Is it Spec Work or a Good Interview Question?

Q: I’ve been asked to provide sample idea designs for a new potential client before we have any contract in place. Is this spec work — which is something I don’t want to do — or just part of the usual freelance interview process?

A: Here’s how you can tell if something is spec work or a legitimate question:

  • Do you create the sample work in front of the client or at home?
  • Do you create something the client might actually use after the interview ends?
  • Does the request take more than an hour total?

If you don’t create it in front of the client, how would the client know you did the work? That’s your first red flag that the client is looking for some spec work. If the samples are supposed to be polished enough for the client to use — something that might take several hours and have a professional look — then that’s another red flag.

You don’t need to do spec work to land a good client. Some potential clients will indeed insist that you do spec work and then give the job to the best submission. That’s no better than a contest with no prizes for anyone but the winner. Your best clients won’t come from spec work; they come from building a strong relationship with the client before you ever create one bit of work product. Smart clients will know that and try to create that relationship as well. One-shot clients will not care and are happy to waste your time to get ideas and free work for their business.

The cheapest “cost of sales” project is the one that’s the follow-on project for an existing client. That means the follow-on project has a better chance of being more profitable (since you’ve already done the hard work and landed the client and built a measure of trust with them). Aim for those types of clients — the ones who are looking to build a long-term relationship with your business — and you’ll get those types of jobs and your freelance business will grow with less effort.