In any competitive industry, the market will tend to stratify into layers based on the cost and quality of service provided. There will be top providers with stellar reputations and years of experience, there will be high quality providers who are not quite at the top due to lack of experience and therefore occupy the middle tier, and there will be budget providers, who make their living on volume.
I need to stress at this point that being a budget provider is not a bad gig. You’re providing value to customers who need the services you offer but cannot afford to even think about hiring the top pros, or even the second tier pros. What’s more, the people with the best reputations (or who do the most advertising) are often so fully booked that they can’t even begin to work on non-priority projects. Budget sellers who can do a reasonable job at a fraction of the price provide a way for motivated but under-financed customers to have their needs met.
“Bottom feeders participate in what amounts to a perpetual race to the bottom.”
But beneath the budget sellers, there will always be a slew of bottom feeders who try to get a foothold in the market by undercutting even the budget sellers. These bottom feeders participate in what amounts to a perpetual race to the bottom, the result of which is that even if the freelancers work 120 hour weeks non-stop, they still struggle to pay the rent.
The best examples of bottom feeding in the design industry are freelancers found via Fiverr and 99 Designs. With freelancers offering to build advanced websites for a mere $5, one wonders how these freelancers can earn enough money even to pay their monthly internet fees let alone put food on their families tables. The fact that the agencies take 20% of their fees makes this questions even more of a head scratcher.
I’ve come across a few people who’ve used Fiverr and say they’re satisfied with the quality of work. This is not surprising because there are some terrific freelancers who sell on the site. I’m one of them. However, I’ve also come across many more who feel like the’ve been ripped off. How anyone could feel “ripped off” when they’ve only spent $5 for a book cover or web design is quite beyond me, but that’s human nature. The fact remains that no one, not even the most motivated providers in the poorest regions of the globe can be sustained on $5 per project. Any freelancer who attempts to do so would necessarily have precious little time to devote to each project. The result is, inevitably, that the quality of work delivered often leaves much to be desired.
The funny thing is, there are always people looking to get things gone cheaply, and there are many freelancers around the world willing to serve them. Visit Fiverr and look at all the profiles from people in Romania, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Personally, I say more power to these freelancers. If some super hard-working design student in Romania can live well in her country on $10 a day and she has the requisite abilities, that gives her a decisive economic advantage over a freelancer like me, who could barely feed myself on that amount, let alone cover the rent. Plus, if her English is decent, so much the better. Why should you pay a designer in the US $500 for a website when some hungry student overseas will do the same job (or possibly a better job) for $50, or even $10?
The reason why not is because discounted services are generally not worth your time. Sometimes customers manage to squeeze good value out of the handful of bottom-feeding suppliers who actually do decent work. However, more often than not, these bottom feeders churn out work so poor that the term ‘low-quality’ doesn’t begin to do it justice. Naturally, the customer isn’t satisfied, so they demand revisions, and the revisions are crap. Finally, when they demand even more revisions, the designer ghosts them altogether in favor of working for less demanding clients. Working with a site like Fiverr, the buyer can probably get their money back, but they’ve just wasted a bunch of time for nothing.
“If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”
These bottom feeding customers scratch their heads and wonder how it is that the Fiverr designer they hired could have such a stellar portfolio and such a huge number of amazing reviews, then turn around and generate such poor work. The answer is that their portfolios have been literally stolen from the websites of other designers and the reviews have been simply copied and pasted from elsewhere, with only the name changed.
Eventually the ultra-budget customer learns a lesson that some people can only learn the hard way; when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
How to Avoid the Mess
There is one way for customers to avoid this mess. Find out what the rates really are for the kind of work you need and choose a designer that produces work of an acceptable quality at those rates. This applies to designers on Fiverr as well as any other platform. Also, make sure the work the designer shows in his portfolio is actually his (portfolio theft is a huge problem in the online freelance market). Ideally, work with a designer who charges for work in increments (whether hourly or by stage of the project) so that you can approve every phase of the work before paying for the next. This is hard to do when you use platforms that demand payment up front, but if the contractual provisions are strong (and enforced) you might be okay if you make enough noise about it.
Most of all, understand that quality designers don’t work for peanuts. They may undercharge when trying to break into the business and build a portfolio, and this can present a great opportunity for clients without a lot of financial resources get top-notch work at a great value, but they won’t design (much less debug) a well-functioning multi-page website for $5, or even $50.
So, for the sake of your project, your sanity and the integrity of the design industry, please be prepared to pay the rates of skilled designers who are able to get your project done.