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!

16 Replies to “Q+A: How do I compete with Fiverr and 99Designs?”

  1. Kendra’s question reminds me of where I was three years ago. Today things have turned around. I think illustration is not just about drawing, it’s about how well you can communicate through drawing. When I started I knew I loved what I did and I wanted to make book jackets. It was tough out there, low payment, stiff competition. You’ve got to give in and say I’m here to stay. That means getting your work out there low rates, gritting your teeth and saying ‘yes’ to final illustrations.

    In that time, give your clients a reason to come back to you, do your research, trust that the client knows best what he/she may need, develop a rapport with the art directors you work with. When I look back I realise I was constantly stressed, however, the time when I was out of work, I learnt so many new techniques, I learnt the value of communicating and so much more to be honest. I wouldn’t trade it for a life of instant success.

    It’s all a learning curve and you’ll get there. You’ll get the big projects, the work you really want to do. So hang in there and follow your instincts. We’re the generation of big dreams and instant gratification. What you are dealing with is nothing but a reality check.

    1. amy says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Great advice Kalyani – communication is key in what we do; the skills that we have are merely a means to that end.

  2. Heyme says:

    Hi Amy,
    My disciplines are different (Music & webdesign mainly), but the same applied for me, I was building websites from scratch, and loosing on the free platforms like wordpress. Thing is, I like coding, but it is a lot of work, building a site would take me 6 to 8 weeks, so of course I had to ask enough money to survive.
    Last year I capitulated finally, as a client needed their site moved, have it responsive, with social media integrated and all that in 4 weeks max..
    So I took the job, had a steep learning curve installing and configuring wordpress locally, and… never looked back, now it is actually my preferred platform.
    Wish I would have taken that step 3 years back, I now make a site in 25% of the time, have much less troubleshooting and extensive testing to do, and can work for much less, most of my fees were based on time…
    And my previous coding skills come in really handy.
    So I say, embrace the change, move with it, try things out, and it may work out for the best.
    In any case, even if you work cheap or ‘just for charity’ give it 100%. I want to be proud of anything I make, besides keeping the client happy I want to be happy to have delivered my best..
    All the best,
    Heyme

    1. amy says:

      Wonderful advice Heyme! Sometimes pushing ourselves beyond what we know and believe can have the most amazing effect on our mindset. I’ve learned a lot of things myself – web design and coding among them – because I was curious about the whole process. It made me a better problem solver as it’s exhilarating to be able to see complex problems that can be solved in myriad ways (as you can testify).

  3. jamie says:

    This is the 1000 dollar question. To be or not to be free. I’ve been in this fickle field of illustration for 35 years (egads) but that it is ever-changing is the BEST PART. It keeps me on my toes! I agree with heyme: embrace change. Ride the waves of internet follies and try to enjoy it. It can be humbling or hampering, and I prefer humbling.
    Thanks, Amy, for always putting a realistic yet positive spin on what can be so often a daunting field. We each must have our own standards, and mine always begin with joy.

    1. amy says:

      Beautiful sentiment Jamie – I agree wholeheartedly. Joy is a great basis for deciding our next actions, although I’m aware that for some, circumstances might not allow them the option. But it’s a great place to start!

  4. Nancy says:

    Hi Amy I absolutely loved your response to this question. I also found myself about a year and a half ago in a similar position. I started a new company, poppies paint powder, where we manufacture and distribute a chalk paint additive for do-it-yourselfers. This is a highly saturated field. We run a campaign giving away full size boxes, just to get my product in the hands of somebody that would use it. We were able to bring on several retailers out of that initial hundred box sample program. I’m in the process of launching another one for another major expansion. Thanks for representing a different side of this topic. it would be so easy to get onboard the victim train . All that does is perpetrate the starving artist syndrome by keeping everyone in a scarcity mindset!

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