Freelance work on spec is an agreement where the client agrees to pay for your services before you do the work. This can lead to some pretty big problems if not done correctly.
It is important to understand that your client is taking a risk by hiring you on spec. This means that they usually will expect something for their money even if it's just a sample of your work before they agree to anything more.
So let’s explore this topic so that you are informed and protected when building or growing your freelance business.
What is speculative work?
Speculative work or “spec” is any kind of freelancing work completed typically by a designer before payment. Usually, if the client likes it they’ll pay you. If not…well then we just saved ourselves some time and energy right?
Spec work isn't the same as moving forward with a project without signing an ironclad contract. It's when you agree to do something before getting paid for it. This can lead to some pretty big problems if not done correctly.
In short, spec work is any kind of completed freelancing design before payment or even guaranteed. In general, the client likes your work and pays for it after you’ve already finished it.
When they don't? You walk away with nothing but a rejected design. Spec work can be asked from the professions like designers, developers, writers, photographers, and videographers.
This is done by consultants or professionals that are not working for a company but helping to build your business with different services like marketing, SEO, etc.
However, you must remember the fact that it can be asked from anyone who has experience in the freelancing industry. That means you have every right to ask for spec work too.
You should be aware of the fact that there are some pros and cons when it comes to spec work. Let’s explore this topic so that you are informed and protected while moving forward with your freelancing business.
Types of Speculative work
- Creative Pitches
Created Pitches are the most common form of speculative work as they are mostly done when a solo freelancer or agency competes for big-name clients.
It’s not unusual to present the client with details of what they will be getting if their project moves forward before any agreement has been made.
Of course, this is only possible if you have agreed on terms and given them your word that nothing is set in stone until a contract has been agreed upon.
At times it can backfire if the client likes your idea and decides to implement it without any kind of payment in return.
However, if you have created a detailed presentation or design for pitches then don’t worry as they will not take away from your creativity rather help them with their decision-making process.
Sometimes clients like seeing multiple options before deciding on which direction they want to go in.
Creative contests are like a made-up lottery for business owners. On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for both sides.
The company gets to test out an idea without paying for overheads and designers get their work seen by potentially thousands of people who may never have known they existed before.
But just as with any lottery, some pretty big problems come from this method of spec work.
First, you never know what the client is looking for or even who they are looking to hire. Perhaps their budget isn’t large enough to pay your fee anyway?
They may be getting designs from all over the world and still manage to find someone local that fits into their smaller price range.
Second, there's no guarantee that they are going to hand over the prize money. It’s not unheard of for a company to run an entire competition and then never get back in touch with the winner.
Third, there's no real way to know what your work will be used for after they have gotten you to sign over all rights.
If it is going on their website or even social media, that might seem fine. Or, if they are using it as a part of their marketing campaign, that might be okay too.
But what if you designed something for them and then find out that they have used your work on an item to sell in the future?
What about when someone else steals your design or idea without giving you credit? It happens more often than you think.
- Employment Openings
This is where spec work becomes a little bit more tricky to navigate around, even though it’s not technically considered as speculative.
When someone offers your an employment opportunity or contract that requires previous experience before they will hire you, then it's time to take the offer seriously.
As much as they could be offering to get you started with the company, it’s never good news when someone doesn’t want to hire without seeing what you can do first.
After all, spec work is used because there's no other way for companies to find out how well their design would fit into their business model or whether your services are even needed.
If they are willing to take a risk on you, then make sure that the offer is worth your time and effort before signing any kind of contract with them.
However, if this opportunity means taking part in something like an internship or mentorship program where no payment will be involved at all apart from food and travel expenses then it could be worth your while.
Pros of Speculative Work
1. A Breakthrough Opportunity
This is probably the most obvious one of all. It gives you a chance to impress prospective clients with your work before they have even paid for it.
It may be a breakthrough opportunity or even a potential life-saver if you are struggling to find work.
2. Build a Portfolio
Speculation will never be the same as getting paid for your efforts but it can be a great way to build up your portfolio and gain experience before leaping full-time freelancing.
It's also good practice if planning on starting with an agency or design firm in the future since they usually expect a certain number of spec pieces as part of their recruitment process.
3. Getting Paid to Practice
It might not be the best scenario but some clients will pay you for your time even if it's just an hour or two here and there, especially if they know that this is helping them with something on a larger scale.
It can be the perfect way to earn some money if you don't have any other work and there is no harm in putting your name out there for potential opportunities.
4. It Is a Good Opportunity to Pitch for More Work
Once you've completed your spec work, nothing is stopping you from pitching it as a job proposal. You could even end up working with the same company in the future if they like what you submit and how it fits into their business model.
If they reject your idea, then use another one of your ideas or an alternative approach to convince them that this is something they need to consider after all.
5. A Way of Gaining Experience Without Investing Too Much Time and Money
Let’s face it, everyone needs experience in the industry but not everyone has enough time or money to invest into gaining that valuable element we call exposure.
The calculation will cover both of those costs and you will at least be able to include these spec samples as a part of your resume if needed.
6. The Chance to Work with a Company for Free
If they plan on hiring you or giving you some kind of contract after using your work, then it could mean that the company may have been impressed enough by what you submitted.
You could also find yourself getting paid for this work shortly if the pieces are good enough and they believe that you can deliver more pieces just like them. Of course, this is highly unlikely but it’s still possible nonetheless.
7. Better Opportunities All-Around at Some Point in Your Career
When asked about speculative work, one freelancer had this to say: "I don't think speculative work is any worse than unpaid internships in the current freelance climate. There are advantages to both, and either one can be a way into a company."
It's no secret that many companies use this method of hiring at some point or another during their business cycle so if you are willing to put in the time for spec work, then it could lead to better opportunities in future years when times get tough.
8. A New Way of Working with Clients
It's always good practice (and even recommended) when working full-time or part-time with clients on web design projects, graphic design work, and more to assess what they need first before anything else.
This helps in avoiding conflict between team members and communicating expectations that everyone is on the same page.
Using speculative work, you can take this process to another level by exploring what your client needs before they even know it themselves.
This will set you apart from most other freelancers out there which could be the key to helping your business succeed over time.
9. Improve Your Design Skills
As most designers already know, web design work (and any type of design work for that matter) always gets better with practice; it's just a part of growing as an artist in any capacity one might think of.
Speculative work gives you the chance to put your skills into action without having to worry about getting paid or spending too much money on supplies since everything is done for free.
10. Work on Stretching Your Creative Muscles
Since you are essentially working for free, it means that there is no pressure to complete the task or project within a certain timeframe or budget which could lead to your work being subpar compared to other designers out there.
Speculative work will help you take control of this situation by giving you full control over what needs to be done, how much time it should take, and even where to source any additional materials you need. This helps in keeping everything under your roof which can lead to freeing up more time (and money) down the road if desired since this type of work can be done almost anywhere anytime with nearly anyone willing to give it they're all!
11. Get on the Radar of a New Company and Land Some Paid Work
When you first start as a freelancer, it can be hard to get your name out on the street so to speak. This is especially true if you are new to working with clients and just don't have any previous work experience under your belt yet.
One way around this for those looking to find freelance work is speculative projects which give you the chance of getting paid without having to provide samples of your past work or meet their expectations beforehand.
Of course, there’s always that chance for non-profits or smaller businesses with less financial resources to offer but it also gives you a good chance at landing some type of contract job down the road with them too!
Cons of Speculative Work
1. No Guarantee of Payment
Even after doing all that hard work, it's still possible that you won’t be paid a single cent for this project and your efforts will be in vain.
If you need the money, this could seriously damage any kind of financial stability that you have left so it's important to consider all options before accepting a speculative job offer.
2. Can't Use Your Work for Anything Else
It doesn’t matter if they are using your work on their website or even social media, they still own the rights to that work.
You can't use it for your portfolio or even show people what you've been working on if it's not going in there either.
3. Lack of Quality Control
The client might not have taken into consideration your deadlines or had some other kind of time restriction so there is no guarantee that you will be able to produce the best quality work if they are rushing you.
This can be extremely frustrating if you are trying to build up your portfolio to kick-start a new career.
4. No Guarantee of Future Work
It's a catch-22 situation with this one especially if you need the money soon. If you say no, they might not offer you any more work and there is always a chance that they could recommend someone else to take your place for their next project as well which would be extremely frustrating.
5. Delaying Your Career
Depending on how much time you want to spend on speculative opportunities, it may hurt your chances of joining an actual company full-time instead of doing freelance work part-time or giving up entirely because you haven't been able to produce anything worthwhile yet!
This type of mentality can ruin anyone's career so it's important to consider all angles before embarking on a new adventure.
6. You Need to Know When to Say No
If you're in a good financial position, it might be nice to take on some speculative projects to explore your creativity without having to worry about all the extra stuff that goes into making that money back in the end however there are times when you need to say no!
No matter how much fun or how easy something might seem, if it isn't going anywhere or is just plain hurting your chances of making more money down the road, it may be best for you and your clients if you passed up this opportunity. It's not worth destroying your entire career over one project right?
You should also consider working with other people who have already gone through this process since they might be able to offer some insight as well so you can learn from their mistakes!
7. The Client Might Be a Bad Fit
The client might ask for the impossible and there isn't any way you could ever meet those requirements which means that they will end up moving on without considering your work at all or causing even more problems down the road if they do decide to hire someone else who has no idea what is going on with the project whatsoever.
8. No Guarantee of Follow-up Work
Even if you're happy with how everything turned out, it doesn't mean that this client is also happy with your work causing them to withhold payment or refuse cooperation altogether!
You could spend days getting the perfect outline and design only for the client to end up walking away, leaving you with nothing and no way of ever getting your money or finishing your project.
9. You Might Be Taken Advantage Of
There is always a chance that this job isn't worth what they are paying and there is also an equal chance that you will be working for hours without getting paid at all.
This type of job could cause you to lose focus on anything else that might be happening in your life causing more harm than good!
10. It's Almost Impossible to Teach Yourself Anything New
If you're making websites, it doesn't matter if someone teaches you how to make them since there are manuals available online however if they want something more complicated or specific, then it becomes more difficult to teach yourself unless you have an extremely high IQ or someone to walk you through the process step by step.
11. You Might Not Have the Necessary Experience
If you are new to this industry, it might be best for you to not even waste your time on speculative work since most clients won't care about your previous experience. This means that they will expect you to know everything right off the bat meaning that if you don't deliver what is expected of you then they will just move on leaving you with nothing at all.
This can especially hurt your career if you don't have any real-world experience so try sticking with internships or smaller companies who might appreciate your input instead of hiring someone who has already done the job before.
How to respond to a Speculative work
Speculative work is a double-edged sword and this will always leave you with some kind of risk attached to it.
However, taking one step back to get two steps forward, later on, could be worth your while if the opportunity arises at just the right time.
There are lots of pros that come along with speculative work but make sure that you are certain of what your decision is before accepting anything.
It might not feel great to have done all this work for nothing but it also gives you more experience and a stronger portfolio, which could be invaluable in the future if the right opportunity presents itself.
It's important to know when enough is enough so make sure that you don't take on any work that you can't deliver on.
It would be a great chance for exposure but it could also leave you with nothing to show for your efforts so always consider what's best for your career first and foremost, even if that means missing out on this opportunity.
Speculative work is not the same as paid freelance opportunities but it can still help you build up your portfolio and gain some valuable experience.
A Speculative work opportunity may not be the most ideal scenario but if you need to build up your portfolio or establish a new business, it can still help you in some way.
It is kind of like buying a lottery ticket and hoping for the best but if you play smart and make the most of your opportunity, it could still be worth your while.
Just be careful of what you're getting yourself into and try not to accept any commitments that you can't realistically fulfill.
Make sure that this is something that will benefit both parties and never take on work unless you are 100% certain of what they want from you.
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