The Startup That Gambled On Free Work To Build A Million-Dollar Business

Most creative professionals are advised not to work for free. But PR firm Praytell Strategy made a bet on pro bono—and later cashed in.

Can you build a million-dollar business by taking on projects for free? The short answer is yes.

Andy Pray bucked a lot of conventional wisdom when he struck out on his own. A veteran of both television reporting and public relations, Pray bounced around from San Francisco, to New York, and then London. While moving between coasts and across the ocean, Pray says he could often be found at happy hour, holding forth on how things would be different if he ran his own agency.

"A lot of people in the agency world talk about their own ideas," he tells Fast Company. "I was that guy for a long time; never having the temerity to make it happen."

After spending a year in London, the timing was right, Pray says. "I had no business plan or any foresight," he recalls when he made the leap to launch Praytell Strategy, an integrated PR and social media firm based in Brooklyn, New York, in 2013.

"I think I benefitted from not having this hugely choreographed thing," he explains. "Had I made this huge plan, I would have found reasons not to do it."

That’s a good thing because the agency is on track to generate $4 million in revenue this year from clients including Estee Lauder, Logitech, Hyatt, NVIDIA, and OfficeMax, as well as nonprofits such as MAC AIDS Fund and ECPAT-USA.

Free Grease For New Business Wheels

Just because you build it, the business doesn’t necessarily come. So Pray persuaded the Food Bank for New York City (FBNYC) to become the agency’s first client. He started immediately with the caveat that he’d do the work at no charge.

"I started on day one working for good," he says with a laugh. Though it wouldn’t generate any revenue, Pray says strategizing instead of sitting, planning, and spinning his wheels gave him a job to do. "I needed to be working," he adds.

It also planted a seed for how Pray would shape the business to help advance social causes.

Building A Team With $0

While he was in the zone for FBNYC, Pray got a call to present to a new client from a former colleague. Without much preparation, he packed off a proposal that made it to the finals. The prospective client invited his team to present.

"There was no team," Pray confesses, thus beginning "an Ocean's Eleven madcap dash" to cobble together a social strategist, designer, and other supporting players.

"I took a chance and won against three gigantic agencies," he says, still with a hint of breathless disbelief. "Even that doesn’t happen without the mentality working with FBNYC. It set the tone that ‘I can do this.’"

On a more sober note, Pray points out: "Cash flow is a real thing." Admitting his naiveté about the financial workings of a new business, he says that while Praytell started winning contracts, the reality was that between bootstrapping and not much credit available, he didn’t have the funds to pay the team during the first two months of work. "We were tap dancing until the money came in," he says.

Finding the Sweet Spot Between Pro Bono and Paid Work

Once Praytell started landing more paying clients such as the MAC AIDS Fund, Pray says he started to think about how to work a giving-back component into the business. The MAC AIDS Fund donates 100% of the proceeds of its Viva Glam lipsticks, Pray observes. "But MAC Cosmetics has the business to support that model."

Pray remained convinced he could make it work for a small agency. Though Praytell’s resource allocation "changes every day," Pray says the team is okay with spending an extra half hour to work for free.

"I think people underestimate how game people are to spend that extra time," he notes. "Today’s creative culture thrives on doing greater good work; they want to be participating in giving back. They just need an outlet."

Pray admits his team struggled over the past year to figure out a way to create a consistent model that wouldn’t leave the company cash poor. The brainstorming led to Passion Project, an initiative that will offer up to $30,000 of Praytell services per quarter to U.S. nonprofits in need of communications—from social media strategy to website development and media outreach.

The grant program will help the company identify the best match between the organization and what Praytell is able to provide. "It’s a good evolution for thoughtfully giving back in way that is sustainable," Pray adds.

The Surprise Value

Pray points out that working pro bono eventually did pay off—literally. After about six months of support for FBNYC, Pray says they approached him for more work and offered a small budget to pay for it. "It’s not the same scale as our for-profit clients," he says, but over the past year, this has happened more frequently. "We employ a mix," says Pray.

He’s done free work for for-profit clients that eventually paid off, too. One company that had a less-than-stellar website became the recipient of a revamped one at no charge.

"The people in our office liked them and the brand, so it wasn’t a chore," he explains. Not long after, the owner of that business introduced Pray to a much larger potential client. "We never talked about quid pro quo," Pray says. "It just happened."

How Not to Die From Exposure

That’s not to say Pray’s never been burned by a client, nor does he champion taking on any work for free. Much ink has been spilled, including an 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times, cautioning independent creatives not to accept payment in the form of getting in front of an audience.

Instead, Pray says in addition to the new grant program, his team takes the time to have a conversation with a prospective pro bono client to learn what success looks like for them. "You need to know upfront what they need and what the partnership will look like," he says, as well as set boundaries for hours worked.

"If [that conversation] doesn’t pass the sniff test you can’t do it," Pray says. "Everyone who’s been burned almost exclusively gets burned when you have the gut feeling that something is not right." So while it’s great to hang a logo on your website, play at your own risk."

"The scar tissue you get is just not worth it," he adds. "There are way better investments you can make so trust your gut."

[Image: Flickr user conorwithonen]

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3 Comments

  • mnadjm

    I would be careful about what is being mentioned by Andy Pray. I run an agency here in London called SoMazi.com and based on recommendation we ended up being one of those partners he mentions in article that helped him landing his first big project for free. We flew all the way from London to SF to pitch. He talks a lot and promises a lot and at the end, what we got was nothing compared to what we had invested our time in providing credibility in Social Media as top 50 Forbes Social unit.

    If you end up doing business then our recommendation is to make sure it is all in writing other wise you are taken for a ride.

  • dinogarner

    Bless those who do wonderful pro bono work. You all make the world a little brighter and sweeter. Thank you. . . .