The Spec Work Smell Test

I’ve had quite a few people say “I still don’t get what spec work is” lately.  There is quite a bit of gray area, but here is my definition I use to see if something smells like exploitative crowdsoursing (spec work).

Professional custom work completed by many for the slight chance of non noteworthy payment.

I put this together after many great conversations with John Winsor and Niel Robertson.  I fight against spec work because I see it is destructive to communities.  It is dumping oil down the drain and screaming “I’ve found a new way of recycling.”  You didn’t find a new way, you found a lazy way to pass on problems to others.  Nobody wins. I hate that.  With that said, there is gray areas in the spec work argument which are driving innovation, and I see that as pretty dang neat.

I see in the following examples that lead to my definition:

Non professional services. An example is passion plays like fan art for bands.  If a company wants to ask for and celebrate work done by passionate customers, I’m all for it.  Can be done wrong, but  it has major room to grow.

Non custom work. It has never been in the definition of spec work, but sometimes is confused.  Threadless is not spec because it is not custom.  They are thriving with an amazing community.

Completed by Many. The project is asked to be done by a limitless amount of people.

Slight Chance of Payment. This might be most core to allowing in types of professional crowdsourcing out of the definition and term.  What happens if I have a contest and pay every single one of them?  That seems overwhelmingly sustainable to me.  What happens when that number is 80%, but based on performance.  What happens when you pay a fair hourly rate to 10 people with a bonus to the best?  Good in my book.  Seems sustainable.

Non Noteworthy Payment.  If the total award is similar to that of the rate to have a project done by one person, that is spec.  If the award total is noteworthy (Netflix contest comes to mind) then perhaps not.

An ongoing conversation, but when I see something, I run it by this test.

There is going to be some major innovation in the next year with crowdsourcing.  I think that can be great, but exploitative crowdsourcing (spec work) should not be celebrated.

  • Keep the flame alive. I absolutely loathe spec work, as I've fallen victim to this way too many times.

  • Keep the flame alive. I absolutely loathe spec work, as I've fallen victim to this way too many times.

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  • Bran

    I'm not sure Spec work had to be completed by many. I can ask you to do three custom logos for me and if I like one, I'll “choose” it. But I don't necessarily have to ask anyone else as well. I can just walk away saying, “Oh, well you didn't really make anything I wanted.” Right?

  • andrewhyde

    I think that is a one on one situation that needs a contract, and shouldn't be agreed to.

  • Never thought about the Netflix contest in these terms. I do agree with you that it does, however, pass the “smell test” as outlined here, though the teams ended up a size v. contest timeframe that would have paid out each member at an entry-level programming salary, if I remember my math correctly.

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