5 Ways to Grow Your Business By Working For Free

Today we’re lucky to have John O’ Nolan, the founder of Ghost share with us how he’s progressed through his career by …

by Ryan Sullivan


| 5 min read

Today we’re lucky to have John O’ Nolan, the founder of Ghost share with us how he’s progressed through his career by doing work for free. Sound crazy? I’ll let John break it down for you:

Giving away as much as possible for free? How can a business grow by charging for less? The fact that it goes against our natural instincts is actually one of the most powerful things behind the phenomena.

Traditional business economics suggest that when you do work which is of value, you should be compensated for it appropriately. These are the things we are usually taught. And yet – the biggest successes of my career in web design have always come out of doing things for free.

When you hear the word “marketing” – you might think of banner ads, Twitter campaigns or viral videos. As a creative person, you might even feel daunted by the prospect of all that self-promoting nonsense. But, there’s a surprisingly simple perspective which actually describes what real marketing is very succinctly: Creating something interesting and giving it away for free.

Too simple?

Free Stuff Sign

In the broadest terms, the best marketing is a mix of entertaining, engaging and educational content. It’s the things which people actually want to be exposed to rather than things that annoy them.

Over the years I’ve created a habit of doing all my marketing very simply by trying to make useful stuff for people for free. This has lead to contracts, projects and business worth more than I possibly could’ve achieved if I’d simply tried to charge for everything.

When people discover you due to generosity and expertise in a subject area that you just so happen to work in… surprisingly… it has a very positive effect on their likelihood to want to work with you.

Here are 5 main case study examples of techniques that I’ve put to use over the years that I would recommend every small business owner considers trying.

Let Others Use Your Work

Photo provided courtesy of John O' Nolan https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnonolan/5680658187/

Photo provided courtesy of John O’ Nolan https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnonolan/5680658187/

Back in 2010 I was doing a bit of photography on the side, just for fun. I would do my best to take a photo every single day, and then I would upload it to Flickr to share my work. All of my photos are Creative Commons licensed, which means that anybody can take them and publish them – provided that they include some basic attribution.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a comment come in saying that my photo was going to run in The New Yorker the next day.

Shortly after it ran, I was contacted by multiple new clients who had seen the photo and wanted to know if I was available for hire. This was totally unexpected, and simultaneously awesome.

Releasing your work under Open Source, Creative Commons or Royalty Free licenses can have all sorts of suprising bonuses.

Write a Blog

Business Woman Blogging

If you’re on this site, you probably have a blog. But how often do you actually post on it? There’s a massive world of content marketing and inbound marketing out there which is one of the only things you can do to get compounding returns. Which is to say: Traffic builds up and up and up over the years, as people keep finding and reading your old blog posts as well as your new ones.

If you can create a genuinely useful guide, tutorial, or showcase story around what you do: This can be incredibly powerful.

Disclosure: As the founder of a blogging platform for exactly this purpose – the suggestion is pretty biased. Then again, there’s a good reason I founded a blogging platform. It works.

Speak at Conferences

Andrew Nacin LoopConf

WordPress Lead Developer Andrew Nacin speaking at LoopConf

Public speaking, while not for everyone, is an incredibly simple way to raise your profile and attract higher profile clients and customers. Having the confidence to get on a stage and tell people a story of what you’ve learned recently is something that garners both respect and attention.

Almost everyone is uncomfortable with it when they first start out, but if you can conquer this skill — the rewards and opportunities are tremendously worthwhile. There’s a fantastic site put together by Zach Holman which contains some of the best advice out there for putting together a great talk.

Volunteer Your Skills


The single largest return on investment that I had in my career was when I started giving away my work for free.

In late 2010 I started giving my spare time and design skills to the WordPress project, volunteering with a large group of contributors. It took a great deal of time and energy to get involved, but the reward was undeniable. The people who I met, and the clients who I got as a result of being on the “core team” made me well over $1,000,000 in the subsequent 5 years.

Volunteering, when done intelligently, can open many doors to so many opportunities simply by not being focused on making money up front.

Do Business with Friends

There’s an old adage about never doing business with friends – and yet – intended or not, everyone always ends up doing business with friends!

If there’s anything that I’ve learned over the years it’s that people rarely work with “the best”. They work with “the known”. Almost everyone would rather work with someone who they already know and trust than go searching for someone new. This is largely involuntary and can be attributed to simple human nature.

To most, in the beginning, it can feel more like a contest of popularity than merit — which can be frustrating — but the ultimate business secret really is just making friends with people.

That’s how you get more people to do business with you.


Every one of these five points has something extremely obvious in common: Human interaction.

When building a business it’s very easy (and quite normal) to become absorbed with the efforts of creating a product or service. Product development is tangible and measurable. You can see a direct result of the work you put in. It’s clear and understandable.

Building relationships or, to use the oft-frowned-upon term, “networking” – is something which many struggle with because it’s far less tangible. Often you won’t realise the benefit of getting to know someone until much later, and it’s almost never in the way you expect.

Consistently though, you will realise that the more you help others: The more they help you.

What do you think? Have you had any experience giving away your work for free? Have you seen it pay off like this? Hit us up in the comments with your own experiences. We’d love to hear from you!

Ryan Sullivan | Vice President, Client Success


  • Deena Nataf 5 years ago

    Thanks, Ryan. This is very encouraging. I’ve benefited from your helpfulness before, and this blog really reflects your philosophy as I saw it in action.
    Deena Nataf

    • Ryan Sullivan 5 years ago

      Wow, thanks for the kind words Deena. We really appreciate it. It’s definitely something we’ve tried to embrace. Hopefully we can do it a whole lot more in the future 🙂

  • Connor Rickett 5 years ago

    I’m going to be honest, John, I wasn’t optimistic when I read that headline, but this article surprised me. These are all great points.

    Except maybe regarding work for friends and volunteering. Do work for a discount for friends, but even a trivial expense (say beer and snacks) tends to keep people from forgetting that you do work for money, usually, and they shouldn’t abuse the privilege, without actually bringing the awkward point up. I guess you did bring up the all-important caveat on volunteering, though; you shouldn’t be too focused on the immediate rewards . . . but you’re not working for free, you’re investing work with the reasonable expectation of long term gain.

    I don’t really think of it as doing work for “free”. What I do, every month, is set aside a specific amount of work I’ll do either very cheaply, or free, and roll the time lost to that work into my marketing budget. I’d recommend other people do the same, because it prevents you from doing TOO much work for free, and, you know, starving to death.

  • Forticus 5 years ago

    In 1999 I intended to give information and share experience on some hobby for free by even paying webspace without advertisments to make it free for readers. While I got some enriching contacts to likeminded, at some point I needed the time to make money. My old webspace still exists, currently holding my shortstories (in German) for free download. Looking foward to retire in a few years, perhaps I should reconsider my “giving free” project(s).
    Thanks for your encouragement!


  • Leckey Harrison 4 years ago

    I’m moving this way. Partly because I am working in the paradigm shift of how trauma is treated in the world. So I am looking at giving it to those who are influential, because in the long run, the paradigm shift, I only teach clients how to heal themselves. Then they are technically no longer clients.

    I blog inconsistently. I need to change that.

  • Leron 4 years ago

    Great article about the power of giving. It really enforces the principle that those who are the most open to giving are also the most open to receiving. I’m interested in learning more about how your work applied to the WordPress project (as mentioned in the “volunteer your skills section”). Thanks for writing this article!

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