Faux Finishing Business Success: Part 4 of 4

This is the final post of a four part series.

  • The first post: It’s crucial to know what it costs to run your business, and how much to charge.
  • In part two I talked about the importance of building a high quality portfolio of finishes to get the best jobs.
  • Part three is all about how to make sure your customers keep coming back, and that they refer you to friends and associates.

Promotional work for faux finishing business success

Have you ever been asked to work for free? If you haven’t, it’s just a matter of time until you are. My first experience with this phenomenon was pretty bad. 

I ran an ad in the local classifieds, offering to do free promotional finishes for designers and shop owners.

A young designer working at a wallpaper and window coverings shop answered the ad. She wanted a ragged finish on the wall behind the counter at the front of the shop, a project that partly met the criteria of a worthy promotional effort (more on those criteria, below). 

That project went okay. The same designer moved to a high end design firm and called me again for a “Street of Dreams” project. That’s when things got weird. 

Not so dreamy

Exposure The Oatmeal cartoon for faux finishing business success
Another great cartoon from The Oatmeal. As a graphic designer, he feels our pain.

In case you’re not familiar, “Street of Dreams” is where a development is created (or rebuilt) and all the builders, subcontractors (paint, flooring, cabinets, trim, lighting…) are largely paid in “exposure”. 

I don’t want to drag this story out too long. Suffice it to say that I agreed to do a LOT of work for very little money. 

I can hear their conversation now:

“This project needs some decorative finishes and I know a guy who’ll do it for FREE!”

They had me pegged.

And why did I agree to this? Well, once these projects are all finished up, they’re opened to the public for a couple of weeks. So lots of folks will see the great work performed by all the talented crafts people on the site and hire them for paid work. 

I don’t know how these projects usually go, but the one I worked on was a dumpster fire.

Due to massive budget cuts and broken promises by the builder and designer, the contractors involved were unable to do good work, let alone their best work. 

It was about a month of long, hard days in a poorly organized environment punctuated by distrust, anger and resentment. 

The big payout

You might be wondering how much work I got for all this “exposure”. In short, Zero. Not one job. Not a single phone call.

In case you’re thinking my work wasn’t up to par, let me assure you that I did great work on that project. How do I know it was good?

On my way home from one of those grueling days I found the energy to stop at a large furniture and design complex I passed every day. I showed a few of my samples from the Street of Dreams debacle to the designer working the showroom. 

That designer loved my samples and that one visit landed me two jobs. Those two jobs led to a number of other jobs. But the “Dreams” project? Nada. No work. 

Maybe you’re wondering why I didn’t simply type “don’t do free work, ever” in massive text across the top of this page and call it good? 

It took some trial and error, but I eventually learned that promotional work can be an effective tool for faux finishing business success. 

The mother of inventionHD-Sign-Tile-Close-up

I swore off “exposure” work for years. I turned down such offers with exuberance.

“Work for free? You bet! Let’s start with a $7,000 deposit that will be returned when all that paying work you’re promising rolls in.”

I was bitter. 

Jump ahead to 2008 or so. Like most people at that time I was finding it hard to get new business. I decided to give promo work another try. 

This time I was determined to do it on my own terms. Out of that determination and my willingness to take another shot at promo work came a project that would lead to more work and opportunity than I could imagine. 

First impressions

A new, handmade crafts store opened in my neighborhood. After a few weeks the owner still hadn’t installed a permanent sign. I’d always wanted to apply a range of faux finishes to a hand painted sign. I saw this as a chance to create a show piece. 

Before I approached Mary, the owner of ‘Happy Delusions’, I made a mental checklist  of the conditions that the owner must agree to for the project to happen. 

It was a great meeting because Mary new virtually nothing about decorative finishes so I got to expose her to this rich world. To her credit she was totally open to whatever crazy stuff I came up with.

I painted a color Maquette that clearly demonstrated the ideas I had in mind. Then I created a scale sample (30″ x 30″) of the faux lettering, tile and graining, so there’d be no ambiguity about my vision.

The shop was at a busy intersection so I knew the work had to be some of my best. After about three months of hard work and fear based procrastination, I installed the piece. It was received with very high regard by the owner and the entire neighborhood. As mentioned earlier it resulted in many paying jobs.

That project became the basis for my approach to finding and accepting promotional work that leads to real jobs.  

How to find promotional projects for faux finishing business success

Every promotional opportunity will be unique in terms of owner, location, finances, design and other factors. 

I hope you find the following guidelines helpful. 

Be Proactive

Don’t wait for projects to come to you, go out and find them. 

Approach business owners, municipalities, institutions and designers who need decorative finishes. Everyone has a wall or other surface that needs decoration. Many will be ecstatic to hear from you. 


Choose high profile, busy locations with Lots of foot traffic in affluent areas. This more or less eliminates homes, private offices, low traffic businesses and buildings…

Designers will come to you with offers of low profile “exposure” work. If they want your work in a low traffic space, they can pay full price for it. 

Approached? Vet them

When someone does offer to pay you in “exposure”, and your important criteria are met, ask for referrals from others who’ve done promo work for them. If they refuse, that’s a huge red flag. They may have a reputation of treating sub contractors poorly. Proceed with caution.Faux wood and tile hand painted sign

Charity work

Neighborhood revitalization and other charity work is different from promotional work.

You need the people who are exposed to your work every day to be in demographic groups that can afford to hire you.

Definitely do charitable projects! Just don’t confuse them with work that brings high paying jobs. 

Insist on creative control

Adhering to this rule will eliminate many problem projects. Like when the designer comes to you and says;

“Hey I need faux leather walls in this dining hall.

In dayglow green.

With a faux crocodile skin border.

And birds.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not, uh… against that look. It’s just not a visual direction I want to take my business. 

If the owner or designer’s vision isn’t something that I’m totally convinced will show off my skills and bring me more business, I decline. I might offer suggestions on what I think should be done, but I don’t compromise much on my vision.

If they won’t let you shine, pick another project. A major exception would be a designer or other artist who’s work you highly respect and want to learn from.

The work you love to create will attract clients who love the work you create, allowing you to create more of what you love to create. There’s likely a more concise way to say that but you get the idea. 


For some jobs I might ask for some cash for materials, but only if there’s a designer involved who’s profiting. If I approach an owner, I pay for the paints because I’m insisting on creative control and it’s ultimately an ad for my service.

In the case of the Happy Delusions sign, I paid for all the materials. I did this because I knew it wouldn’t be much (under $100) and I wanted quality control over paints, sign board, mounting hardware, clear coats…

She paid for the sign permit from the city. I took care of the permit application and meetings with the city because I wanted to learn the process (for future sign work) and make sure it went smoothly.

Getting Paid

Once when I was asked to work for not much money, I countered by offering to do a lot less work for the same amount offered. They agreed and the job was profitable.GHY-Bike-Shop-Sign

Treat every offer of “exposure” as a negotiation.

Just because you’ve been asked to work cheap or free, don’t assume that there’s no money available on the project to pay for your services. 

Designers often seek subs to do promotional work so they can pocket more of the project budget.

The money is often there and it’s up to you to ask for it. Someone’s paying for the designers Mercedes. Don’t let it be you.


The owner of Happy Delusions agreed to give
me wall space in her shop to display my samples and business cards indefinitely.

I once painted a sign for a shop where I already tended to buy a lot of stuff. I negotiated a price that worked for the owner by including discounts on future purchases in the agreement. Win-win.

While bartering can be great, your goal of getting more business will usually be far more valuable than any bartered product or service.

Stay focused on the bigger criteria like location quality and creative control.

Access to contacts

Negotiate to be featured on email lists, newsletters, magazine articles, web sites, blogs, social media, bulletin boards, Vlogs, TV, Radio, blimps, smoke signals… any platform they have that can get the word out about your business.

They need to show excitement about you and willingness to share your work with their world.

Party time

If the project is substantial, hold an open house, invite current and past customers… to show off the work and your portfolio. Depending on the type of project and client, the costs for food and refreshments should be considered negotiable. 

Maximum exposure!

Many successful business people get that way because they’re skilled networkers.

Get connected with local heavy hitters in design, architecture, building and related fields, the most respected individuals and firms that do the lions share of largest and highest budget projects.

Connecting with your local power players can have a massive impact on your faux finishing business success. If you don’t know who they are, you’ll recognize the names after a quick search.

This is another “needs to be an entire post” issue. I’ll scratch the surface…


It’s easy to be intimidated by high-falutin business people. Don’t let yourself be blinded by glamour and haughty attitudes.

Just because it’s fancy, doesn’t mean you’ll get more work from it, so keep your fundamentals in mind: High traffic locations, finishes and effects that showcase your talents and fit your business goals, actual exposure via their platforms… 

Best foot forward

Before approaching the fancy-pants factions of our industry, be sure your samples are top notch. This might mean getting some education or reworking older samples so they shine. Show up with your best work, ready to impress. 

Go-to designers for high-end restaurants

These are often design departments of larger architectural firms. Connect with department heads and offer to do a promo project. Even if they don’t have any such opportunities, you’ll be more likely to get on their list of specialty finishers when they need a bid.


Making yourself available to help out with finishes in non-profit museums can be a very valuable item in your portfolio. You won’t likely get to display business cards but the connections to people in that world can be very powerful. 

Architecture firms

Get a sit down with a decision maker and offer to do finishes in lobbies, on pro-bono work they’re doing… Offer to help with anything paint related. Ask how to get on their list for projects and bids. 

“To the trade” design centers  

faux painted marble trompe loeil moulding
Trompe L’Oeil marble moulding sample in three tones.

They usually paint solid colors on drywall backing in staged areas.

Bring in some samples and offer to class up those walls and trim.

Negotiate for full access to members via email, social media, blogs/sites, newsletters, flyers, cards, parties…

High-end antique and furniture showrooms

Similar to above but retail, so a wider range of viewers will see your work. A chance to show off some old-world effects, distressing, crackle glaze…

High-end hotels

Those fancy rooms need to look good and the guests are tough on them. Hotel maintenance managers are always looking for painters who can repair and replace expensive finishes. No limits to possibilities on this one. 

When to do promotional work

Think of promo work as something that evolves with your business.

When you’re starting out, the projects will need to be manageable; low cost, not too time consuming… unless material and other costs are covered. 

As your business grows, you can take on more ambitious work that results in more substantial exposure and profit long term. 

A well organized faux finishing business should have time slotted for ongoing promo projects.

As your reputation grows and acquiring new business becomes less of an issue, you may choose to only focus on charitable work without concern for quality of exposure. A time to give back to the community that made you successful.

Whatever stage your business is in, carefully chosen promotional work can be a powerful approach to growth and profit.


  • Promotional work can be an effective tool to build your business, but beware! You can’t buy food or pay bills with “exposure”. 
  • The best promo projects won’t come to you. It’s best to be proactive and seek out opportunities that suit your needs for growth.
  • Quality locations only, with lots of high value foot traffic. 
  • Charity work is good, but don’t confuse it with promotional work that results in profit. 
  • Creative control is a must: Only do work that showcases your skills and attracts the kinds of clients you want. 
  • There’s actual money buried in that “free” work. Negotiate for it. 
  • No money? Barter! All that glitters is not gold…
  • Use promo projects to get connected to the power players who get the big jobs in your area. 
  • Promo work has its place for all sizes of decorative painting businesses. 
  • Bring your “A” game. Great skills open doors to opportunity. 



Would you like some help with Faux Woodgrain?

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4 Responses

  1. […] Part four shows you how to find and leverage promotional work for profit and business growth.  […]

  2. Adam Bruce
    | Reply

    Great blog Norm! Yet again you’re more than generous with sharing your past experiences in such detail. You inspire me. And how beautiful is that happy delusions sign.. top notch!

    • Norman
      | Reply

      Thanks buddy. More new posts coming soon.

  3. […] like Sotheby’s, you need to be sure that your work is being seen by people who can afford to pay top dollar for the privilege of owning […]

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