One of the things that many people who start new small businesses have to deal with is the trouble of finding customers. In the pursuit of customers, we chase after many different types of arrangements that we expect to bring us, customers. It’s a good idea that we take some time to speak about these types of opportunities, how they work, how they can go wrong and what we should be mindful of. So whether it’s product exchange, Exposure, speculative work, test work or delayed payment proposals read on to find out how to navigate these.

Product exchange

Product exchange arrangements are pretty much what they sound like. Someone wants to work with you and proposes that you accept their products (goods or services) as payment for your work. Sometimes the wording isn’t even that clear, you may just be expected to produce work based on the product you receive without explicitly receiving it as payment. This can work out great if it’s a product you’ve been wanting to get your hands on but in most cases, the value exchange isn’t worth it. The idea is that working with the company may be good for your business but you will find it more rewarding to get paid full price for your work and use the money to pay for the product.


Exposure looks something like product exchange except there is no exchange. A (supposedly) popular business approaches you to do some work with or for them and expect that you will do this for little or no pay because working with them will give your name or business exposure. Whether it be exposure in terms of making your business visible or the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the industry and make contacts. While this works it’s easy to see how it can go wrong and easily at that. The exposure is not guaranteed and they may not be able to get you exposed to people you want or need to be exposed to. You need to be certain of the benefits of the exposure before agreeing to this.

Speculative work

Speculative (spec) work is most commonly employed in the creative industry. A business hosts an open competition for say their logo redesign. Open to all entrants. In the best of cases, there is a clearly stated fee that will be paid to the chosen design. However, what you will more often find is a lack of clarity. It’s not just about payment, questions around the ownership of the property are also left unclear. Where possible it’s important to get clear on the terms and conditions of the competition or work assignment.

Test work

Work looks a lot like spec work but you may find it more often used in creative work like writing. The setup is roughly the same except the business involved will ask for a test project with the promise of future work. In the best of cases, it does lead to future work but more often the experience is the rejection of the work or future work opportunity under unclear circumstances. You can usually spot these by the lack of detail in the assignment and the poor excuses given for not proceeding with the plan. Lack of detail in the test project may be a sign but it is not always that simple. As with spec work being clear on the terms and conditions is important.

Work now, pay later

This is probably the most common one but also the hardest to navigate. The trouble here is that it may be standard industry practice to work on this basis. Or it may be the unique selling proposition that a new business uses to attack the market. Great, you are offering better payment terms than everyone else in the industry. Someone comes to give you business and things go great, you get customers. However, it doesn’t always go so smoothly. You may find them easy to work with but getting paid may prove difficult or impossible and this is after the work has been done. So you have either incurred expenses, used time or both for no reward. This is very difficult to spot and guard against, the best thing you can do for yourself is make sure that you require a deposit to work, one that at the least covers the costs associated with getting the work done.

Finally, the important thing is the ability to identify these types of arrangements by their essential character rather than their names. No person looking to benefit from getting people to submit speculative work will call it so by name. So do a little research to understand how this looks in your industry so you can tell when you see it.