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:
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.
Let’s dig into some of the different forms of spec work.
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.
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), 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.
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.
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.
It’s also important to know there are instances when work is done without compensation, instances that are not considered working on spec.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
This can include actual case studies of work you have done for past clients, references from clients, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A verbal contract (formally called an oral contract) refers to an agreement between two parties that's made —you guessed it— verbally.
Formal contracts, like those between an employee and an employer, are typically written down. However, some professional transactions take place based on verbally agreed terms.
Freelancers are a good example of this. Often, freelancers will take on projects having agreed on the terms and payment via the phone, or an email. Unfortunately, sometimes clients don't pull through on their agreements, and hardworking freelancers can find themselves out of pocket and wondering whether a legal battle is worth all the hassle.
The main differences between written and oral contracts are that the former is signed and documented, whereas the latter is solely attributed to verbal communication.
Verbal contracts are a bit of a gray area for most people unfamiliar with contract law —which is most of us, right?— due to the fact that there's no physical evidence to support the claims made by the implemented parties.
For any contract (written or verbal) to be binding, there are four major elements which need to be in place. The crucial elements of a contract are as follows:
Therefore, an oral agreement has legal validity if all of these elements are present. However, verbal contracts can be difficult to enforce in a court of law. In the next section, we take a look at how oral agreements hold up in court.
Most business professionals are wary of entering into contracts orally because they can difficult to enforce in the face of the law.
If an oral contract is brought in front of a court of law, there is increased risk of one party (or both!) lying about the initial terms of the agreement. This is problematic for the court, as there's no unbiased way to conclude the case; often, this will result in the case being disregarded. Moreover, it can be difficult to outline contract defects if it's not in writing.
That being said, there are plenty of situations where enforceable contracts do not need to be written or spoken, they're simply implied. For instance, when you buy milk from a store, you give something in exchange for something else and enter into an implied contract, in this case - money is exchanged for goods.
There are some types of contracts which must be in writing.
The Statute of Frauds is a legal statute which states that certain kinds of contracts must be executed in writing and signed by the parties involved. The Statute of Frauds has been adopted in almost all U.S states, and requires a written contract for the following purposes:
Typically, a court of law won't enforce an oral agreement in any of these circumstances under the statute. Instead, a written document is required to make the contract enforceable.
Contract law is generally doesn't favor contracts agreed upon verbally. A verbal agreement is difficult to prove, and can be used by those intent on committing fraud. For that reason, it's always best to put any agreements in writing and ensure all parties have fully understood and consented to signing.
Verbal agreements can be proven with actions in the absence of physical documentation. Any oral promise to provide the sale of goods or perform a service that you agreed to counts as a valid contract. So, when facing a court of law, what evidence can you provide to enforce a verbal agreement?
Unfortunately, without solid proof, it may be difficult to convince a court of the legality of an oral contract. Without witnesses to testify to the oral agreement taking place or other forms of evidence, oral contracts won't stand up in court. Instead, it becomes a matter of "he-said-she-said" - which legal professionals definitely don't have time for!
If you were to enter into a verbal contract, it's recommended to follow up with an email or a letter confirming the offer, the terms of the agreement , and payment conditions. The more you can document the elements of a contract, the better your chances of legally enforcing a oral contract.
Another option is to make a recording of the conversation where the agreement is verbalized. This can be used to support your claims in the absence of a written agreement. However, it's always best to gain the permission of the other involved parties before hitting record.
Fundamentally, most verbal agreements are legally valid as long as they meet all the requirements for a contract. However, if you were to go to court over one party not fulfilling the terms of the contract, proving that the interaction took place can be extremely taxing.
So, ultimately, the question is: written or verbal agreements?
Any good lawyer, contract law firm, or legal professional would advise you to make sure you formalize any professional agreement with a written agreement. Written contracts provide a secure testament to the conditions that were agreed and signed by the two parties involved. If it comes to it, a physical contract is much easier to eviden in legal circumstances.
Freelancers, in particular, should be aware of the extra security that digital contracts may provide. Many people choose to stick to executing contracts verbally because they're not sure how to write a contract, or they think writing out the contract terms is too complicated or requires expensive legal advice. However, this is no longer the case.
Today, we have a world of resources available at our fingertips. The internet is a treasure trove of invaluable information, platforms, and software that simplifies our lives. Creating, signing, and sending contracts has never been easier. What's more, you don't have to rely on a hiring a lawyer to explain all that legal jargon anymore.
There are plenty of tools available online for freelancers to use for guidance when drafting digital contracts. Tools like Bonsai provide a range of customizable, vetted contract templates for all kinds of freelance professionals. No matter what industry you're operating in, Bonsai has a professional template to offer.
A written contract makes the agreement much easier to prove the terms of the agreement in case something were to go awry. The two parties involved can rest assured that they're legal rights are protected, and the terms of the contract are sufficiently documented. Plus, it provides both parties with peace of mind to focus on the tasks at hand.
Bonsai's product suite for freelancers allows users to make contracts from scratch, or using professional templates, and sign them using an online signature maker.
With Bonsai, you can streamline and automate all of the boring back-office tasks that come with being a freelancer. From creating proposals that clients can't say no to, to sealing the deal with a professional contract - Bonsai will revolutionize the way you do business as a freelancer.
Why not secure your business today and sign up for a free trial?