crowdSPRING’s Attempt to Make Spec Work Acceptable

CrowdSpring logo

The subject of working on spec is so polarizing that some people don’t even want to talk about it—it incites too much anger on both sides. Some people believe it’s okay to produce designs and deliver them to the client, with the hope that they’ll get paid if the client likes it. Others feel a designer’s work is his product and no business will be treated with respect if they give it away.

This article is about a relatively new website, www.crowdspring.com, which is one of a crowd of spec websites that is trying to make spec work acceptable to both sides. Before I get into some details about crowdSPRING and opinions about spec work in general, I want to outline my history with spec work. My first job was at a small daily newspaper which routinely offered spec ads to potential advertisers in order to secure contracts. They worked very well, but not always. Of course, sales reps got the commissions and I got nothing but my wage for my work, which often won the business. Savvy advertisers would have me produce spec ads, which they would run in our paper but also in other papers—in this way we were performing ad agency work (design and media placement) for free, all in order to make our advertisers happy.

In 2002 I was hired by another publisher specifically to do spec work (I was the “spec artist”) and it gave me the freedom to do very creative work. Again, my work won a lot of business but it did feel like a waste when I put time into a spec ad that ended up doing nothing. But sales reps routinely invest a ton of time in their clients—phone calls, coffee appointments, Chamber functions, presentations—without any guarantee it will win a sale.

Contrast this with the freelancer designer, who is not only selling the product but creating it too. I’m a freelance designer now and I rarely do spec work, unless the client requires it, there’s a lot of revenue at stake and the potential for success is high. As a designer my true products are visual ideas and solutions, and once I’ve presented those solutions to the client my product has gone out door.

I’ve found that some potential clients who ask for spec designs are untrustworthy, and if I don’t do the work up front they will move on to the next hapless designer. Most of my potential clients are scrupulous enough to not use my ideas if they don’t hire me, but not all clients. I have an affidavit that I give to potential clients who don’t use a spec design; the affidavit makes them promise they will not simply hire another designer to recreate my ideas. I’ve only had to use the affidavit three times; out of those three, one refused to sign.

I believe there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with spec work—it can certainly make the sale, and sales gurus such as Jeffrey Gitomer advocate doing such work up front to provide value first. However, I personally do it only on rare occasions because I’ve seen too many designers (including myself) get hosed because it’s just too easy for clients to steal the ideas and get them produced on the cheap.

What crowdSPRING tries to do

I spoke with Mike Samson and Ross Kimbarovsky, the co-founders of crowdSPRING, and I do think they have tried to make the best of a bad situation:

  • crowdSPRING does not take a cut of designers’ revenue—profit comes from the buyers. This can be looked at two different ways: if a buyer offers $1000 for a project and pays $100 to crowdSPRING, the designer isn’t getting all the money on the table but one can’t expect crowdSPRING to earn no money for being the middleman.
  • Buyers pay up front, so designers don’t have to worry about doing the work and not getting paid. crowdSPRING holds funds in escrow and pays out when contracts are awarded. Note that buyers can opt to not pick a winner if they don’t get 25 entries for their project; if the number exceeds 25, the buyer is required to choose.
  • crowdSPRING has a Pro section devoted to projects at or over $1,000. One complaint about spec websites like this is that the projects ask for a logo for $350 or a website for $600—both of which are wildly underpriced. crowdSPRING’s Pro section is also full of underpriced yet complex projects. Out of 97 projects posted on crowdSPRING right now, only ten are worth $1,000 or more; of these ten, six are priced at $1,000 and two are at $1,500, which is the most any project on crowdSPRING is worth. Agencies and freelancers who routinely work on four- and five-figure projects will find no projects worth their time at crowdSPRING.
  • My big problem with these spec websites is the lack of contracts. crowdSPRING applies free, customizable contracts for every project, and they appear to be solid.

A designer using crowdSPRING still won’t be able to avoid the fact that they are competing against at least 25 other designers, many of them with the same skills and quality. That is what I find interesting and frightening about crowdSPRING and spec work in general—in a massive community of designers, no one stands out and winning business is really a shot in the dark. When I work on projects or even design on spec, I try to discuss things with the client and have a relationship already built up with them. crowdSPRING eliminates that advantage and puts everyone on the same level, and I don’t think there’s any designer on the planet who could make crowdSPRING work for them based on quality alone. Most of it is luck, which is ultimately what spec work is all about—throw it out there and pray the client happens to like it.

No way around it

The good news about crowdSPRING is that designers’ rights are protected and buyers have no reason not to honor the deal—they pay in advance, so they’re out the money anyway. crowdSPRING is a superior way to leverage spec work when compared to doing spec work for a local client, without a contract in place and with no prepayment. However, there simply is no way around it: if you do spec work, there’s a risk you will do the work and get nothing in return. And it can happen a lot. Early in my career I tried Elance.com, a website that basically put designers in front of buyers and encouraged spec work to win contracts. I did several designs on spec and did not win a thing. crowdSPRING can offer no guarantees that a designer’s work will be rewarded, and that ultimately is why designers treat speculative work as a cardinal sin.