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Summary:

A year ago, I was offered a contractual design job for a middle-sized corporation, although I knew there were other candidates. At the end of my interview, I was told that they would call me to let me know if I’ve been hired. What actually happened […]

A year ago, I was offered a contractual design job for a middle-sized corporation, although I knew there were other candidates. At the end of my interview, I was told that they would call me to let me know if I’ve been hired. What actually happened was the opposite – they called me to ask me to execute 3 different drafts for the project, and if they liked what they saw, I would get paid.

I was surprised that such a seemingly professional business would ask designers to do speculative work. Of course I declined – it’s never a good idea to do any work before a contract is mutually signed.  However, I was even more surprised that they asserted that I was being unprofessional and that this was how they got all their design work done.

Speculative work, or simply “spec work”, is an experienced web worker’s enemy. In this set up, you’re asked to do the job first before the client decides whether it’s good enough for them to pay for it. Usually, it’s the new freelancers or working students that receive offers on spec projects. But what if a more experienced web worker is offered spec work?

Why do clients ask for spec work in the first place?

Sadly, some clients have a misunderstanding of how the creation process actually works. This is especially true if this is the first time a client is paying for this kind of project. They aren’t aware of the problem-solving and research that goes into the final product, taking your final work – whether you’re a designer, programmer, or online writer – only at face value.

Signs that you’re faced with spec work

Clients that want you to do spec work won’t bother with your customer questionnaires, negotiations, or contracts. If they are evasive or refuse to discuss these things outright, then you’re left unprotected. After you’ve done your work, they can easily say “I’m not going to pay for something I don’t like”.

Or, like in my case, they might also say outright that they’re “shopping around” for ideas from other freelancers and/or firms and will select the ones they like best.

How to get around it

The first thing you should so is to be completely honest, but don’t become overtly angry. Not all people who request for spec work are malicious or out to steal your ideas. Sometimes, they just don’t know any better.

If that’s the case, it’s best to have a dialog with the client. If you’re looking for a way to start the discussion, anti-spec group NO!SPEC has a template letter you can use as the basis of your reply. You don’t have to use the template itself, but the ideas mentioned in the letter might be something you’ll want to bring up.

For larger projects, you can follow up with an actual meeting where you can discuss any concerns or questions your client might have on the subject. Some of them might be open to this kind of dialog, while others will simply say that this is how they’ve always done things and it’s not negotiable.

But if they are willing to talk, be prepared to show them how spec work hurts both their business and yours. Also, take this as an opportunity to show the value you’ll provide to the project, and how hiring you will benefit them. Showing this kind of professionalism can work in your favor, since most clients appreciate hiring people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than they are.

It’s also important to present some alternatives to the spec work method. You can show work from your portfolio that is similar to what the client is looking for, and they can decide based on that. Asserting your level of expertise in the field also helps.

Of course, if you simply have too much work on your hands, or if you’re not that interested in the project, then decline the offer and plainly state your reasons for doing so. This allows you to move on quickly while giving the potential client your opinion that their style of hiring doesn’t really serve their best interests.

Spec work doesn’t always have to bring out a heated debate between web workers and their clients. If we’re willing to find common ground, we’ll be able to come up with better ways to go through the hiring process – without wasting each other’s time or money.

Have you ever been offered spec work? What is your usual response to such offers?

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  1. Have I been offered spec work? Probably, but…

    I say NO and put the incident out of mind without delay, so I can’t recall any specific offers.

    Conversations with friends and the application of my google-fu both yield the same result:

    At best, prospects who request spec work don’t know what they want and intend to figure it out at someone else’s expense.

    At worst, they’re going out of their way to steal.

    Either way, the only appropriate response is “figure out your needs, find a shop that makes a good fit, and good luck to you when it finally comes together.” No lectures, no whining, just a quick, quiet blow-off.

    …And the politeness of the approach suggested by the NO!SPEC template is too polite, in my opinion. Clients who lack either clue or integrity (if not both) are going to be Bad Clients even if they come around and agree to a contract.

  2. Given the way the post was framed, I forgot the third category of speculative work: the type that comes from an undercapitalized prospect.

    At least in that instance, the risk is presented up-front, and can be considered in its proper context… but still amounts to “probably not gonna get paid.” One’s sanity is probably better served by investing time in a self-driven effort toward developing a source of recurring revenue.

  3. Jeremiah Staes Sunday, August 24, 2008

    I never take spec work. It brings nothing but trouble, and is usually a company looking for something for nothing.

    If there isn’t enough respect to pay for the initial work, there won’t be enough respect throughout the working relationship to make it worth it or positive.

  4. Someone had asked me for this last year while job searching. A big SEO company asked me to do design work as an “interview” to see how good I really am. Are you friggin’ kidding me???

    I told him how I felt and he thought it was “normal”. No it’s not. It was a good debate between me and my partner so now I get to forward him this article. Thanks WWD!

  5. billbennettnz Sunday, August 24, 2008

    Depending on the kind of work you do, one alternative I’ve had success with in the past is to ask the potential client to hire me on a trial basis at an hourly or daily rate for one job, one day or one week.

    That way they get a no obligation way to see if you are any good. You get paid for the work done and you get an opportunity to see if the people in question are worth working for — and if they pay their invoices on time.

  6. Funny, spec work is the operating principle for foundations when they deal with nonprofit grantees. It’s truly staggering how much time and resources go into multiple proposal revisions for foundations who don’t know what they want but expect nonprofits to keep developing projects until they see something that they like.

  7. 37signals hired recently a designer with this method.

    However, they paid each and every candidate for their work.

  8. An interesting topic. Generally fair, but (for example) here’s an instance where we have asked for spec work at Virtual VIP:

    We were engaged to create a web site for a large financial institution. The work included everything–a total re-working of their internet presence.

    Part of the gig was, of course, design. We asked several designers to submit their work, given parameters that matched the clients’ needs.

    This is much like what advertsing agencies are asked to do every day; in order to pitch their work, they SHOW THEIR WORK. In a creative situation, this is (all but) necessary.

    My point: yes, a lot of time being asked for spec work can mean you’re getting scammed. But not always.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Virtual VIP

  9. @Jeff :: The whole reason why spec-work is not acceptable is because it asks people to do what they do as their profession without the guarantee that they are going to be paid. Most designers have a portfolio so that they can showcase their talent. Why should they then do all the work upfront, on their own time, for free? I think that the best way your recent situation could have been handled would have been to interview multiple designers and look at their portfolios, hire the best one to make the initial draft, and move forward from there. Wouldn’t you agree that is a much more win-win situation?

  10. Justin Cresswell Saturday, August 30, 2008

    Even for a firm like ours, 15 people and part of a larger company as well, we typically say no to spec work. Our consultants do, however, end up writing many specifications documents to help clients figure out what they want and need. Beyond that, we think doing work for free is bad business.

  11. links for 2008-08-31 | the markfr ditherings Sunday, August 31, 2008

    [...] WebWorkerDaily » Archive Dealing With Speculative Work « (tags: small.business spec work) [...]

  12. Alan Wilensky Sunday, August 31, 2008

    You can write a tight SOW, bid, etc., take the work with a 50% deposit, and still have professional bastards burn you. I can smell professional bastards a mile away – the first sniff is trying to “get on spec”.

    I recently acted as sub contract writer for my buddy’s agency – he had his agreements and professional engagement docs in place, but he (therefore also I) was screwed for the balance of that really excellent work.

    I wrote off the anger and the loss, as I was not the prime. They overturned 4 drafts because they didn’t know what features of the very technical product they wanted to highlight. A moving target, despite weekly reviews, and my voluminous on-line portfolio of past work.

    There will always be crappy, low class business that will impugn your work product, break contract clauses, and generally weasel out of paying the bill. Spec is just one way that an industry overburdened by amateur writers and analysts deals with the competitive labor surplus.

  13. 4 Signs That Your Potential Clients Aren’t Interested (and What to Do About It) Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    [...] you know if we like them?” They’ll call it an audition or a test, but it’s really spec work. Usually, spec work is a sign that the client isn’t interested in you or your skills. They [...]

  14. The Role of “Free” in Freelancing Monday, October 5, 2009

    [...] my own career path. I was still a college freshman when I started freelancing, and I did a lot of spec work back then — both graphic design and writing. My experience is not unique; I often hear of new [...]

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