just drawn to serve, regardless of the economics or brand opportunity. Because that’s just what you do.

Then, it’s starts to happen. You’ve built a name, lots of people know you, you’ve got something powerful to say and the craft to say it in a way that makes people line up to hear it. You’ve built enough brand hand that you become what’s known as “a draw.” People will come to the event BECAUSE they know you’re speaking. They want to hear from you and, likely, meet you.

Still, this is entirely relative. You may now have enough brand hand to be a draw at smaller or more tightly-niched events, but not massive national ones. So, the organizers of the smaller ones proactively ask you to attend and pay you cash money to come. But the bigger ones still expect you to speak “for free.” Because, at that level, they’ve still got brand hand over you. Over time, if you keep working and growing and building, you end up the best at what you do, and you build brand hand on a national level. You become sought out by organizers of the largest events, offered plum keynote positions in the lineup and paid not just in brand-building opportunity, but in money. And you gain exposure to more high-level organizers and, if your business is built upon a broader basket of services or products, you gain access to potential clients.

A good friend of mine, a multi-time New York Times bestselling author who gets paid 5 figures for big keynotes, still does a handful of events every year for free. Why? Because, he’s not actually doing them for free. He’s well aware of the non-cash elements of compensation. So, he chooses those events very strategically. He looks for gathering that will either build his positioning as an industry expert, give him access to an audience of direct-match prospects for his consulting company or give him “green room” access to other speakers who are high-level decision-makers at potential client firms. Almost entirely on the back of this strategy he’s built an 8-figure consulting firm. The non-cash compensation he’s mined in these “free” opportunities has massively exceeded the value of the highest cash-based keynote fee he’s ever been paid.

This, by the way, has been my journey. I haven’t boomed my way into the bigs. It’s been an evolutionary process. I’ve spent a lot of years paying to go to conferences, then going for “free” in exchange for speaking while I built my brand and craft and then getting paid to speak at bigger and bigger gatherings. It’s taken years.

I now have a reasonable amount of brand hand, but still nowhere near the top circuit speakers who make their entire living doing it. Funny enough, while it’d be nice to get paid what they earn, I don’t aspire to ever be speaking at the level of frequency it takes to get there. I love being home, playing with my girls and making cool things. The speaking part is more about sharing what I’m discovering along the way to making stuff that matters.

And here’s the thing. Had I taken the stance in the early days that cash is the only form of compensation I’d accept every time I stepped in front of a room, I would’ve missed out on the immense “non-cash compensation” that was being offered. The ability to leverage someone else’s resources and efforts to assemble a group of people in a venue to serve as a forum for me to practice, get good, connect with future organizers and potential clients and build my brand. And, also serve. At every step along the way. I never would have grown or made it to the point where I have enough brand hand to speak on the next level, then the next and the next.

I hear a lot of people, especially early in their careers proclaiming they’ll never work for anyone for free. They’ve got value. I agree with this statement.

What I don’t agree with is the notion of cash as the only form of value or compensation. Money is not the only currency. Depending on where you are in your professional journey and brand development, it may well be the least valuable type of compensation you can receive.

When making a decision about whether to work for “free,” consider the full scope of potential benefit and the less “quantifiable,” yet often far more valuable forms of compensation that come bundled with the opportunity.

Consider things like brand association, reach and exposure, relationship-potential, exposure to potential clients, thought-leadership positioning, brand-building potential, associative positioning (“I was on stage with…”), the opportunity to hone your craft, voice, presence, introductions to the “right people,” a way to give or serve and the probability that each of those added elements are forms of very real compensation. Look at the potential that each will march you increasingly down that path to brand hand on a level that will both allow you make the shift from non-cash to cash compensation and potentially build something much bigger than that more immediate exchange of value.

Does that mean you should take every opportunity, whether cash is on the table or not? Of course not. I’m simply inviting you to look at the fuller opportunity and take a longer horizon. Look at what’s really being offered. Own where you are on the brand hand spectrum at this moment in time. If you’re not consistently being offered what you believe you’re worth, then either you’re not worth that yet (which is okay, we all start at the beginning) OR you haven’t done the work to clearly demonstrate your value. That’s not on the people who want what you have but won’t write a check, it’s on you. Create more value, or learn to tell your story better so that others understand what you have to offer.

If you’re at the beginning, that’s cool. Be there. Fully. Continue to look for those rare opportunities to “boom” your way down the spectrum. And, yes, look too at the risk, the ethics and likelihood of any and all promises being real or just smoke and mirrors. That all goes into it.

Then, make a decision not just on the money or lack thereof, but on the full basket of potential benefit being offered. Because that bigger scope of possibility is often a far more linear path to brand hand, which is also another word for freedom.

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19 responses

19 responses to “The Myth of Working For “Free””

  1. Fraser says:

    An awesome post Johnathan. Thank you.

    As I make my own way into the world of public speaking I could not have wished for a better perspective to adopt.

    Thanks again,


  2. Giovanna says:

    Great post… I often think about this things and you helped to throw light in the subject.

    Thank you so much, as usual!! 😉

  3. Jodi says:

    You never let me down when it comes to having great insights and a wonderful perspective on having a wholehearted career. And your words magically arrive in my inbox right when I need them.

  4. LaTanya says:

    I sincerely appreciate your perspective. It affirms what I am currently doing with just my 2nd invitation to speak on the horizon. May you continue to be richly blessed.

  5. David Moore says:

    Great article Jonathan! I think the same is true with people who on the surface appear to have achieved overnight success when in reality they’ve spent years perfecting their craft. Insightful stuff!

  6. Whitney says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom today! I am just starting in a career in nutrition (while completing my PhD), and right now, I enjoy speaking “for free” because I have the opportunity to share what I’m hoping to build. It’s not there, yet, and I’m not there, yet, but each engagement does allow me to pilot test what works, what needs improvement, and what potential clients really need to know. Also, from the perspective of an event organizer at a very small non-profit professional association, this post helps me feel a little better about not being able to compensate our speakers. I hope that they find non-monetary compensation in sharing their knowledge with our members (and I think they do!). Wonderful post, as always – thank you for sharing!

  7. Mike J says:

    Great topic – and I totally agree on your ideas of compensation and Brand Hand (and nicely written to boot – as usual!).

    I think that Brand Hand is everywhere, it’s in all areas where there is value in someone because of their knowledge, thinking, experience or even physical skills are deep and unique. It seems to usually take significant time, effort and investment to achieve that level, and others are attracted (and willing to pay) to “get” some of that because because they are not able or willing to spend the time or effort to reach that high level.

    I have a friend who likes to work on a certain brand of cars – and he did it for years on his own for the pleasure of it, then on friends cars for free just to learn and gain experience, but eventually (over 15 years) he became so experienced and expert at certain sorts of vehicles that people started to offer him compensation out of the blue. The demand grew from local people to now it happens across a much wider region – there was definitely a turning point, not planned, where it switched. He was lucky in that he never intended or planned for this to happen, but he is enjoying his obsession even more now.

    Many thanks for the insights Jonathan!

  8. Tim Eavey says:

    I am amazed that in my world (photography) how quickly models and photographers want the benjamin when they have no brand value whatsoever. They fail to realize that while you may not be getting paid, you’re builiding a portfolio and a reputation that will pay off later on.
    Good word today.

  9. Margie Cherry says:

    I just spoke today for free and it was awesome! I had the opportunity to share my message, and the further opportunity to stretch a bit by having to research a new profession to personalize the presentation. I love learning something new. I do speak for a fee, but still occasionally speak for free. Thanks, Jonathan, for validating this!

  10. as someone who is now dancing with the transition from mostly free to mostly paid, i got immense value from this article. my ego keeps saying ‘you shouldn’t be working for free anymore!’ but my heart often feels something else. now i know why… it’s a greater view into the value that comes from delivering a message you were called to deliver, touching the lives within your reach and all the value-points you detail so clearly here.

    thank you for seeing into your community’s challenges and desires. i am deeply grateful.


  11. Bang on the money. You’ve helped me articulate where I am in the brand-building business and how to better strategise what I’m doing. Thank you.

  12. Such a great post Jonathan! We’ve been dancing this dance for four years. It’s been such a journey to figure out and one I dreamed of for years.

    I think its’ the ultimate moment, getting paid to do what you’d pay to do. I still can’t believe that we’ve managed to get paid to travel to places we’re going to anyway, but as you say, after years of dedication to building the brand, the boom comes.

    It’s been a strategic game for us and one we continue to play every day. It’s a dance for sure. So loved reading this post. Thank you

  13. Brian Ferguson says:

    Just getting started on this journey, and it was VERY helpful to me to see your take on this. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  14. Brigette says:

    Good words for me to hear.
    I never considered speaking but was recently asked to do so and completely loved it. I couldn’t believe the energy in the room! The groups of people were so entirely lovely and I was so pleased to be able to offer something useful up. Nothing like a bit of mutual inspiration to keep the world turning.

  15. Marsha says:

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart

  16. […] your steady plugging away will come to a tipping point—what Jonathan Fields calls the Brand Hand (, when you shift from essentially working for free to being paid to share your ideas. Have you paid […]

  17. […] it’s not that simple.  He has a great post on his website titled “The Myth of Working for Free.”  What he suggests is that when you’re first starting a business or working as an artist, […]

  18. […] it’s not that simple.  He has a great post on his website titled “The Myth of Working for Free.”  What he suggests is that when you’re first starting a business or working as an artist, […]

  19. Amit Vele says:

    Amazing article Jonathan. “