Spec Work vs Undervaluing – Why Your Low Prices Hurt Everyone

How much are you worth? Do you know how much you’re worth?

These can be tough questions, but they are questions you’re going to need to answer at some point. If you don’t know what your time and expertise is worth, someone else will wind up setting that value for you, and the odds are good that it will be less than you’re worth.

So it’s the time-worn question: How do I get experience if I don’t have any experience? You may have the education and the desire and a certain amount of skills — maybe underdeveloped skills — but how do you put that into action?

That’s why the topic of spec work is one you hear often. “The downside is you don’t make any money,” Jeston said. “It’s kind of like pro bono for lawyers. Since no money is exchanged, the perceived value of your services comes down.”

But there is an upside, albeit, a small and temporary one, but still one that can hold potential under the right circumstances. Much like an unpaid internship, it needs to lead somewhere. “It’s an opportunity to get into a section of the market that you don’t have experience in,” Jeston said. “But once you’ve established yourself in an industry, spec work becomes predatory. Doing favors for a friend is one thing, but if low-balling a bid is the standard, you do yourself a disservice.”

Many will argue against spec work at all. Those people consider it unprofessional to work for speculation and unprofessional to ask someone to do spec work. Essentially, it means working for free, or working without knowing if you’ll be paid now or for future jobs. Often you may find you are working for a client who may not know exactly what they want and/or can’t afford to pay for it at a proper rate. 

At this point, you may be thinking about those “contests” or “crowdsourcing” sites, particularly in the graphics profession. “I think these hold an important place in the wider market,” Jeston said. “Having an entry-level place for creation is important, and it forces those looking to pursue creation as a profession to focus on a real target market.” So, to a certain extent, you are getting some experience and increasing your self-confidence.

The problem at this point is that you may have more self-confidence in your work and ability to be part of a team, but you may still be undervaluing what your time and work is worth. If you set your value below others in your profession, it may seem appropriate at first, but in the long run, you’ll discover disappointment. Your low prices will hurt everyone.

“Competing solely on price robs the market,” Jeston said. “It lowers the expectation of prices for the entire market. The goal should be to create value, which will give you the ability to charge more for your services. When you charge lower prices for the same product, you lower the value of that product and limit your ability to grow.”

One also lowers the expectation of quality. Here are two real-world examples:

  • Blogging changed things for professional writers almost instantly. Suddenly everyone was a writer. People who never wrote professionally for newspapers or advertising agencies were now looking for a quick by-line. People who never had a stern editor, a penchant for good grammar, or knowledge of an industry-standard stylebook were now Writers. Experienced professional writers who were getting anywhere from $30 to $150 an hour were now competing with people willing to churn out copy for $15 to $25 in the hopes of getting a byline and richer rewards. No matter that there was someone right behind them thinking the same thing.
  • Many video producers came out of years of the television, advertising and corporate worlds. But then YouTube and cheap video cameras and editing software came along. What was acceptable on YouTube started to be acceptable for many people. Who needed editing and lighting experience? Or fricking tripods? What was B-roll, crossing the axis, key lighting or lavalier microphones? Who cared? It was video. Quality was unimportant. How hard could it be anyway? You’ve been watching TV your whole life. Now someone’s nephew with a prosumer camera was doing your next production.

OK, to be clear, some of those people are quite talented. Perhaps unrefined and with skills not fully developed, but nonetheless they had an effect on those fields and the professionals who worked in those fields.

“I spent 20 years creating my worth,” Erica said. She loves to learn new aspects of production, but “I was task-driven and didn’t know I could ask for my worth.” This is the message of today’s blog. 

And it’s a two-way street. “It’s heartbreaking when a contractor cannot see the worth of their seasoned crew,” she said. I once had an employer tell me — in the same sentence — that I was his product, and then asked me to cover an entry-level shift for a $10 hourly wage.” Why is that bad? “Your time is valuable,” she said. “If I take that $ hourly job and then turn down $$ hourly, I’ve just done two things wrong. I’ve taken a job from someone who needs that experience, plus I’ve cost myself hundreds of dollars.”

I know what I bring to the table…. So trust me when I say I’m not afraid to eat alone.

– Unknown


So, comes a time when one needs to examine the level of your self-worth as it pertains to your chosen field. You need to put a price on your time and knowledge and the value of what you bring to a project. If you don’t price yourself correctly, it’s going to be pretty likely you won’t enjoy the job and might even wind up resentful and miserable. That’s no good for anyone. If you’re unsure, talk to someone who has been in the industry for awhile, and see what other professionals are charging. “Act according to your experience and value,” Jeston said. And remember, you are the one who knows your value.

Erica uses the simplicity of dollar signs to explain how one should consider setting and accepting rates”

  • Do I need a paycheck? $
  • Do I need a job? $
  • Do I want to get hired back? $
  • Do I need quality references? $
  • Do I want to gain more knowledge? $$
  • Does my client rehire me because I earned their trust? $$
  • Does my client hire me because I have the knowledge and drive to do the job they need done? $$$
  • Was I hired because I’m an expert in my field? $$$$

It also works if you are the one looking to hire a contractor. Before you hire someone, you should consider 1) your budget, 2) what level of work do you want done? and 3) what skill level is required to get the job done?

  • Do I just need people who may or may not have experience? $ 
  • Do I need somebody who has more than four years of experience? $$ 
  • Do I want a professional who gives every job the attention and experience my clients expect? $$$
  • Do I not want to alleviate stress because I know I hired an expert? $$$$

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Idea to Screen: The Pre-Production Process 

Branded Video for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America