What Really Kills Entrepreneurs in South Africa?

Say No to spec work and you’ll never labour for free again.

What is Spec (short for speculative) Work?

In simple terms, a spec work is any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before they can decide to either buy your product or not.

South Africa is full of freelancers. Self-employed people who are often extremely talented, and they ply their trade in quite man different fields which are often artistic in nature. Examples: Writing, Web development, Programming, Graphic design, Photography, Music production. The list is huge. But there is a problem, which is exactly what I want you and I to zoom into today. Right here, right now. Please stay with me. We’re talking about a legion of intelligent boys and girls who can even hardly feed themselves. Because their businesses just can’t make enough money. Let alone anything. But you see, that’s not the problem, obviously. The problem is, these guys don’t see the problem with their way of doing business. Picture it: a government department needs some web design work done, but doesn’t want to hire anyone full-time, or pay for one upfront. They’ve heard that web designers are flooding out of colleges and universities, so they post the job in the media and request for you to ‘compete’ for the right to work for them. This is almost never a good idea for you, the freelancer. It’s spec work. That means work you undertake on the speculation that you might be chosen. Unless you’re absolutely desperate, avoid spec work like Ebola, and here’s why.

No guarantee to pay

The nature of spec work is to pit creative people against each other. You only get paid if you win. Does that really sound like a good idea to you? Here’s a true story. Last year, a medium sized company in Johannesburg solicited over thirty design firms to present them with new ideas for an ad campaign. All eagerly submitted their work on time, completely unaware that their statistical chances of landing the client were less than one percent each. Totally un-cool.

It makes you look unprofessional

Everyone wants to make sure they show the client their best work, which is natural. But at what cost? The motivation to win could inspire you to work your backside off on a project that you will, in all likelihood, never be paid for. There’s an old business saying: fake it ‘till you make it. In other words, you’ve got to act seriously, so that people will see you accordingly. Eventually you’ll grow to become the real-deal boss that you modeled your behavior on. Remember: people treat you the way you allow yourself to be treated. Your portfolio should speak for itself as a show-case of your style and ability. That’s where you should focus your time and effort.

No legal protection

One of the biggest, ugliest risks of spec work is plagiarism. You have no protective contract when you submit proposals for free and are banking purely on the honour system (which doesn’t exist here anyway, to be honest). How do you know freeloading client won’t use your rocking ideas later on? Of course they will. You’ve given them your best work, your heart and soul – all on a silver platter. And you’ve asked for nothing in return. Of course people will take advantage. A call to freelancers: wake up and start saying No to this cheap practice which cheapens your talent, sucks your time and energy and puts all power on one side of the scale. Spec work is not fair on you. Slap yourself next time you feel the temptation to get involved. Rather use your time and energy to build your portfolio, hone your skills, and look after customers who actually value your time (because they’re paying for it). Be confident in the value of your work and insist that clients commit before you start any kind of project.

Read this great story about Paul Rand by Steve Jobs:

“He is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with, in the sense that he thought through all of the formal relationship between a client and a professional such as himself — obviously very deep thoughts about this — and therefore he had very clear conclusions about what the relationship meant to both parties and how it should be conducted. For example: I asked him if he would come up with ‘a few options’. And he said ‘No, I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options go talk to other people! — but I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you, you’re the client — but you pay me.‘ And there was a clarity about the relationship that was refreshing.”