Q+A: How do I compete with Fiverr and 99Designs?

Dear Amy,

I’m trying to market my illustration services to businesses within my area (I live in US) and I’ve gotten really good feedback. Trouble is, they’re not hiring me. They mentioned that they’d rather use someone from Fiverr or 99Designs because it’s cheaper and with the latter, they get the options of being showed many more designs from different designers and illustrators instead of just a few one person (aka me). I’m angry. Angry at this whole industry that demeans us as designers, artists and illustrators. How can I compete with someone who’s willing to do things for $5? I can’t and I won’t.

~ Kendra

Dear Kendra,

(For those who don’t know what Fiverr is, it’s a website that connects people with others who are willing to help them out, for $5. 99Designs is a website that offers crowdfunded ideas for logos, etc; gathering a pool of designers to pitch their work for a project)

This is a tough question, and it’s a complicated one at that. I do want to point out that my ideas and points differ quite wildly from the masses – but with good reason. So instead of dwelling on the negative, I’d like to offer three viewpoints for opportunity, from where I stand.

PRACTICE GROUNDS

I’m aware of the Fiverr culture that has been permeating the internet, and it can be extremely hair-pulling. But the ones who do offer their services on Fiverr, they’re usually creatives who offer their services for cheap to gain some recognition and traction for their work: first timers, new graduates or self-taught artists who wants to show off what they can do. Think of it as a $5 coupon for the first trial – if people liked working with them the first time, they’d most likely work with them again the second time, and it shouldn’t cost them $5 anymore (unless it is, then I’m not sure what their business model is for the long term).

The fact is, it’s a free market out there. Willing buyer, willing seller. Suppose you use the platform as a way to reach and connect with others instead? What can you gain from it? Or perhaps you pit your skills among others in 99Designs. If your work is good, you’ll shine among the rest. I’ve seen works on there – it can swing wildly between mediocre to well done. Like cream, the good ones always rise to the top.

Both of these websites to me, are great practice grounds for those who are looking to spread their name out there. Of course, there is a question that will inevitably arise – what are the quality of clients on there that you’d want to keep (especially since they’re used to paying such a low price?) The answer is this. The good clients – the paying clients – already work with great people. They know the value of a great artist or designer, and they’re willing to pay for the work done.

I recently was brought into a project involving a food-based startup. They wanted to redesign their logo after they had used the 99Designs platform. I frowned. I wasn’t frowning because they had used the platform. But rather, I was underwhelmed at the quality of the submissions that resulted. There were about 50 different logos for them to choose from, and yet none of them fit the company at all. There wasn’t a proper understanding or context from which these designers could build from, and it was glaringly clear that the startup needed help from someone who knew what to do.

Of course, if the clients are happy with their selection – it doesn’t matter. Their choosing to work with platforms such as Fiverr and 99Designs might be a bit of a gamble too. Or perhaps to them it’s not the most pertinent detail that needs ironing out. Or maybe they don’t know where else to turn to. I like to think that I give people the benefit of the doubt enough to not point to them as the sole problem. Willing seller, willing buyer, remember?

DO IT FOR YOURSELF

I know there are a lot of people out there who get really angry about this. The fact that artists are not being paid enough (or at all). And while I do agree with some of the arguments out there, I like to see things from both sides of the coin.

Five years ago when I was just starting out as an illustrator, I didn’t mind doing things for free. I didn’t mind because I had nothing to lose. Future income wasn’t something I held in my hand right now – I had nothing. My biggest worry was what if no one ever saw my work. Or that I didn’t get a chance to prove myself. So I put my hand up when someone asked if I would be willing to do work for a charity organization. Why wouldn’t I? I had time. I didn’t have money. If I stayed where I was – waiting for the right opportunity to come along – the equation would remain the same. What did I have to lose?

Five years on, I still get referrals from that stint. Good, paying ones too.

Maybe I got lucky. Or maybe it was also because I didn’t know whether I was good or not. And so by extending my hand, it was an invitation to get the feedback I needed from my market. If I wasn’t any good at what I did, then I wouldn’t have repeat customers; and it would be a chance for me to learn from my experience and improve. If I was deemed worthy, then I’d start charging for my efforts because I’d know I’m valuable. Remember that your value is almost always in the eye of the beholder.

I’d seriously doubt anyone who said that they have never been in the same position as I did – young, eager, and hungry. The only difference is, is that when I take on a job, no matter how big or small, I do it for myself first. Sure, clients will still get what they want at the end, but so will I. A lot of the whining I hear these days stem from those who feel as though they’re being ripped off, and that they are powerless to dictate the rules. And that’s not true at all.

Don’t play the victim.

START FROM YOUR STRENGTHS

Everyone can draw. The ability to draw doesn’t make you an illustrator. It’s the same with photographers and designers too – everyone with a camera can take pictures, just as much as anyone with Photoshop can design. The beauty lies in the value we are able to provide, which can’t wholly be summarised in our work. It lies in personality, process and story. It lies in the many variables that make up what we do.

Now, we can’t have people dictating that those without qualifications can’t practice or try their hand at a craft. Or even charge for it. That’s bigotry. That’s fear. Fear of being overshadowed by others who are more skilled than you (and perhaps, even cheaper than you). Fear of losing out to the many artists out there who you feel are competing for a slice of a shrinking pie.

Instead of working in fear, how about creating work from a place of strength? Say no to things that won’t allow you to shine. Recommend others who you know are more well suited to a job. Concentrate and seek out clients and briefs that gets you all giddy with excitement. Take on work that you’d be proud to show off in your portfolio. Don’t just do it for the money. If money is what you’re after, get a day job instead.

Accepting that the rules and landscape has changed for illustrators and designers everywhere is the first step to embracing it.

You say that you won’t get into it because it demeans your profession. Fair enough. But think of it this way: If your work doesn’t get seen because you’re holding out for more money, then you lose. Every time you don’t get to practice what you like doing, it’s already costing you opportunities. You’re losing. It’s a paradox.

The question then becomes: how much are you willing to lose before you’re open to the idea of trying something new? Something that might not pay off in the beginning, but pays dividends as you go along – you’ll learn to be quicker, more nimble. You’ll learn how weed out good clients from bad, and to know which projects are worth taking on and those that aren’t worth your time.

You can’t learn all those things twiddling your fingers and sitting on the side bench. You’ll need to get in there and roll up your sleeves.

It’s dirty. It’s tough. But it’s necessary.

Just remember to not be a victim.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS:
This is a really interesting topic and I’d love to hear what you think. Do you have any experience with any of the platforms mentioned above? What other opportunities do you see? Or perhaps you have some advice for Kendra? Share them with me in the comments below!

Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Maira Kalman at the Cooper Hewitt Museum

Today, I’m thrilled to have Pamela White writing about the Maira Kalman exhibition which is being held at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. She mentioned the exhibition during a recent Skype chat, and I asked her if she would revisit it again to share pictures of it with me (and you, dear readers!) And being the great sport she was, she immediately agreed! The below is her letter to me, sharing her thoughts and emotions as she explores the exhibition.

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Dear Amy,

I went back to the Cooper Hewitt Museum to document the Maira Kalman show for you and I’m so happy that I did. It is really wonderful to return to an exhibit to look more closely, or even to notice things that you missed the first time around. In this case though, the show had a whole new dimension on my second trip.

The gallery was full of live music, piano and oboe and Mozart… It was really magical to have the added surprise of musicians playing in the space. I realized that the gallery, this particular room, was originally the music room for the family of Andrew Carnegie who built and lived in this grand mansion with his wife and daughter at the turn of the 20th century. The museum, much like Maira’s work is both elegant and playful.

I have loved Maira Kalman’s artwork for a long time. I think I first saw one of her children’s books, maybe “Ooh-la-la (Max in Love)”, or an illustration in the New York Times. Anyway, I am always so happy when she has made a new book that I can pour through, or when The New Yorker Magazine arrives in our mailbox with a lady in a pink hat on the cover (it’s Maira’s work!) So when I stumbled upon this show a few weeks ago while visiting the newly renovated museum with my son I was delighted.

To experience the show is like walking into one of Maira’s books and strolling through each page, or hanging out with her while she deftly arranges objects that she loves and hearing her thoughts about the bon-bons wrapped in red and gold foil, or maybe the black stockings from France. In fact there is a lovely hand written text dispersed throughout the exhibit.

As I listened to Mozart and studied the objects it felt so natural that these things, an old metal bed, Abraham Lincoln’s gold pocket watch, a velvet chair with a film of dancing ladies set into it’s back belong in this music room. The objects tell a story about memory, and the passing of time. I thought of my own objects: things I lost, that great fall wool jacket. What ever happened to it? Small things with so much meaning like the perfumed red, silk carnation my son gave me the day we met when he was five and it was Mother’s Day.

Maira has made two wonderful books to accompany the exhibit. One is for children and the other for adults. I would like to own them both. They are filled with beautiful images and words.

The show is on view until June 7th, 2015.

To learn more about Maira Kalman and the exhibit you can visit this link.

xo,
Pam

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About Pamela:

Pamela White is a visual artist who works primarily with gouache and collage on paper. She enjoys the opaque richness of gouache and the pattern, texture and stories found in collage papers collected from many sources including old dictionaries, and placemats from airplane dinners. Her work is both narrative and decorative and spans both fine art and illustration. She is also an art educator who has taught in many New York City public schools, as well as some of the city’s museums. She feels fortunate to have the wealth of New York’s museums just a quick bike or train ride from home. She also draws inspiration from her everyday world and the discoveries found when traveling to new places. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and son and their 2 cats, and works at her studio in West Harlem.

Hear me talk about the power of stories at AFCC!

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I’ve attended the Asian’s Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) every year for the past 2 years (see this post, and this post) for their excellent Writers and Illustrators conference – and I’m so thrilled to be there the third time this year. I’m doubly excited because instead of merely being a participant, I’m going to be a speaker this time round!

I’m going to be talking about the subject of story, and how this idea is central to artists who want to share their work with the world. As illustrators and artists, there is no better time than now to begin – no more waiting for gatekeepers or waiting for another client’s brief. Truly.

It’s a philosophy I teach on Work/Art/Play and I’m excited to be able to share it with the AFCC crowd.

The Writer’s and Illustrator’s conference within AFCC is happening from 3rd to 5th June 2015, at the National Library of Singapore and I hope to see you there!

For more information, head on over to the AFCC website.

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