On walkabout in life and technology

Say NO to Spec Work

TL;DR: Spec work is delivering creative work for free to prospective clients, encouraged by a bunch of work-listing or contest-hosting services. Say NO, even if that means you have quiet times, or you’ll never become a professional.

One of the negative things about being an indie is that the consulting and project work comes in fits and starts, and there are times, like now, when we have no client work to do at all (so contact me). On a positive note, it means we have time to spend on personal projects and building our own products. To use an American phrase, it’s a wash. Client work pays the bills while we develop our own products, too much client work and our products never get done, too little client work and we cannot fund our own products.

As an indie, I like having several days a week on client work and a few days free to do my own thing. There are times when the client work chews up my own time, and that’s OK, because when the client work dries up, I make that time back.

A few days ago, I was discussing how I client work finds me, and how quiet things were, and a friend mentioned that I should actively look to Craigslist or Elance to find new clients for myself by doing some spec work.

My response: “Hell no! I’d rather give up being indie and get a boring job working for the man!”

Why NO to Spec Work

Most of the work offered on Craigslist is spec work! Spec work, for those who don’t know, is when you get asked to do something, deliver it, and if the client likes it, you may get paid. Else you get nothing. That’s not business, that’s just stupid. I have no idea how or why, but a lot of people still do spec work. Shame on them.

Elance works on a bidding system, where the cheapest bidder gets the work, regardless of talent, experience and capability (no matter what the marketing blurbs say). The cheapest bidder is usually the one who offers spec work. It’s essentially a race to the bottom in terms of price and service, where the “winner” of the contest is actually the loser financially, and the client also loses by getting the cheapest, lowest quality product. As an indie, I pride myself on delivering the best quality product to meet my client’s needs for a professional fee. Unlike Elance, with my service no-one loses.

My professional reputation is based on the quality of work done to date, and on the satisfaction of my customers, not on the number of spec contracts completed. The number of Craigslist or Elance contracts won is like a Klout score, a completely meaningless number (unless you want to know how much spec work they do). Large Klout scores to me means that the person spends way to much time pumping social networks to increase their Klout score, instead of doing great work. These services have no check as to whether the candidate’s presented experience is real or not, no way to determine professionalism or quality, no feedback loop, and no recourse when the work either does not get done or gets done badly. With a professional indie, there’s a Professional Services Agreement that protects both parties.

I believe is providing the right product and service for a client, which means spending time getting to know them, their business, their goals and issues. I believe in building long term relationships where I not only support the work I did for them, but also continue to grow and add options to the product to lead their business. I’m just not that interested in the business version of a one-night stand. Sure, spec work can create some kind of relationship, but that only lasts while the work is spec (and free).

In short, if a professional competes with a bunch of amateurs in the amateur’s playground, they are not a real professional. Or to put it another way, Picasso did not create cheap pictures on napkins:

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer approached and asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, swiftly executed the work, and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!” “No”, Picasso replied, “It took me 40 years”

Now I’m not saying that there is no chance of getting good work from these services. This friend did get great business through this channel. It’s just that it’s rare and hard to do, and you will be competing with people who are prepared to do spec work. Sadly, for many clients, nothing beats free.

Say NO to Spec work Channels

I found a great article on this topic by Kevin Potts @kevinpotts, written in 2008 on his blog Graphic Push entitled 99designs: Bullshit 2.0, where he takes down 99designs, a service offering freelance designers a channel to offer art and logo services for spec:

Hmm. Yes, by all means, we want to avoid the time and consideration professional designers offer and go right to the lowest common denominator of grade-school dropouts whose portfolio’s crown jewel is a logo for their dad’s wholesale llama manure clearing house. We definitely do not want any in-depth communication. We do not want any understanding of the company, the brand, or the direction and aspirations of the organization. We definitely do not want any long-term working relationships or any real investment in the single most important public-facing piece of design a company owns. We just want a fucking logo for $250.

and to the designers:

To summarize: you’re doing spec work for third-world prices with no option for copyright retention. Everyone wins! Oh wait, except you.

Say NO to Spec Work

If you do spec work, you’re not only selling yourself short, you’re selling your future short too. What clients get for free today, they’ll expect for free tomorrow too. If you do spec work, you’re also selling the rest of us short. Those of us who provide a professional service find ourselves having to justify what we do to clients who are used to spec work quality and price. And that’s just insane. It’s difficult to explain to someone who only knows street franks what a proper gourmet sausage tastes like.

So please, say no to spec work. Build your business and reputation properly, by doing good quality professional work for a proper professional price. You’ll be better off, your clients will be better off and the industry will be better off.

I support no!spec, see their FAQ.