Fiverr – A New Economy or the Same Old Story?

The call for donations that you see to your right didn’t materialize out of the ether. These images are so common that most of us dismiss them as noise, but somebody creates them. In this case, he’s a teenager who I knew only by the name of ‘AwesomeFresh.’ He did the work for only five dollars.

It occurred to me about a week ago that there was a story there.

Zach is different from the other experts I’ve interviewed. He’s not a scientist, an economist, or a psychologist. But I thought he could give me some insight into the ways that the economy could be changing as technology intersects with cultural change.

His answers proved revealing.

The Interview

Thanks for following up on my bizarre request, AwesomeFresh.

Of course. You can call me Zach.

No problem.

So, Zach, you have been developing logos and t-shirt designs, and selling them through a website called Fiverr. This is a site where anybody can offer to do something for only $5. In my opinion, you have what looks like a very professional portfolio of graphic design work. This includes the call to action in each post on my site, asking for donations. I’d like to ask what motivates you to do this kind of work at such a low cost?

Thank you. I did a large amount of this type of work for free for my High School, only receiving promotion, personal satisfaction, and something to put on my college resume. I searched out freelance graphic design work online as a way to earn money with my skill set after school hours. Fiverr was definitely the most accessible option in terms of consumer popularity, buyer/seller protection, and ease of payment. It’s a website people can trust with a very low selling point.

So in my experience what’s great is people are more than willing to pay such a small amount for a logo. Comparable logo packages (including revisions) run between $200 and $400, with deadlines of months. I do it for $5 in a week. This causes a high volume of customers to come in with relatively low expectations. When these expectations are blown away the system of good reviews takes hold and propels further sales.

In this way it makes economic sense, although I take a lot of shortcuts and do things that look good but are ‘cliche’ from a design standpoint. It saves time. As for motivation, this is a time-flexible job that pays better than minimum wage at my pace, without requiring travel costs. I can stop and resume whenever I want, and take on as much work as I’m comfortable with. It’s perfect for my lifestyle as a student.

That’s great to hear. We could all benefit from having that kind of flexibility in our jobs.

The flexibility is great, but the trade-off is obviously profitability in my situation.

That’s a good point. You’re earning decent pay, but nothing close to what you could be earning if you were charging a more professional price. The interesting thing about this is it’s a middle ground that hasn’t really existed before. Creative types are traditionally divided between starving artists and elitist snobs. If this market matures, there’s the potential for the emergence of a middle class in the art world. Of course, if you aren’t making much more than minimum wage, the market hasn’t reached it’s full potential yet.

Do you think that some of the other artists on the site have similar motivations, or might there be something else driving them?

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of job listings on Fiverr are unfulfilled with 0 orders and 0 reviews. There is an element of the snowball effect in terms of delivering good work and getting the flow of customers started. The thumbnail image is absolutely essential to a design listing, as customers are looking for a specific style that suits the mental image they want to give off. It’s very clear that certain people are qualified and others are not, even in the few seconds it takes to look at a job listing.

Given that, most of the big hitters on this website offer niche services and are hugely successful (200+ $5 orders in a month), and Fiverr rewards these sellers with top billing. An example is an attractive girl holding a sign, or someone with social network advertising. They wanted to ‘get rich quick’ like everyone else, and when their service caught on they were certainly able to quite easily. I expect my situation of using Fiver as a part-time substitute to be atypical.

I wonder. Some of the services, like taking a picture of yourself, are easy to pull off quick, but many of them seem to take more effort. Some sellers are even offering basic programming skills. Your conclusion that most of the users are just looking for a way to get rich quick is unremarkable, but probably right in most cases. Still, I wonder about some of the more labor intensive work.

Yes, and that’s where fiverr’s failing is: fixed price point. Even just adding a $10 option would promote quality work significantly.

Agreed. I think this makes for a good example of how the “free market” can sometimes be a bit of a contradiction. Governments aren’t the only organizations that can dictate prices.

Anyway, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Cory Doctorow, but he is a gifted science fiction writer and an advocate of copyright reform, among other things. One thing he’s said that struck me was about the power of technology to level the playing field. He gave the example of the orchestra versus the rock band.

A rock band consists of only about five people, but technology gives them the power to play their music in front of a large audience. He pointed out that a rock band will never have quite the same impact as an orchestra, but their small size and lower costs gives them the freedom to be more experimental with what they do, and that this has really revolutionized the kind of music we listen to. Your work strikes me as an example of this kind of change. Any thoughts on this?

Yes. Technology has definitely lowered the point of entry not just for graphic design and music, but for all fields. Fiverr is a testament to the customer realization of this trend; that one can receive just as good of a product through multiple low-cost attempts than going the professional route. It is a strange world we live in that a self-trained teenager can deliver or exceed the same level of work as a college-educated designer, because of his comfort with technology itself.

The experimental trends in design have taken a major hold in the industry as a whole also. The movie ‘Helvetica‘ (2007, available for viewing on Netflix instant play) illustrates how what started as a simple counter-culture movement against ‘the corporate image’ has since become mainstream and widely employed for the same purpose. The usage of the font Helvetica is one of the quick tricks I do to give a clean, modern look and the illusion of corporate importance. Customers like the font, almost subconsciously.

I suspect that familiarity with technology could revolutionize the economy within the next decade or so. “Social media,” which has the corporate world going crazy, is really everyday stuff to people your age. For your entire teenage life, there has always been a MySpace or Facebook. That’s strange to me, and I’m only ten years older than you. To me, Wikipedia is the most striking example: a world-class encyclopedia that is created by volunteers. It makes me wonder what the world could look like by the time your generation is old enough to sit at a corporate executive board meeting, if such a thing still exists. Then again, I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer.

I resisted social media for a long time. A lot of my generation feels it’s impersonal. Just because we fit the stereotype doesn’t mean we agree. This relates to the board meeting concept, which I’ve thought about a lot. While I’m sure a lot of things will change as my generation assumes control (scary, I know), I think the fresh, liberal approach will be well received on a global scale.

I certainly hope so. I don’t think that people are giving your generation enough credit. Since my generation, and possibly before, there’s been a tendency to assume that young people are being damaged in some way by technology. In reality, you could be familiarizing yourself with the tools that you will use to change the world. It’s also a mistake to assume that you blindly accept the next shiny thing on the horizon, although people like this are definitely out there.

What you said earlier about ‘Helvetica’ also intrigues me. I haven’t seen the movie, nor am I familiar with the font, but I definitely noticed a shift in corporate image that seemed to take place in the past several years. I suspect that brands are constantly adapting new trends, and that most trends are started by people who have more of an activist, or at least rebellious, mindset. This is something that is discussed in more detail in a book by Malcolm Gladwell, called The Tipping Point.

The idea of The Tipping Point is consistent with graphic design. In the same way rap was once underground and is now mainstream, certain design trends have since become common. The corporate image has embraced ‘individuality’ and ‘imperfection’ which makes the world very confusing. On the other hand, I see overly modernist logos as a turn off. An example is Pepsi’s new logo that showed up about 2 years ago, which killed it for me. The key is balance for any image you’re trying to present.

It’s interesting to see big business, which by its very nature has to be conformist, paying lip service to rebellion and individuality. It makes me wonder if they’re anticipating some serious changes, and trying to adapt to them before they take root.

I’ve been wondering if websites like Fiverr could be the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way the economy looks. Fiverr itself may be “big business” at this point, but all the work is being done by individuals who are selling services directly to customers. Do you think we could be seeing a shift away from big business and back toward small entrepreneurial businesses, and possibly even “one man” operations?

Part of the reason for my success on Fiverr is no one wants to do design work with their restrictions. The company takes one dollar of every five, and prohibits you from exchanging outside contact or accepting outside payment. It is not the future because there is no room for growth. Its model is not suited to high-quality design, just quick and dirty solutions.

However, independent design work, even one working by himself, is becoming more feasible everyday with the advent of PayPal and lack of necessary training. In the same way web design has become almost entirely small business based or self service, graphic design is going in a similar direction. While your Average Joe may lack the creative sensibilities that make a logo great, he can get the job done or at least make a draft to express his ideas. Of course, big businesses will continue to exclusively hire designers for branding purposes; I don’t think they will ever outsource.

So your success came from your willingness to do the work without seeing many perks. I suspect that this is true for many people, in many different situations.

Yes, and although I have this great portfolio, resume listing and skill set as a result, in the end it’s unprofitable. I have since cut back on design work in favor of a summer office job.

This definitely highlights the need for a systemic change, which brings me to my final question.

Before I ask it, I’m going to go ahead and let my readers know that they can reach you for graphic design work at http://fiverr.com/users/awesomefresh, or preferably through your email at zachga42@yahoo.com. I’d also like to let my readers know that this is not a paid endorsement, and that I conducted this interview just to satisfy my own curiosity.

As you said, independent design work is becoming an option for more people everyday. I think this is becoming true for many industries. While this levels the playing field and gives individuals more opportunity, it also puts us at risk of living in a society run by “amateurs.” Can something like the rating system on Fiverr protect us from this, or will we need something more?

Then again, would a society run by so-called amateurs be such a bad thing if it can be channeled in a way that produces positive results, such as those found on Wikipedia?

The mass collaboration that sites like Wikipedia present is the greatest aspect of the current time period. That is idealist representation of the internet. If similar results were produced in other industries (music, film!) I would consider it a success.

Your concerns about amateurs are well merited. Perhaps as my generation grows up certain knowledge will just be lost. Maybe one day no one will know how to fix a tape deck. I was never taught how to write cursive.

On the other hand, I view college education in certain fields, like design, as unnecessary. We’re all amateurs when we enter our first real job. College only allows us to mature, not to teach us job specifics. In certain cases, I would like to see street savvy, uneducated people running the industry. I almost wish we went back to apprenticeship and lifetime trades.

In response to your question, the rules of society and the growing legal trends will most likely eliminate practicing amateurs more and more.

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