Five Ways to Lose Work

April 11, 2012

I recently ran a 99designs contest to create my new logo and business card (I’ll write about the contest separately, and you’ll see the results soon enough). Approximately 100 designers participated, and I saw a range of designs, from really professional to sadly amateurish. But I also witnessed a variety of behaviors, which I found to be more surprising and interesting. People often ask me about how one gets work, which is a challenge. In many newsletters and emails, I’ve put forth my thoughts on what one can do to get work. What’s easier to identify, though, is how one loses work. This post discusses five quick and easy ways to lose work. This may seem like an odd topic, but by not doing these things, perhaps you can improve your chances of getting work.

[NOTE: One person, whose opinion I value highly, took this post to be critical of 99designs and to be very specific to that experience. That’s not the intention of this post at all, and certainly not reflective of the overall 99designs experience that I had. I do use 99designs examples frequently because they are:

  • Fresh in my mind
  • Timely (i.e., reflective of the type of environments and work that’s available today)
  • More generally applicable than, say, publishing examples

Still, the 99designs examples of what not to do are not particular to 99designs and are not common to what I saw from 99designs participants as a whole. I want to clearly state that I believe the advice put forth is applicable everywhere.]

A lot of qualities and behaviors go into getting work, but a few obvious and simple hiccups can make you lose work. These are the things you should not do!

1. Fail to Meet the Specs of the Proposal.

I’m speaking here of the process of trying to win or get a job, not actually do the job (although in the case of 99designs, these two steps are the same). As an example, people will write to me asking how to get published, perhaps thinking there’s some sort of trick to it. There are absolutely no tricks to getting published, but the most common cause of failure is bringing the wrong idea to the wrong publisher. Clearly, I’m not going to sell O’Reilly on a house painting book, but I’m also unlikely to convince  Macworld to publish my PostreSQL article unless I can orient the subject to the common Mac user.

Furthermore, publishers have very specific requirements as to how proposals should be submitted. Some people don’t bother to try to meet those requirements, or simply never take the time to review them, but they matter. If you can’t comprehend and follow the guidelines for submitting ideas, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to follow the guideline for writing an entire book, no? The same theory applies to any other type of project…

If you can’t meet the specs of the proposal, you’re indicating to the potential client that you probably won’t be able to understand and meet the specs of the job itself.

If the client says they want a two-page proposal with a detailed estimate, list of requirements, and references, then you really need to give them that. If you don’t, then you’ve given the client an easy and quick reason to cross you off the list of potential hires.

In my 99designs contest, with 100 designers, I had a hard time telling people “No, thanks” (that’s generally hard for me to do). So when designers failed to adhere to the clearly explained requirements, it was a snap for me to cut those designs or designers.

2. Make Careless Mistakes

This problem can overlap the first one, but I’m more specifically talking about editing and similar problems here. As a writer, I obviously value communication skills, but you don’t have to be Hemingway, you just have to be literate and demonstrate general competence. As an example of what I mean, one designer in my 99designs contest misspelled my first name in his or her submission! If a designer can’t spell “Larry” correctly (on my business card!)…

You should always take one more look at what you’re about to submit, say, propose, email, etc. Not taking an extra five minutes to proofread something one more time is a terrible reason not to get a job. If you can, having a second set of eyes review the thing is even better.

3. Don’t Make an Effort

Careless mistakes, in my opinion, normally show a lack of effort (in that the person didn’t put in the time to review the work one more time). Worse, careless mistakes may indicate a lack of competency, but it’s hard to distinguish between the two possibilities given a limited sample size. In any case, this may be more of a pet peeve of mine, but I’m not going to reward people who aren’t trying, and I think most potential clients feel this way to. For example, in my support forums, I’m happy to provide free help to those that need it, but I do want to see a modicum of effort on the part of the person needing the help.

Turning back to the 99designs contest, I was surprised by the percentage of designers that failed to do any amount of research about me. I’m not a hard person to find online; those people that quickly looked me up and used that information put themselves well ahead of those that didn’t. Every designer that asked a question like “What kinds of work do you do?” went to the bottom of the pile.

Never try to get a project without having done a reasonable amount of research about who the client is, what the client’s values are, and so forth.

You don’t have to go to the Library of Congress or find out the name of the client’s pet when they were a child, but try. Do a little bit of something. The hour you spend looking at a person’s Web site may make all the difference.

As a counter example, I’ll be giving a speech at an e-commerce expo in Istanbul. I have a couple of goals for the speech, starting with giving a speech that the audience will be glad they attended. Secondarily, it’d be nice if more work could come from the experience. In order to achieve both goals, I’m spending some time researching the audience, the environment, and so forth, in order to better customize my speech to the actual attendees. Sure, I’m being paid for the speech no matter how good it is, but it’s in everyone’s best interest if I put forth the effort to make it great for them.

4. Be Unprofessional

This is an obvious one and yet, all too common of a mistake. I suspect these types of issues come up due to careless mistakes or moments of frustration, but you really can’t behave in an unprofessional manner and expect to get a job. Whether it’s the words you use, the tone you take, your physical or line appearance, or your responsiveness, be professional at all times, regardless of the situation. I’ll provide a specific example in the next paragraph.

5. Lose Poorly

The final way you can lose work may not be on many people’s radar: lose poorly. Losing poorly partly comes from being unprofessional and partly from being short sighted. For example, in my 99designs contest, there was one designer who was an early favorite and made it into the final round. Unfortunately for that designer, another designer came along later and provided what I thought was a superior design. In the end, it was a close judgement call, but the second designer’s work was just better. The first designer was frustrated, I know, but responded poorly. He was both accusatory and dismissive of the winning designer. It was petty, inappropriate, and unattractive.

Besides being unprofessional, here’s why that’s a huge mistake: clearly, this is not the only design work I’ll ever farm out. I had felt bad about this particular designer not winning in the end and would have certainly put that designer on my short list for all future work. Now, however, I won’t. This designer, in losing the one job poorly, ruled himself out of contention for all future work from me. Ouch. Conversely, another finalist in the competition sent me a very graceful message saying that he had agreed with my final choice and wished me the best. That designer will be on my short list for future work.

Think long term. A job you lost today may also mean that you “won” some experience (silver lining, I know), and, more importantly a potential client down the road.

This particular piece of advice applies everywhere across the board. If I have a book idea rejected by a publisher, at least I’m on the publisher’s radar. That initial “no” is likely to turn into another project if I handle the rejection appropriately. Even if you never work with that client that didn’t hire you, it’s possible the you can learn something to improve your odds of getting the next job with another client.


At the end of the day, remember that trying to get work is a contest between you and others, whether it’s a formal contest like at 99designs or not. I know that it’s hard to win these contests and I’m so sympathetic to anyone out there trying to make a living. Winning takes talent, hard work, professionalism, and sometimes luck or good timing. Losing is easy, especially when you make any of these five mistakes. But it’s also easy to avoid these mistakes. By doing so, hopefully you can improve your odds of winning or, in situations where you still didn’t win, perhaps you’ll find that this time you just failed to win, rather than lost. There’s a difference.

If you have any other suggestions, experiences, or thoughts, please share them!

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