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!

Q+A: Starting out as a freelance illustrator in Malaysia – what do I charge?

Hi Amy,

I just graduated from design college, and got offers to do some illustration projects. Since this is my first one, how do you usually charge when you do a freelance job? Do you have any guide or advice? What is the standard price charged by illustrators in Malaysia?

~ Kat (via email)

Dear Kat,

I don’t have a straight forward answer on what to charge as it varies from client to client and also industries. For editorials in magazines, it can go anywhere from RM300 to RM1000 for an illustration (depending on factors I mention below), and the numbers are vastly more different when it comes to advertising.

What helps is getting a book like the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. The rates on there are a good indicator of what people usually pay, and it’s relatively accurate to assume that USD1 = RM1 in most cases.

There are a lot of factors that go into a tabulation of a fee, such as competition, experience, duration, size, and also ultimately, what you can live with. So here are some questions to ask yourself:

Competition

Are you the only one pitching for the job? If you aren’t, think of reasons why clients should go with you. With client work, while it can be complex, most of their decisions will weigh on price (high vs. low), experience (quick/slow turnaround) and also how pleasant you are to work with.

Experience

People with experience are able to charge more because of many reasons: they might be quicker, have more knowledge of the industry and what it demands, and also the network that they’ve built. A common strategy for those who lack experience is to offer a more competitive price to build their portfolio, and it’s one I advise graduates. But after you get your foot in the door, it’s time to knock their socks off! Too many people remain unhappy about the discount they give clients that they turn in sub-par work. Turn in anything less than stellar will ensure that your name will stay at the bottom of the pool – along with your price.

Duration

How long will the project run for? Is there a cut-off for delivery of artwork? Or are you going to be working on the project for a certain amount of time? This will determine if it’s going to be a one-off fee or a retainer – both of which can have different implication of deliverables.

Size

Always, always know what size you’re going to be working on. The level of detail in an A4 sized artwork is going to be vastly different from an artwork that’s A1 in size. And that translates to more time used, which means more billable hours or a lump sum that takes into account the time you’ll need to spend. Don’t know how long you usually work? Measure, measure, measure. Here’s 10 apps you can use.

What you can live with

Some people need money right away. And some people don’t. I’ve personally done projects for free (mainly for charities) and I’ve gotten so many word of mouths and new projects from it that it pays forward many-fold. You’ll hear a lot of people say “don’t do things for free”, which is rather true. But what I advocate is to listen to yourself instead. A lot of people have worked for free (and have kept quiet about it) for a chance to break into an industry. It’s become a dirty little secret that the term working for free is an invitation to unnecessary vilification. Don’t listen to others. Only you know if it’s something worth doing – and if you’re doing something for free, make sure it’s your choice, not that you were co-erced into it. Strategy, long-term thinking and a focus on building relationships are things that will lead to more opportunities down the road, instead of just a one-off transactional affair. Here’s a great article to put things into perspective.

And as a bonus, here’s a brilliant article on how to land your dream job.

Lastly, here’s a personal tip for you: when someone answers your questions via email, remember take 2 minutes to follow up with a thank you. While I’m always happy and willing to dispense advice, it would be nice to get a reply! Communication is a big part of being a freelancer and you might just find yourself losing out to people who take the time to hone their PR skills. Make it a point to say thank you whenever you can. After your interview/meeting with clients/when you get your cheque. Write a thank you note/email. Make sure you follow up. I didn’t think it was necessary to mention it at first, but I think it bears reminding from time to time because it makes a world of a difference and it’s a learning opportunity for young graduates everywhere.

It’s always the little things that matter.

SHARE WITH US:

Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Kat or advice on what to look out for in terms of pricing? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Q+A: 6 tips on how to get your first freelance illustration job

Hi Amy, I just read your Q&A on landing your first job. I’m currently an illustration student but have no idea on how to get my first illustration job once I put together a portfolio. Any tips on how to get work as a freelance illustrator? Thanks in advance.

~ Stefanie (via email)

Hi Stefanie!

In my experience, a lot of first-time commissions come from word of mouth! When I first got started, I made sure to put the word out there that I was freelancing, and that if anyone needed a hand they can give me a call (or contact me via email.) But besides that, I find that being proactive about finding freelance work goes a long way – especially when you realize that those connections might take 2-3 years to fully materialize. It’s what has happened in my situation, and for many others too.

So here are few steps that you can do right now:

1. Tell as many people as you can about what you do.

Spread the word that you’re freelancing around, to family, friends, even the neighbours. You may find at first that this will land you some pretty weird jobs and questions – stuff like “can you teach my kid how to draw?” It’s totally up to you to take it on, or not. I always say that it’s no harm at all, especially when you have nothing better to do – so why not flex your creative muscles and do your best – even if it’s something that you whipped up for the neighbourhood kindergarten?

2. Get your portfolio on different websites

The thing with illustration and art is that it’s hard to be found visually. And what that means is that people don’t go to Google, type in a few strings of words that describe what you do, and then be able to see your artwork among other artists (well the famous ones do, but only because they’ve built up a really big following!) So the next best thing is to put your work up in front of people who are already looking. And that means in places where they go to look. Places like Behance and Dribble. On Instagram (with the appropriate hashtags – not one made up by you!)

The caveat is that it might take some time for others to notice you, especially with all the great work out there; but it pays to be persistent. There might be a few art directors and clients who might be checking you out on those websites, but the timing is not right just yet.

3. Don’t just hang out with your illustration buddies from college or uni – make an effort!

Spread your wings out a little and go to where you’ve never been before! There is more to you than just your ability to draw – what other stuff do you like doing? What’s your other hobbies? Do you love reading? Join a book club! Do you love cooking? Join a community cook-out! The more people you reach out to that’s outside of your normal comfort zones, the better your chances of making new connections, which will ultimately help spread your name far and wide.

4. Constantly add new work to your portfolio

Slapping on a couple of pictures from your school days or previous college assignment does not mean that your portfolio is complete! Unless your work back then was really good, or it showcased what you are capable of right now, I’d suggest to leave it out. First impressions mean a lot, and if what you’re putting out there can only illicit a “meh”, it’s time for you to think of self-initiated projects that you can add to your portfolio. That’s right – there is no client involved (unless it’s imaginary, in which case it’s totally fine), no cheque waiting for you at the other end, and no assurance that it will amount to anything – not just yet. Do your best, take pride in your work and pick up that pencil because you want to better yourself, not just because there’s someone on the other end counting on you to do so.

5. Send an email to your favorite blogger

Back in the day, I get a lot of emails from graduating students and illustrators who were just starting out. And if their work catches my eye, I post it up on the Pikaland blog (though I rarely do this anymore because better platforms exist for that these days – Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) What I found out was that other blogs were checking out my blog to get news on the latest talent, and they picked up these artists too and featured them in their blog and magazines, which then helped these emerging artists gain a lot more buzz. So it couldn’t help to try – especially if you can identify with the audience of the blogger, and it’s a place where your work wouldn’t look out of place. Here’s a tip: don’t just aim for the big blogs – go for smaller, niche blogs too!

6. Be super nice to everyone and anyone

You’d think that being nice to people was a natural instinct – but sadly it isn’t! I’ve met my fair share of nasty and rude folks, but they’re thankfully far and few in-between. What I’m talking about is going above minding your P’s (please) and Q’s (thank you). Be genuinely interested in other people – listening to them, asking them helpful questions, thanking them for their time, etc – if you think that these gestures are unnecessary in the days of 140 character tweets, think again. If anything, it only serves to show how attentive you are, especially when others aren’t doing it.

And there you have it! These are the things that I’ve personally done to get my name out there – and they’re virtually painless. All it takes is a bit of effort in the beginning, but when you’ve got your ball rolling, you’ll be able to see results very soon. Good luck Stefanie!

SHARE WITH US:

Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Stefanie that has worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Psst – if you like this post, then you might want to get in on our Work/Art/Play mailing list for our once-a-year online workshop for artists and illustrators that’s coming up in September!

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