Thoughts on the True Cost of Spec Work

This week we took a special detour here at Social Ink as we celebrated moving into our new offices with a trip down memory lane into the early days of our web development shop. Among the topics we discussed—aside from being squeezed in coffeeshops with terrible music and slow internet access—was the eternal question for all startups: How did we find clients?

We recalled our early email lists, our cold calls, and above all, our recourse to the haunted and vaunted, the infamous and inchoate Craigslist “computer gigs” board. For the unfamiliar, the CL computer gigs work lists on-off projects and positions, that have anything to do with computer work in general. Over the last decade, this section has narrowed more dramatically into web development work, including but not limited to WordPress, graphic design and the like. The board is broadly divided into two parts: the pay and no-pay sections, the latter a littered zone of bad ideas, broken dreams and every web developer’s nightmare: spec work.

What’s spec work, you may ask? Let’s take a recent CL example as our jumping off point:

Need a fair/serious web designer who will build a small 5-6 page “member subscription” based site built in wordpress.
Willing to pay eventually if your work speaks volumes. At first you’d be an intern.

This, dear readers, is spec work. It’s when somebody asks you to do work up front, with only a vague promise of pay if it meets their (undefined and subjective) standards. Why is spec work bad? The heroic antispec website has this to say:

It is tough for designers starting out. They have no money to advertise for work and they have a limited portfolio to showcase their design. Crowdsourcing websites know this and take full advantage.

They’re right – it is tough for designers and developers starting out.  We reach out, hoping to get that initial first score, hoping that, as our friend above asked, “our work will speak volumes” and “there might be a lots of work down the road” if we can “just get this phase 1 done for free.”  At Social Ink, we’ve been incredibly lucky with our clients—generous nonprofits, brilliant creatives, small and large businesses and the others who’ve passed this way in New York City and beyond—and largely avoided spec work.

As a medium sized fish in a huge pond, we wanted to revisit this topic and urge fellow designers and developers, as well as those in need of quality work, not to do or ask for spec work. More than anything, we want to stress our solidarity and respect for labor and its inherent worth and value. Here’s our takeaway:

  1. Fellow web designers and developers: Every job you do on spec, or for free, lowers the bar of expectations and worth for everyone in your field.
  2. We love owning our own business. We set our own hours, small vacations, and might even work in our sweatpants on a snowy day. Just because your work is fun, or you enjoy your flexible and creative work environment doesn’t mean that your work isn’t labor and that you ought to be compensated fairly for it.
  3. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. We believe in healthy, friendly, and responsive client relationships, where we are just as invested in a project as our client. We set real deadlines and stick to them. This can only happen with a fair, equitable, and mutually agreed upon compensation.
  4. It doesn’t all come down to the dollar. We believe in alternate economies of exchange—trades, barters, and flexible payment schedules. We stand for fairness in the workforce, and forms of payment that appropriately recognize the time and labor involved in getting the job done.

Photo: Forging ahead : Works Progress Administration from Library of Congress.