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5 things you ought to know about spec work (and a case study)

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Send smart proposals and protect yourself from spec work with Bonsai.
Send smart proposals and protect yourself from spec work with Bonsai.
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Updated on:
December 11, 2022
December 11, 2022
Send smart proposals and protect yourself from spec work with Bonsai.
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Being competitive in the freelance marketplace means bidding on jobs, drafting proposal template and sending out quotes, attempting to get new clients…the list goes on.

One of the requests sometimes made of freelancers is to perform work “on spec” - also know as “spec work,” speculative work, or free pitching. This means you’ve been asked to provide your talents to prospective clients, without an agreement or official freelance contract that will result in a fee in exchange.

Perhaps a prospective client asks for samples or a finished piece of work before agreeing to compensate you. If you perform work on spec, you’re usually doing it in the hopes of getting a contract, or getting paid, but there’s no certainty that you will.

This situation can arise for a wide variety of freelancers, including those who use products and resources like Bonsai. It can be asked of:

  • Designers
  • Developers
  • Writers
  • Photographers
  • Videographers
  • Consultants

Sometimes this spec work is under the guise of a test, or an entry exam, and often the freelancer loses the rights to the creative work. If a client is particularly unethical, they can turn around and use the work as they want. There really are no legal repercussions if there isn’t a freelance contract in place.

While we like to expect the best from everyone, there are those who would use work on spec to the disadvantage of a freelancer. So let’s explore working on spec, so that you can be informed and protected as you build or grow your freelance business. It’s important that you know these five things about speculative work.


1. What is spec work?

Let’s dig into some of the different forms of spec work.

1.1. Contests

This is perhaps the most common form of spec work, when a “contest” is held whereby freelancers compete for the prize of getting paid for their work. We’ll use graphic design in this example, as it frequently happens to designers.

Businesses will often run a contest to get a logo or a website designed. Designers do the work and hope they “win” the contest and get paid. This can be particularly enticing for designers just starting their business, with hopes of gaining exposure and generating some quick cash flow, so they might consider graphic design spec work.

But what are the real chances of winning? Not great. And does the “winner” get adequately compensated for their creative efforts? Not often. Businesses usually run such contests in order to get work done cheaply. After all, they will get an endless number of designs and only have to pay for the “winner.” This is not really a winning scenario for a freelancer.

1.2. Bidding on work

Freelance bids can include doing a significant amount of work before being awarded a contract. Once again, if you’re just starting out and you want to build your portfolio, earn your first contract (ideally a retainer agreement), or really need the cash flow, it can be tempting to do whatever it takes in preparing a bid.

There’s nothing wrong with putting substantial work into a freelance bid, but be careful about doing significant work and not winning contracts, or about doing the work and losing the rights to it. You should retain the creative rights to work done in attempting to win a contract.

1.3. Agency pitches

Agencies are often willing to do spec work in order to bring in big clients, or win big contracts. However, big agencies often have the resources to perform spec work in comparison to smaller agencies or individual freelancers, so what is spec work to them anyway?

But those doing the work at the agency still expend creative energy, often in a losing cause, if the contract isn’t won and the work is given over to the prospective client. If the contract is won, the individuals who did the creative work may not end up being the ones servicing the clients anyway!

It can be difficult for freelancers to try and compete with agencies, but the temptation to perform speculative work to win a client is still there. The pressure to bring in paying clients and win contracts at all costs can impact every size of agency and individual freelancers. Everyone can suffer with the loss of time, money and sometimes credibility.

In fact, some agencies are breaking the mold and not doing work on spec. By saying no to spec work, some agencies are growing on their own terms, with clients who value partnership rather than a win-at-all-costs attitude.

1.4. Take-home assignments

While not as common, if a prospective client includes an interview as part of the decision process, there are times that an assignment is requested as part of the interview. While often conducted on-site, which doesn’t take much time, there are instances when an assignment is “sent home” with the freelancer.

This can result in much time spent completing the assignment, only to fail in securing the contract, or receiving any feedback on the work done, and losing the work completed as part of the assignment.


2. What is not spec work

It’s also important to know there are instances when work is done without compensation, instances that are not considered working on spec.

2.1. Crowdsourcing

Sometimes working on spec is called crowdsourcing, but they shouldn’t be confused. Crowdsourcing can be used to get specific pieces of work done, and those who do the work should get paid. Or those who access the results should pay for the work.

Crowdsourcing is often used by businesses for things like obtaining feedback. It shouldn’t be about getting creative people to do work for free, rather than be paid.

Let’s use an example to show the difference.

Crowdsourcing: A client pays for several logo designs, and wants to crowdsource the selection, so they ask a forum to vote on the best design.

Work on Spec: A client wants a new logo, so they ask for a forum to design it and pay only for the one they like. Again, not a great scenario for freelancers.

2.2. Volunteer work

This is when you agree to do work without compensation, sometimes for an organization in which you believe, but most often to gain experience.

An example is a beginning writer. Agreeing to do some writing without compensation, in order to have your byline published, is a great way to add to your portfolio, which in turn can generate paying work.

2.3. Pro bono work

This is somewhat similar to volunteer work, but usually done for a charity or non-profit. You’re agreeing to do work without compensation, to support the public good or a cause in which you believe.

An example is a workplace consultant, who agrees to do pro bono work with the staff of a shelter to advance their skills. If you want to run a successful consulting business and make money, read our guide on how to get into consulting and how to bill for consulting services.

2.4. Internships

This is when you do work or are placed in a work environment as part of an educational course or certification. Often it involves working without compensation, although it can include some compensation. Usually it’s for experience and to generate a certain number of hours worked, to work with a mentor, and/or to build a portfolio.

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3. The dark side of spec work

While doing work on spec can be a necessity when starting out, or if you really want to earn a contract, there are some negative aspects of spec work of which you should be aware.

First, you may lose money in the long run, particularly if you don’t win the contracts you’re bidding on with spec work. If time is money, your time and creative efforts are valuable. Doing work for free could be a losing proposition in the long run.

You may also find your work isn’t of the highest quality. Working with a client means just that – working with a client. Over the course of a project, your work includes conversations with the client, drafts that are commented on, revisions and further conversations….and so on.

Working on spec can be like working in a vacuum. You’re attempting to meet unknown expectations. As a result, you may not be happy with the end result, and the client won’t see your best work. In fact, the client also suffers when they settle for work done on spec. It’s better to work together with a client in a partnership.

There’s also the chance that your work will be exploited or plagiarized. If you don’t have a freelance contract, you don’t have a legal standing to protect your work. The client can do what they like with your work.

Having resources at your disposal to support your freelance business can help ensure you don’t get caught in a bad situation like this. Bonsai offers a free trial for its services, which includes tools for freelance proposals, contracts, freelance invoicing, time tracking, and resources to educate freelancers.


4. When spec work can be good

All this is not to say there isn’t any place for working on spec. For instance, when you are starting out in your freelance business, you may want to take on some work on spec to build up your freelance portfolio website. Having a real-world challenge may improve your skills and give you good material with which to earn contracts in the future.

You may also decide to take on some work on spec in order to branch out and earn new clients. If you’ve had trouble earning new contracts, such work may be an opportunity to do so.

However, it’s important to understand the risks before you enter into such work. If you’re doing spec work on a regular basis, you’re selling yourself short and you aren’t using your creative talents to their full potential. You’re spending time on this free work rather than spending time earning clients who value your work, clients you can bill. As well, if you do earn the contract, consider whether this is the type of client with whom you want to build a long-term relationship.

If you have clients that continue to expect you to work for free, perhaps you need to find different clients. It shouldn’t be an expectation that you have to do extra work for free. It can be daunting to think of losing such a client, but if it happens, you will have time to commit to clients who want to work with you in a true partnership.

As Matt Nishiguchi points out, “Good clients will respect the professionalism you show by using agreements. Always protect yourself and your business.”

5. How to respond to requests for spec work

There will come a time in your freelance career that you will be asked to do work on spec, or an opportunity will arise that includes working on spec.

Here are some ideas for responding to such requests:

5.1. Explain the process you use when bidding on and completing work

‍This can include actual case studies of work you have done for past clients, references from clients, ask for testimonials, or the offer to meet with the prospective client to discuss further how you prefer to work. You can also explain to the client that you don’t do work without a written agreement in place. By outlining the value you bring when working in a partnership, you can display to the client that working on spec is not good for either side.

5.2. Offer to break the work into phases

This way, the client can opt out at the various stages of the work, but you have a contract in place that ensures you get paid at the completion of each phase.

5.3. Provide a guarantee

While this can be risky, if you’re confident in your work, you can offer to return some or all of the payment if the client is unhappy with your work. This is not a good idea for a significant project, as you could end up in the same situation as working on spec – without any compensation to show for the work.

5.4. Refuse to do the work

There’s always the option to say no, with an explanation why you won’t do work on spec. While it’s easy to be emotionally involved in wanting a big contract or a desirable piece of work, you are running a business. Lawyers don’t provide legal briefs on spec and accountants don’t do tax returns on spec. Explain to the client that collaboration is how you prefer to work. Partnering with a client and entering into a contract is the best bet for both sides in the relationship.


Case study: dealing with spec work as a freelancer

Now you’re armed with the information you need about working on spec. So let’s look at how you could handle a request to do spec work, with the right resources at your disposal to protect yourself – and your client – while ensuring the best work possible is provided.

The first step in attempting to get such work would be to submit a freelance proposal to the client, outlining how you typically do work and how you propose to do the work for them. Bonsai has resources to help you with proposals, including templates and professional branding. A high quality proposal will often win over a client rather than doing work on spec. This means you may need to have marketing material like case studies and references ready to use whenever a job arises, but that will be time well spent in advance.

You can also offer to do the work in stages, with payment at the end of the stages, and you can provide reports to the client on the time tracked working on their project.

If you do decide to do work on spec, or as part of a proposal process, make sure a contract written agreement is in place to ensure you retain the rights to your work. At the end of the process, if you aren’t successful in winning over the client, you should retain the rights to your work. If you are successful, then a subsequent contract needs to be completed. There are many factors to consider in preparing your freelance contract.

Finally, be sure that you have payment stipulations clearly outlined in your contract, to protect yourself and your business and ensure you have a regular cash flow. Bonsai’s invoice and payment tools make that part of the business easy for you as well.

Final thoughts

Working on spec is not an ideal situation for a freelance professional. While there may be times that it is appropriate, it’s best to avoid such requests, particularly if it seems the freelancers involved will be taken advantage of by the prospective client.

It’s better to establish your business on work that’s valued by clients who want to partner with you, to ensure the work is the highest standards and both sides are appreciative of the relationship.

If you’re ready to explore the tools available to you as part of Bonsai’s freelance suite, sign up for a free trial now.

Send smart proposals and protect yourself from spec work with Bonsai.
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