Last week, I wrote about how crowdSPRING had saved us $200,000. Sadly, with the help of a commenter, we realized the logo contest winner had sold us something stolen from Shutterstock. So we attracted the ire of lots of designers, participated in some thoughtful discussion, and removed the logo from our site. Although our team has been wholly focused on our upcoming beta launch, I thought I should write an update for the echo chamber and describe why I still support crowdsourcing in the right context.
First, the facts: we used crowdSPRING to get a name for our company with available URL – it took us a week and cost $1500. We liked the experience, so we tried to use the same site to get a logo. Another $1500. $3,000 all in for name, logo, and URL. The lowest quote we had from an agency for name and logo was $50K plus buying URL (not even the whole agency, just people at the agency offering to work on the side – the agency itself was more). So when we got through those two steps for ~$3K, we were pleased, and blogged about it. (The $200K number in our title came from adding in the fees we got quoted from the same places for website creation, which we ended up doing on our own.)
Then we went down the rabbit hole.
A commenter correctly pointed out that the logo was stolen. So we were immediately less pleased. We contacted crowdSPRING, they responded immediately with an apology and a refund in its entirety. They also offered to let us post again without paying their fees, although we’d still pay the designer award. But the fiasco made me check my records, where I discovered they had sent me a notice that our winning designer had been banned from their site on August 11th. It was one of many emails I got about users being banned, and there was no special callout that the user banned was the winner from my project. Given there were about 400 entries, I wouldn’t have connected the banned username with our winning award without the brouhaha that followed. So crowdSPRING banned the user (no mention of why, although probably caught for IP theft somewhere else) two weeks after my project ended, didn’t let me know my logo was potentially at risk, and would have let me just launch my business with it if I hadn’t written a blog post that crowdsourced the original source. Ouch. So no, I’m not going to spend more money there, even though they waived their fees. They pointed out that they gave me a full refund of everything related to the logo – that’s true, but I think they’d have to in order to avoid profiting from selling me stolen property.
We started hearing from designers not long after the post went live. With varying degrees of politeness, the comments went generally into four buckets: (1) ShopSanity is naive/incompetent/[insert pejorative] to think they crowdsourced the same quality work they’d get from a professional agency, (2) crowdsourcing through a contest site like crowdSPRING devalues design and is inhumane because potentially hundreds of design hours are spent on spec, all but one of those designers gets paid zero for the effort, and no other profession does spec work like that, (3) there are many freelancers available to do good design work at lower cost than big agencies, and ShopSanity should have put in enough effort to find one of those, and (4) brand and design are the most important investments a company can make, and trying to save money there dooms the company to failure.
I think (1) and (4) are related. Brand is absolutely an important investment, and when you’re ready to invest, you should invest the right way and get the best possible team on it. I completely agree with that. However, as a startup software company, investing in brand isn’t our priority. Building software is. If we have a great brand and our software crashes your computer, we’re still toast. Brand won’t save us. So we have to get the software right. If we do that and our brand is sucky, some people will be turned off. True. But we won’t be dead. We’ll go invest in the brand at that time so that everyone loves it. It all starts with (for us, as a software company) getting the software right. That’s why we prioritize spending on engineering and UX design, not on a corporate brand. When the money for the business comes, quite literally, out of your pocket, you make pretty clear priority decisions. Do I wish I could spend $200K on a premiere brand? Would that lead to something better than the crowdSPRING result (even assuming it hadn’t been stolen)? Yes and yes. But that’s not where the company is yet. It’s not where most startups are, and it’s not where many small local businesses near you are either. Think about it – how many designers invest $200K (equates to probably over a man year of effort) in marketing themselves before they have clients?
I also completely agree with the freelancer comment. There are lots of great freelancers. We’ve worked with some at this company and at previous companies. Finding them is extraordinarily difficult, even though it seems easy when you’re a designer inside the industry. As Imprint points out in a comment, “there’s no way to tell how well-made the work will actually be. not from coroflot, creative hotlist, or AIGA. all you see from thsoe places is that they’ve been paid to show the work (and that includes AIGA, in terms of membership dues). nobody has sat with the work on those companies’ ends and qualified it.” We did put in time looking for freelancers – they were generally a little more expensive, a little less available, and required a little more faith on our part than a site like crowdSPRING. With a company in between us and the designer, we knew we could get a refund if it doesn’t work out – with a freelancer, if it doesn’t work out, the buyer is stuck, so it takes a little more faith. (Sure we could sue, but who has time for that?) Obviously, when the situation comes out like this one, it’s easy to say that we should have put our faith elsewhere, in a freelancer, and maybe that would have worked out better – but we would have had to risk more to get there, both in time and in money.
Finally, I have to admit that I just don’t understand the “crowdsourcing is evil” #AntiSpec bucket of comments we got. I replied to one of them by email [made some minor edits] – “I’ve done startups in Silicon Valley since 1997. I and other entrepreneurs like me usually work without pay for long periods, sometimes years, developing products, hiring other people, making pitch decks for venture capitalists, pitching clients. If I don’t beat everyone else at the game, all of my effort ends up worth zero. There’s not even a guarantee anyone gets a payout in the end. We might all get zero because we’re betting on the wrong market or because some big company enters the market instead. But I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything. Betting on myself to walk the high wire with no safety net is what makes me feel alive. Sometimes the bets pay off, and sometimes they don’t, but even when I get zero out of a solid year of hard work, I don’t feel like my work is worth nothing or that my year doing something I enjoy was a waste. Why do designers feel differently?”
In the end, after all of this, I still support crowdsourcing stuff for companies at our stage, where brand isn’t going to make or break them. I’d love to be able to spend more, and if I did, I’d probably get more. A Ferrari is great, but I can’t afford one, so I drive a Subaru that meets my needs. That doesn’t mean I think a Subaru is the same as a Ferrari. If I had something to crowdsource again, I’d want to use a site with better policing of IP theft, or one that at least notifies buyers proactively when they find problems. I don’t know if Brandstack or 99Designs do better in that regard.