The Spec Work Conundrum: Should You Accept or Decline?

According to No!Spec, speculative work (spec work) is any kind of work submitted by freelancers to prospective clients before securing both their work and fees. Freelancers are asked to submit work as a “test” of their skills and capabilities, typically losing “the rights to their creative work because they failed to protect themselves with a contract or agreement. The clients use this freely-gained work as they see fit without fear of legal repercussion.” Spec work rarely benefits freelancers of any kind, from the artsy creatives to the tireless trades. But when you’re confronted with what seems like a chance to boost your business in the long-run by initially working for free, you might be tempted to sacrifice some of your time to partake.

Saying “no” is typically the best answer to any unpaid arrangement involving crowdsourcing, contests, and the like. But before you give any answer, ask yourself the following questions to help determine which response is the most appropriate given your situation.

1. Why shouldn’t I say “yes?”

When you run out of milk, do you ask the grocer to give you a free jug under the assumption that you’ll become a loyal, long-term shopper if he complies? Probably not. That would be silly, right?

Spec requests are similar to the free milk scenario. Like the grocer, you work hard to establish a legitimate business rapport and livelihood. What gives any potential shopper, supporter, or fan the right to benefit from your services for free?

If you’re trying to grow your business and think that spec work will help you raise awareness, consider that your efforts could backfire. Think about the time — and maybe even money — that spec jobs require. Isn’t it better to put your spare hours and cash towards marketing efforts, building a better website for your business, or brushing up on your skills by taking a class?

2. What if I sign a contract?

Before you agree to donate your time in exchange for promises, carefully consider your decision and understand that spec work seldom leads to fruitful, long-term ventures. After all, if you aren’t paid now, how can you be certain that you’ll get paid later?

If someone offers you a paying job after you complete work for free, or promises to promote and sell your work in the process, and you consider accepting the offer, ask for the agreement terms — such as a copyright contract — in writing. You should still be prepared for disappointment, as you may not receive the funds or promotions that you expected.

3. What if I’m afraid to say “no?”

We gain recognition and establish a good rapport within our communities, through social media, or on our websites by being people-pleasers. However, this doesn’t mean that we should work for free. By declining a request to work without compensation, you’re doing yourself and your peers a favor. If every freelancer is willing to complete spec work for free, no one will be able to charge fees moving forward, as all work could theoretically be completed for free by someone.

4. Will spec work help improve my skills?

If you think that working for free is the best way to refine your freelance writing or illustration skills, think again. Often times, there’s no quality control for unpaid work, so you won’t receive the same caliber of feedback that you would expect from a professional editor.

When approached with a lucrative speculative work arrangement, you can say “maybe,” or “I’ll think about it” if you’re not ready to say “no.” By doing this, you buy yourself time to consider every outcome of your decision.

5. What if it’s for a good cause?

Occasionally, freelancers must decide whether to donate their time and expertise to community needs such as a stream cleanup or house rebuilding project after a natural disaster. If you’re in the art business, maybe you’re asked to donate a painting or photograph to a silent auction to help raise money for a local charity. Whatever the case, donating your time can feel similar to performing speculative work; however, offering your time and services for the good of the community may tug at your heartstrings and lead you to ask questions like:

  • Should I jump at an opportunity to help my community, even if I’m uneasy about how it will affect my business?
  • Can I afford to sacrifice paid work for unpaid projects?
  • Could donating my time have a negative impact on my business’s bottom line?
  • Will charity work help to promote my business across the wider community?

Don’t stress yourself out over the decision; sometimes the best answer is simply “If I can, I will” or “If I can’t, I won’t.”

If you have a specific amount of time and finances to offer, it’s a good idea to set boundaries or limit how much time or services you’ll donate. Be upfront about your restrictions, deadlines, and schedule when lending a hand; in dire cases, even the smallest amount of help is appreciated.

At the end of the day, spec is a personal decision that only you can make based on your situation. If you can say “yes” to a sincere request for help, that’s great; just remember that there will be many more opportunities to complete work for free, whether you’ve been asked to donate your services for a good cause or to complete speculative jobs.


Lorna Hordos

Lorna Hordos is a home-flipping business owner and freelance writer.

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