Five Ways to Lose Work

April 11, 2012 — 16 Comments

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!

If you enjoyed this post, then please consider following me using your favorite social media, the RSS feed, and/or by subscribing to my newsletter. Or go crazy, and buy one or more of my books . Thanks!

16 responses to Five Ways to Lose Work

  1. I was going to use 99designs myself but now after reading your article and reflecting on my own experiences as a freelancer I don’t feel I could in good conscience. These types of websites are cruel and take advantage of people in need. No excuses for it. Thank you for reminding me. Instead I will seek out (put effort in) to finding a professional designer and make a deal.

    You may look at the results and think, lazy unprofessional people. I wonder “why” and feel it has more to do with the little $dollar reward, stress, desperation etc of the people involved. These industries (web, design, coding, programming) are high stress and contain a lot of scumbag business people. You may not have had the misfortune of coming across these people but I definitely have. They don’t leave you feeling eager and happy in life or about your work. I believe most people, 99 percent of people, want to do a good job.

    I’m just wondering, what did you expect for $299? What was your proposal? I just don’t think you are being fair by publishing this article as it seems more of a rant. The content and lessons in the article are important to remember (for the most part) but I think you forgot that you were handing out a small amount food to a bunch of hungry dogs and were suprised when you got bitten by a few.

    We’ve all seen people be unprofessional in their conduct – there is a reason for it. I think punishing them for it instead of trying to understand why is wrong.

    • Hey Jason. Thanks for your input. Its seems that I struck a nerve, though, which was not my intention. I’ll clarify a few points.

      First, this post is NOT about 99designs. I’ll write about that separately. This post is about, as the title says, ways people lose out on possible jobs. Yes, I use some of the 99designs examples, but I also use examples from my publishing experience. And I base much of this on what I’ve witnessed in 13 years of freelancing. 99designs is where I recently saw some of this behavior but in no way are these mistakes only representative of people who use 99designs.

      Second, and again I’ll write about the contest specifically separately, but in no way do I think “lazy, unprofessional people”. Using the 99designs as a basis (and, again, this isn’t just about 99designs), there were 100 designers, of which maybe 10 did something on this list. Maybe 25, tops, if I want to stretch my definitions. My goal in writing this isn’t to say anything about those people who did or who do use 99designs, but to say something to everyone looking for work. As I write here, I get asked about how to win jobs/get work all the time, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned in 13 years, using a recent experience for some of the examples.

      Third, and again I’ll write about the contest specifically separately and, again, this isn’t about 99designs, but who said anything about $299? Why are you being insulting to me in questioning how much I spent or what my proposal was? Why are you assuming I only spent the minimum? Why are you assuming that I was “surprised” or that I “got bitten” or that I was anything less than completely satisfied with the experience? Which, by the way, I was. And, seriously, how is a couple of designers out of 100 being slightly unprofessional “biting” me at all? I wasn’t bitten by hungry dogs to whom I was offering a small amount of food. I guaranteed a good payment to a designer who could come up with the design I liked best in an open contest. In the process, I witnessed a couple of things that I’ve seen before elsewhere that could be useful learning tools to others. My only surprise in all of this is that you’re making these assumptions about me and reacting so strongly.

      Fourth (again, not about 99designs here), the goal of this post is to HELP anyone who reads it, specifically those people who ask for this particular kind of advice. In what way am I punishing anyone by this post? And in what way am I punishing the designers who could have done some things better in that contest?

      Fifth, the issue of the ethics of sites like 99designs is an interesting and valid one, although not germane to this post (which, again, is trying to help those people out there who are looking for work, regardless of where). Whether sites like 99designs are ethical or cruel or should be used or whatever is a personal decision each of us would have to make. I don’t personally see it as bad or cruel, because everyone knows exactly what the rules are going in. Plus, it’s not rigged: designers can win or lose solely based upon their own work, not anything else. And while all but one of the designers will end up making no money for their work, that is their choice to participate or not. Moreover, these sites give people access to work and clients they wouldn’t otherwise have a remote chance of working for. In my mind, even the losers of my specific contest would have been able to gain valuable experience in terms of accessing clients, seeing what other developers do, getting feedback, etc. I understand why someone might not like these sites, and I recognize that this might have the effect of getting paid less in the industry as a whole, but to me, everyone knows exactly what the deal and the rules are from the get go. There are aspects to this arrangement that are unfortunate, but to me, it could not be more fair.

      Finally, I’ll point out that I was on the other side of this equation for years. I did a decent amount of work to get jobs that I didn’t get. I did work to do jobs that I did the work and didn’t get paid. I lost out of jobs for valid reasons; I lost out of jobs for invalid reasons. And most of my money comes from a business in which people can, and do, outright steal what you’ve worked very hard to create. So I’m not at all indifferent to how something like 99designs is for the designers (specifically all of those that don’t win); in fact, I know exactly what that’s like, because I’ve been there. But that’s the deal with freelancing. You’re getting freedom and a lot of other benefits for a lack of guarantees, a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of rejection. That’s the deal. Early on, you have to do a lot of crap for little money and hope you can make do. If you’re good and work hard and perhaps lucky, it will get easier and pay better. But that’s the deal. And I don’t think that our industry is any higher stress or has more scumbags than any other. It’s a cop out to suggest that these attributes are unique to this industry, let alone that those attributes would explain or justify unprofessional behavior.

      In writing this post, all I’m trying to do is help those people that are freelancing improve their odds of getting work, whether that’s in something like 99designs or in getting published or whatever. Yes, I use some of the 99designs examples because they’re fresh in my mind, but this isn’t about 99designs.

      • Hi Larry,
        I agree with what you have written here in response to Jason, especially when it comes to the point on freelancing. Most clients that come to websites like 99designs, etc. come looking for cheap labor; they want top talent for peanuts. But what I have learnt is that initially selling yourself cheap is the only way to get work and hone your skills. I see it more as an investment in your venture as a freelancer which starts paying off later.

        • Yes, an investment in your venture as a freelancer! Which will _hopefully_ pay off. I think part of the ethical argument against 99designs (and the like) is that it lowers the price for all designers, even those not using it. For some, that’s probably true, but that’s also a nature of doing business. Business seems to be based upon the idea that you get as much as you can as long as you can, but there are no guarantees.

  2. The article did seem very centric around your 99designs experience as you drew on it a fair amount rather than any other experience. It seemed to me like a reaction to it rather than an article in general. So my reaction to that was strong for those reasons and I was mistaken to do so it seems.

    I do apologise for my presumption on the price, I thought they had fixed prices. But the idea behind these kinds of websites is cheaper labour while drawing on a pool of talent. Wether or not these websites are fair is not an easy topic to debate, it can be great for people in Russia and Europe that still come out on top. As with everything there are pro and cons. My perception of general business people has dropped to all time lows, not to say all are bad. I have some amazing clients!

    And of course I didn’t mean to say all people that use those kinds of websites are cruel or take advantage of people because as I am sure we all know you (Larry Ullman) are not at all like that in any way. There aren’t many authors out there with forums to support their books or give their time so freely to help others.

    “And I don’t think that our industry is any higher stress or has more scumbags than any other. It’s a cop out to suggest that these attributes are unique to this industry, let alone that those attributes would explain or justify unprofessional behavior.”
    I didn’t say they contain more than any other, but it seems to contain a lot.

    I think you’re a great writer, I’m sure I’ve said it some where around here or the forums ;), but the tone of this article struck me as something different. I got the wrong impression of it’s purpose and made an ass of myself.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Jason. I’ll edit the post a bit to clarify my intent. And thanks for the nice words on what I do. One last point… I’ve got another post coming about the experience in which I’ll state this, too, but the minimum price is fixed. 99designs strongly encourages you to pay more, and clearly explains that the more you pay, the more/better quality submissions you’ll get.

  3. I’m sure there is plenty of unsung design talent out there without the knowledge of how to break into the industry for themselves. For these people then perhaps these kind of sites can work for them. I can understand why the designers would get frustrated though as you have to practically finish the job before you’ve actually secured the job!

    There’s no excuse for being unprofessional, except if you’re not a professional.

    Any designer should know you’re not going to please every client. Your design’s will get rejected, you can’t please everyone, move on.

    There’s work out there, you’ve just got to work harder to get it. Get out there any meet people, it’s as much about knowing people as it is being able to do the job.

    Larry you’ve helped me no end in moving along from designing static to dynamic websites. Currently nearing the end of PHP6 & MySQL5, also bought ready to read Effortless e-commerce, along with PHP for the web. Please re-release the Kindle version of PHP6 & MySQL5 with text rather than images for the code examples. I don’t like the fuzzy text.

    • Thanks for the input, Gary. I also look at this as a great opportunity for designers to find work and clients. I guess it’s a matter of which you’d prefer: have more opportunities, but possibly waste more effort or have fewer opportunities. I can see the arguments against 99designs, but that’s a personal decision (on both sides of the coin). In any case, being professional in whatever you do is always for the best.

      Thanks, too, for the nice words on the books and for the interest in them. As for the Kindle version, sorry about the quality issue. I never see the electronic versions but I know the publisher is constantly struggling and trying new things to put out the best possible quality. I personally can’t imagine reading a programming book on a Kindle, but I seem to be in the minority on that point. For example, using the Amazon widget on my site, this month I’ve sold 3 printed copies of my books, but 10 Kindle versions.

  4. Hi, Larry. Unfortunately I cannot take this article seriously, as it wasn’t sufficiently proofread. Please take the time to read through it one last time before you post, so that you don’t writing “loosing” instead of “losing.”

    • Aha, you passed my test! Yeah, that’s what that was…

    • >> so that you don’t writing “loosing” instead of “losing.” <<

      "Writing", you say? Brian, I think you need to proofread your own posts! ;-)

      Larry, thanks for sharing your experience. I agree with your points!

  5. i’m seldomly participating in forum discussions and/or feedback opportunities – but i think it’s great of you to take the burden and write down some recommendations for people looking for work. i take them for valuable! so, just THANKS

  6. Hi Larry, I enjoyed your thoughtful post. However, true to Muphry’s law, in your section about proofreading, you wrote, “modicum of effort on the part of the person needed the help,” and you need it to be either “modicum of effort on the part of the person –needing– the help,” or “modicum of effort on the part of the person –who– needed the help.” In other news, thanks for the Yii posts. I’m enjoying using the new framework.

    • D’oh! Thanks, Daniel, for catching that. I’ve edited it. The two silly mistakes I made in this post really speak to the benefits of having a second pair of eyes. It’s remarkably hard to catch your own errors!

Comments are great, but I'd strongly prefer any requests for assistance get made in the support forums. Thanks!