March 17, 2015

Photography as a business is tough. Everyone has a camera nowadays and everyone thinks they're a pro photographer just because they have a fancy new SLR. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who still believe a pro can do a better job or simply want to be in the action and not behind the camera. As a business that still means you have to find these people. Sometime last year, I joined a service called Thumbtack. If you aren't familiar with the service, here's a basic rundown on what they do.

As a customer seeking a professional, you answer questions about your personal projects. They send the customer requests to qualified professionals who respond if they are available and interested. As a professional, they promise to provide these leads to you, for which you pay to submit a quote. They claim that many pros who use it have doubled or even tripled the size of their business. In reality, it's not quite that simple, nor effective, and here's why.

To submit a quote, you have to purchase credits. Credits cost about $1.50/credit. Depending on the quote, it will cost between 2 and 9 credits. The more profitable the job being quoted, the more the quote will cost. Sounds great so far, right? Well, here's where one of the first problems comes up.

You're responsible for composing a great introduction that will get you noticed over your competition. And believe me, there is competition. When I first signed up, there weren't too many people using the service.  Now, there are hundreds of thousands of pros using it. When a request comes in, you need to hustle to get a quote submitted before the limit is reached. A single request can quickly garner the 5 bid limit, which makes standing out from your competitors even tougher. If you're not a marketing pro or a true sales wordsmith, you probably don't stand a chance.

To help you stand out, you can get past customers to submit a review of your service. But, in order to have a review, you need to be awarded a job through the site and then, get the customer to give you some gold stars. Not an easy task and certainly not made any easier by Thumbtack. Why doesn't this really work?

First, the fact that you haven't been reviewed and have no reputation doesn't help. When I first started, I actually got a couple of jobs through the site. And, I even got a customer and a friend to post reviews (both 5 stars, by the way). However, there weren't as many pros using the site then as there are now. This definitely gives pros who have been using the site longer a distinct advantage.

Next, the site doesn't present you and other pros on a level playing field. Most of the selection criteria is based on your self-composed marketing intro to the customer along with a profile that the pro must create. There are no objective measures of the pro's competency, social skills, timeliness or other factors that could help the customer make a decision. Just the reviews they have gotten from past customers, and, of course, that all important bid you submit with a dollar figure. Often, the almighty buck wins.

And finally, even Thumbtack admits that it will take at least 10 tries before you'll get a job. I guess I was just lucky. In terms of cost, that's only about $75 to $90 before you'll even get hired for just one job. However, that doesn't guarantee you'll get a positive review, if you get one at all. Which is unfortunate, because those reviews are critical when there's stiff competition.

These factors alone would be enough to discourage anyone from using this service, but there's something else I found out that really makes me question the efficacy of Thumbtack's service.

Requests for bids aren't qualified in any way. Anyone can submit a request, whether they're actually hiring a pro or simply shopping around. I verified this by signing up with a fictitious name and email and submitting a request. That means, someone who already has a professional in mind to do a job, can go onto Thumbtack, request a bid, turn around and use that bid to negotiate a better price with the pro they intend to use, all without any repercussions by Thumbtack. Without being invested in any way to the whole process, it's just too easy for customers to game the system for their benefit.

Now, when I submit a bid on a request, I don't know if I'm actually bidding on a job I have a real chance of winning, or simply providing ammunition to undercut another professional. Since there's always someone new to the site who will underbid a job just to win it, this doesn't just undermine another working pro, it undermines the fair pricing of professional services overall.

When I realized this, I had to question whether it was worth my time and money to hurt myself and others who provide professional photography services. So before you sign up as a pro on Thumbtack, consider the competitive nature of this business and the "screw-you" attitude of customers and service providers who are less than professional. Do you really want to buy into this mentality?

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