Is Spec Work Evil?

Is Spec Work Evil? An Exclusive Interview with crowdSPRING

With all that’s going on in the design industry these days, whether it be individuals undervaluing their own work or effecting other freelancers and how potential clients approach them, or designers caught stealing other peoples work and passing it off as their own, to showcase or sell, it’s no surprise that freelancers are building up walls, barricading themselves and their clients from anything that may effect their high prices or even reputation.

So when a company like CrowdSPRING comes along and announces to the world that it’ll be holding projects on its site where designers from all over are welcome to compete for the $$$$, it’s not surprising that many of these barricaded freelancers come out of hiding with lit torches and pitch forks.

You see, these freelancers, few in number mind you, have developed a habit, a pretty nasty, unprofessional, ineffective and very unproductive habit, of stomping their feet. That’s about all they do, stomp their feet like spoiled little brats and complain, complain about everything and anything, from the world being round to CrowdSPRING awarding over $2,000,000 in project prize money to thousands of designers all over the world.

That’s right folks, CrowdSPRING has held over 4,800 projects, which have all been completed and awarded the winning designers of all these projects a total of over $2MILLION, yet some freelancers, a couple dozen we could name and point you in the direction of, feel it’s their god given duty to bash CrowdSPRING, to complain and try with all their might to stop this site from helping thousands of designers and thousands of clients.

You might be wondering, why are these freelancers complaining though? Why are they against CrowdSPRING in general? What do they have to gain from bashing this company and why do they claim it’s so evil? Well, they don’t really have an argument, and trying to discuss the issue at hand with any of them always results in name calling, irrational arguments and outrageous accusations.

Some of their most frequent complaints/arguments sound like this: – Designers using CrowdSPRING steal other designers work and use them in contests, be it plain rips or the concepts.

- Many of the Designers on CrowdSPRING work for no money, only one ends up getting awarded the project money.

- CrowdSPRING encourages spec work

- CrowdSPRING does not ban offending designers, they give them three chances, so if they steal the first time it’s ok, second time, it’s still ok, third time and then they get banned.

- Clients on CrowdSPRING are allowed tons of revisions, they should not be allowed these outrageous revisions for the projects budget that is awarded.

To put this all to rest, or at least try to bring clarification on some of these points, I’ve asked my good friend Ross Kimbarovsky; co-founder of crowdSPRING, to answer a few questions and better explain a few points that he has not addressed publicly before.

So Ross, before we start with the serious stuff, tell everyone a little about yourself, what you did before launching CrowdSPRING and what you do now as its proud co-founder?

For thirteen years prior to crowdSPRING, I practiced law (focusing on intellectual property). I represented entrepreneurs, small and midsize businesses, and some of the world’s most successful companies (If you’re wondering – yes, I sometimes worked on spec as an attorney.). I ended up focusing on the Internet by a sheer fluke. When I started in 1995, my law firm offered to pay the $19.95 monthly fee for my dial-up Internet account if I’d put together a website for them. I was a poor student and this seemed like a no-brainer – free Internet! I wasn’t very bright. Over one thousand pages later (and countless hours hand-coding everything in Windows Notepad), my firm had a website and I had a free Internet account. But that experience helped me to learn HTML, and led me to focus on the Internet and online law (I still code using a text editor – now TextEdit – although I rarely code these days).

Start-ups are fun, but are also very demanding. There’s far more work to be done than people to do it, and capacity is always an issue. We’re fortunate to have an awesome team, and I spend a good deal of my time supporting them. On most days, I’m essentially a freelancer. On a typical day, I’m setting/discussing strategy with my business partner (and co-founder), Mike Samson, working with our dev team, discussing new features and ideas with the team, focusing on web analytics and site optimization testing, keeping our production site running smoothly, communicating with our community of nearly 40,000 people, writing, playing with Lucy (a beautiful six month old chocolate lab who spends workdays with us at the office), sharing interesting resources (I maintain my own account on twitter – @rosskimbarovsky and also our company account – @crowdSPRING), and trying to help anywhere I can (other than human resources and accounting – I am fortunate that Mike handles, among other things, those important tasks). I also share kitchen/garbage duties with the rest of the team and importantly, after every lunch (we typically eat together), I clean the lunch table.

We hear so much about Designers stealing work and posting it all as project entries, some just end up ripping concepts and to be honest, even I have spotted several obvious plagiarized pieces. Now, this happens all over the industry, be it on other similar sites, on blogs, forums, showcase galleries or, most recently, these brand sale sites, tell us Ross, what is CrowdSPRING doing to fight these unethical designers?

This is a serious problem offline and online, it happens everywhere, including at the highest levels and involves some of the world’s most famous companies. Such behavior is unlawful and wrong.

crowdSPRING protects intellectual property in five important ways – policies, code of conduct, education, process, and technology.

Policies: Our User Agreement prohibits people from selling, reproducing, modifying, displaying, preparing derivative works from, reposting, or using the content found on our site – without the express written permission from the owner of the work. Our Copyright Policy makes it easy for copyright owners and others to report alleged violations of intellectual property rights. We recognize that some people don’t want to read legal mumbo-jumbo, and so we do much more, as you’ll see below.

Code of Conduct: We modeled our code of conduct on the AIGA’s code of conduct – to make very clear that our community doesn’t tolerate theft. Before we implemented our code of conduct, we spent weeks discussing and debating it with our community (in our forums). We require every designer to clearly and fully disclose their IP rights to every single design they upload to crowdSPRING. And we make them pinky swear that they’ll abide by the code of conduct.

Education: crowdSPRING is committed to helping designers learn – about design and about intellectual property. We rely on education to help us protect intellectual property. Among other things, our community has written outstanding guides for other designers, we’ve published interviews with successful designers from our community focusing on best practices, and we’ve shared helpful resources, such as the free e-book we made available to everyone last week: Contracts For Designers Who Hate Contracts . [Incidentally – I haven’t shared this publicly yet, but I’m currently working on a version for web developers, which I plan to release in August].

Process: We’ve designed our site so that it’s easy for anyone to “report a violation” when viewing any detailed image on our site, and we invite our entire community, over 32,000 designers and nearly 40,000 users total, to help us. After a project is over and the winner is selected, we screen the other designs to remove most of the detail and color. We also have an internal process for responding to alleged violations of IP theft. We thoroughly investigate every violation – we give the accused a chance to present their case and/or to withdraw their design. We keep all involved parties informed about the progress of our investigation. If necessary, a three person panel at crowdSPRING votes.

Technology: We’ve built numerous internal tools that allow us to monitor various areas of our site to find “red flags” that merit a further investigation. For obvious reasons, we don’t disclose what those tools do or how they work.

As most people know, rules and policies must be enforced to be effective. Although we haven’t established a rigid system (we look at each case on its own merits), we generally remove people from crowdSPRING permanently after their third violation (not all violations are violations of IP – violations could also be verbal abuse of others, etc.).

Why don’t you automatically BAN offending, unethical designers?

We sometimes do. As you know from your own experience in building communities, a thriving and growing community is a complex “ecosystem”. Rigid rules that help in one area can undermine another, and so we look for a good balance. We’ve removed people after two violations, and sometimes, after a single violation. We also have suspended users for varying periods of time (ranging in time from days to months).

If you listen to some critics, the appropriate punishment would be either decapitation or petrification (or both). But in reality, an automatic ban – as with most “automatic” responses, can be unfair and unreasonable. We’ll leave decapitation to Henry VIII, and while we wouldn’t mind trying petrification as a form of punishment, we’re not particularly skilled and more importantly, deathly afraid of Slytherin’s Basilisk ourselves.

Most reasonable people would agree that there is a difference when a designer outright steals the design of another, and when one unintentionally comes up with a design that’s very similar to another design. This happens, both online and offline. One of my favorite examples is illustrated in a blog post written by designer David Airey – comparing the similarities among several corporate logos.

Both situations could technically be violations of copyright, but it wouldn’t be reasonable or proper to treat them the same. Still, while we don’t like to permanently remove people from our community – we absolutely will take strong and swift action when we see outright theft. We don’t tolerate theft of intellectual property.

How do you plan to improve the current system that’s in place?

We constantly look for ways to improve everything we do. For example, we’re working on a code of conduct for buyers, new educational materials, and additional tools that will help us to protect intellectual property and to enforce our policies. Most importantly, we continue to talk with our community – in our forums and on our blog – about ways that we can do better.

Remember that we’re a very young company, and still have much to learn. And while we’re heard some harsh criticism from some people, we’ve seen the criticism as an opportunity to improve, rather than a challenge to argue. And while some people have watched me vigorously and publicly debate the issue of speculative work with others on Twitter, I’ve invested far more time talking privately with designers and others, via Twitter, email, Skype, in-person, phone, etc. in an effort to better understand their criticisms and to find ways that crowdSPRING could improve. I owe a great deal to these people – some are the harshest and most vocal critics of our business model – for taking the time to educate me.

Spec work; the dreaded word ‘Spec’ has been haunting CrowdSPRING from day one with people accusing you of encouraging it, what’s the deal?

Saying that we encourage speculative work is like saying that companies that build cars encourage car accidents or that food companies encourage obesity. It’s true that our business model is based on speculative work. And we readily admit that speculative work can be risky (most online marketplaces completely ignore those risks). The risks are real, and it is both foolish and irresponsible to ignore them. Back in 2006, we spent a great deal of time thinking about WHY speculative work was risky (among other reasons: buyers could simply walk away, no legal contracts, theft of work, lack of communication, etc.). We talked to hundreds of designers around the world to better understand the risks, what we could do to decrease those risks, and what alternatives were available to those designers and others like them around the world.

We spent one year developing not just our software, but also our policies and procedures, so that we could effectively respond to the risks that speculative work created for both buyers and designers. We introduced innovative features and practices when we launched in May 2008 (even today, these features are unmatched on any other marketplace). To name just a few: we require escrow in every single project, we have no abandoned projects – if a buyer walks away we award the project and pay the designer, we offer free customized legal agreements protecting the purchase of intellectual property (we don’t just give you forms), we’ve created a system of non-disclosure agreements to attract more sophisticated buyers offering much higher awards, and we’ve built full project management tools to help the parties complete their project on our site.

But some in the design community are unhappy with speculative work, regardless of HOW it’s implemented. That’s both OK and fair. While we welcome all, we recognize that crowdSPRING isn’t for everyone. The design industry around the world is huge and we believe that we’re expanding the market for design services – by allowing many new buyers who have limited budgets to get work done by very talented designers who otherwise have difficulty competing in the traditional model. We understand that designers who have paying clients and plenty of work have few reasons to speculate. On the other hand, designers who are looking to improve their skills, find new clients, and learn new techniques, can benefit greatly when they join our community.

Are the thousands of designers on CrowdSPRING unknowingly participating in projects churning out design after design only to not get selected? I mean, it’s my understanding that if a designer is aware of his chances, then he knows the risks he takes of not getting paid for his/her work, correct? Which is why I personally don’t understand why some freelancers protest that CrowdSPRING creative’s don’t get paid, it makes no sense to me, what business is it of theirs if over 30,000 creative’s choose to take part in these projects…Ross, please clarify the above and maybe shed some light on what these people are whining about!

We believe in free will and free markets, and you’re absolutely right that designers who work on crowdSPRING weigh the risks and benefits – as they should. Speculative work is one of many options available to designers (and to photographers, writers, artists, filmmakers, architects, and many other professionals). For some, it’s not a good option. For others, it’s the best way to find new clients. It’s a personal choice for each designer – much like the choice you made to invest time and money in building several outstanding online communities.

We present the risks and the benefits as transparently as we can – and invite designers to choose whether to participate. Our community has grown from zero to over 32,000 designers in just over one year – which perhaps more than anything else, speaks volumes about our business model. And while there are many who don’t receive financial rewards in our marketplace, there are thousands who do. In the past year, we’ve paid approximately $2 million dollars to thousands of designers around the world (we pay 100% of awards posted by buyers and charge buyers a 15% fee in addition to their award amount). About 50% of the projects on crowdSPRING result in follow-on work outside of crowdSPRING.

The revisions, ok…freelancers that do complain about CrowdSPRING have on numerous occasions protested with lit hair wigs that they don’t agree with how you allow clients an unlimited # of revisions on project designs, on submitted work and such, mind putting out the flame and their minds at rest by explaining/clarifying this for us?

This is an excellent question and one I don’t recall ever answering before. Back in 2006, when we interviewed several hundred designers, we learned that many (but certainly not all) designers will work with a client until a client is happy with the design. This surprised us because we initially thought we would limit the number of revisions. When we launched, we decided to let each designer choose how many revisions to provide to a client during a project. After all, that’s precisely what happens in the offline world – some designers will offer unlimited revisions while others will offer a specific number of revisions. This way, people can continue to work in the manner that they prefer. This does mean that some designers will work much harder in a project than other designers, submitting more concepts and revisions. But more concepts and revisions doesn’t necessarily translate to more success. Some of our most successful designers submit one or two revisions.

We’ve continued to evaluate and discuss the issue of revisions with our community. Some have suggested we set limits on the number of concepts during an open project. Others have suggested that we don’t allow revisions at all while the project is open, or that we allow only a limited number of revisions. We’ll continue to keep an open mind and will absolutely make a change in the future if it’s appropriate.

Here are some of my thoughts, Ross, tell me what you think: Why not have a section with a pool of pro designers and the client can look at their ports & choose 5-10 people to work on it, based on say… each designers set base fee (say $100) and the client picks as many designers as they want but have to pay each designer their base fee. Some would have a base fee of $50, the professionals this system may attract will have a base fee of $300, the design chosen is awarded some extra money and everyone’s happy, not to mention the client gets a top notch design.

This is a very interesting idea and one that we’ve been thinking about trying. In fact, we designed our software to easily allow this – we just haven’t yet found the right time to try. We know that there is much room to improve everything we do, including improving the overall financial benefit to each designer who participates on crowdSPRING. And it’s clear that allowing a smaller group of designers to work on a project where each receives some compensation, would accomplish part of that goal. We’ve been talking with our community about doing something like this in the near future, and we’ve informally and quietly run several projects testing elements of this approach.

How about having pre-approved designers in a separate section, one where once they meet certain criteria they’re labeled as professionals.

I certainly see many of the benefits to pre-approving designers. But if we were to do this, we would need to re-define one of our core values as a business – fair access for all. We think that fair access is important, and we believe that the benefits can be achieved by other means.

Calling someone a “professional” doesn’t automatically mean they’re a good designer, and we’ve always had difficulty with the types of criteria that are traditionally used to define someone as a professional – education, experience, full time work as a designer, etc. While those things are not unimportant, we believe that good design is good design, and bad design is bad design. Both non-professionals and professionals create plenty of good and bad design. The label itself is often irrelevant, and it continues to amaze me how many outstanding designers are self-taught.

Having said that, we recognize that some clients might prefer to make preliminary decisions (such as about who will participate in their project) based on traditional criteria. And so we have two types of projects – Standard and Pro. One of the big differences between them (there are many) is that in Pro projects (which have much higher minimums), clients must approve each designer before the designer is allowed to participate in the project. Most clients will look at portfolios in deciding whether to allow someone to participate. By building the tools and procedures that give clients this control, we’ve empowered clients to do precisely what you’ve suggested if that’s how they want to proceed (and some do) – work with a smaller group of designers who meet the client’s defined criteria.

With that, I really don’t have much more to add, if the few designers out there I hoped to educate with this can still find something to protest about in terms of how CrowdSPRING is run, then they’re no longer worth my time or any one else’s for that matter. It’s clear, those that still scream Spec Work every time CrowdSPRING is mentioned, or those that still think the thousands of designers using CrowdSPRING are better off tweeting anti this and anti that like them, are nothing more than a dozen or so wannabe designers with nothing but time to waste, and probably no bills to pay.

As always, I have stuck by designers, and I’m going to stick by a company like CrowdSPRING that gives 100% of the awarded money to thousands of it’s designers, unlike the cesspool BrandStack.com for example that rips their designers out of 15% of their hard earned money on every single logo sale, however… that’s another blog post all together.

I hope you guys have been enlightened, because really, it’s not rocket science. CrowdSPRING is obviously trying to do right by its members and by the design industry in general, they’re huge, not even 2years old and perfecting the service just takes time, not that I know of a bullet proof service online anyway. So for those that have not yet used CrowdSPRING, go check it out, and to the sinkers (you know who you are) find another tree to bark up. There, signed, sealed and delivered ;)

Toni Zova
Personal Site: www.tonizova.com
Twitter: @tonfue


  1. seo4hireseo4hire03-05-2010

    I see no evil in this business model. Free enterprise works because freelancer have several options. If freelancers don’t like CrowdSpring then they should go to other freelancing sites.

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