By Andrew Neitlich

Conclusion — What actually happened to company offering mock ups

By Andrew Neitlich

Thank you for the great posts to the last blog entry, about using mock ups as a marketing tool. The story has reached its conclusion, and this entry will tell you what finally happened with the eLance bidder who provided a mock up for me.

First, a couple of points of clarification based on some of the many posts to last blog:

1. I provided very detailed specifications to any designer who requested them, including complete copy, proposed navigation scheme, and details about look and feel I wanted to convey (which should also have been apparent in the copy). I definitely agree with all of you who wondered how anyone could provide a mock up without getting into a detailed discussion with client.


2. While this was a simple web site (10 pages and two forms emailable to me for manual processing) for a non-profit venture, on any web project I as a consumer separate the work of more complex undertakings into a few buckets: copy, graphic/web design, architecture, infrastructure, coding/development. I’ve found no firms that can do a great job on all of these elements, and tend to parse them out — especially copy, graphics, and the development/infrastructure/architecture aspects. Therefore, getting mockups is very appealing to me as a prospect because I can isolate that aspect of a project.

3. A couple of you wrote about engaging the client in dialogue. That really is crucial. The process of using mock ups is one of dozens of approaches to build trust, establish credibility, and build a RELATIONSHIP with a potential customer. So mock ups work best not in blind bidding situations, but in situations when they help you establish your expertise and professionalism.

Point #3 is especially validated by what finally happened in my situation:

The company on eLance that provided a mockup did a fine job, and clearly set themselves apart from the other 24 bidders (now up to 30). However, I still wasn’t completed satisfied with their mockup. It seemed a bit cliche and generic (as some of you predicted it would).

So I invited a designer that I know and like (and who is an avid Sitepoint reader) if he wanted to bid on the project. I let him know that I had a mockup from another firm, and that I liked some things but not others about their mockup.

He promptly provided his own mock up, and provided a bid that included some things the eLance firm couldn’t: free hosting, a traffic log tool, and unlimited revisions. His price was higher, but we engaged in phone conversations (vs. the private boards on eLance) to work out the details of scope.

So I’m working with him.

(Why didn’t I invite him to bid in the first place? Because I’m always looking for new people to do work, and because I had worked with him on for-profit but not non-profit ventures. But I called on him after dis-satisfaction with the eLance bidders overall.)

Those of you who indicated that relationships are key — you are exactly right.

Those of you who indicated that mockups are a great tool for you — you are exactly right.

Those of you who think that providing mockups to clients is belittling to yourself and the industry — that’s kind of strange to me, but whatever. If it works and gets you satisfied clients, why wouldn’t you do it?

  • Thirteenva

    I disagree with people who whole heartedly disagree with providing mock-ups. While not appropriate for all situations, mock-ups, as Andrew points out, can differentiate you in a crowded field. I feel there is no hard and fast rule as to when and where to provide a mock-up. You need to gauge the situation. In a situation where a client is seriously considering you but may have reservations about whether you can truly provide something ‘better’ then your competition.

    Some of you argue that it cheapens the industry to provide mock-ups. I couldn’t DISAGREE more. Those that argue that sites must be attractive in order to be effective should be the FIRST people to submit mock-ups. If your selling point is your graphic design skills then your main marketing tool should be VISUAL in nature. What better way to win over a client than to provide a definitive way to prove your ‘superiority’ over the competition. Merely saying you’re better is not always enough.

    I say this because being a graphic designer, one of my main focuses is the look/feel and flow of a site. I think a well designed site is an asset. Even if it may not be necessary to success it sure helps. I would never hesitate to provide a mock-up or proof on any design job, be it web, print or otherwise.

  • Andrew,

    Those were my comments with the term “belittling”, and I stand firm on that. Why?

    Well, I’ve just spent a few minutes going over the posts from the previous column and it helped me to realize that we’re talking about two very different industries and market types. For the small web design shop (less than 5 people) spec work may be a good avenue to muster up regular business from an assortment of local clients. If it helps you get your foot in the door, all the power to you.

    But when we’re talking about larger advertising agencies (print, web, communications, etc.) with 20+ employees you’ll rarely catch them providing mock-ups, if ever. I know in my office we have a firm policy against spec work and it’s never affected our bottom line. Many national level graphic design industry associations also discourage “pre-signed agreement” comps. Again, for the points I stated in my first post.

    Good advertising = effective communication of the client’s objectives and customer’s desires/needs. If you don’t intimately understand those business requirements then how can you provide effective design? Your statement about the comps the people from eLance being too generic, well my point exactly. They have to be generic because they don’t have enough of a relationship with you as the client to know any better.


  • “So I invited a designer that I know and like (and who is an avid Sitepoint reader) if he wanted to bid on the project. I let him know that I had a mockup from another firm, and that I liked some things but not others about their mockup. “

    I think this is a likely scenerio of what could happen to a firm that provides free mock ups. Their mockup is used to show another company likes and dislikes, and they get nothing.

    I run a small firm, it’s me and a designer. I have tried to use sites like elance, but I have had no success. maybe it’s that I don’t stand out like this firm did in providing the free mockups? Or maybe it’s that the company’s posting work are taking what I offer in my bids, and going to other known firms off of the site and negotiating a better deal?

  • Jacob B

    This is quite interesting, and I would love it if someone of you would follow up on a blog post I wrote about a topic similair to this; about sales processes. I raised the question of whether all sales processes are dull and boring, or if someone actually have done something impressive? Read it and comment here: http://connecta.typepad.com/cph127/2005/03/reinvigorating_.html

  • Gil

    It seems a bit unfair to advocate the use of a free mockup stricly for personal gain–as a method to determine what you do and don’t like about a particular design concept, which is then handed off to someone you know to finish up.

    I’m not by any means saying that because a company provides a free mockup you are required to work with them, but at least give them an opportunity to correct the things you weren’t satisfied with before moving on. I’ve been on the other end of this situation before, and as some readers who commented on the previous post predicted, it can lead to losing a sale.

  • drakke

    There are many good arguments for and against this practise and I don’t think there will be aggrement on this topic simply because there are too many variables and all business are different.

    For a trivial example consider that Macdonalds creates essentially a ‘cookie cutter’ product. That is their mantra; the product will be the same if you are in Beijing or Cleveland.

    Wendy’s has a more nostalgic feel about them. They also stress that they will do it just right for you.

    Yet I have seen both establishment very close to each other.

    Somewhere here Andrew said that business is in some part an art. So I think if mockup works for you, continue to use them.

  • Mock-ups can give a bidder an advantage over the comptetition. On the other hand, a mock-up that misses the mark will probably cost a bidder the project. Mock-ups are risky.

    With regards to the bidder you chose for the project. How can you justify choosing someone who offers free hosting and unlimited revisions? It seems to me that the only designers/developers who can afford to do that either won’t be in business very long or are still living at home with their parents.

  • patrick

    Perhaps this has been touched on, but do you ask the electric company for free samples of electricity?

  • Jonathan Snook

    Effective design is a time-consuming process. Providing a comp for a bid means that the bulk of the work has been performed even before getting the project. If the project falls through, you’ve expended a lot of energy that you cannot recoup.

    For example, let’s say 30 bidders provided a comp for each of 30 possible projects. Theoretically, your odds are that you’ll only win one of those projects (although, realistically, a few will probably win more and some will win none). So, suddenly, in order to get 1 project, you’ve expended the same level of energy that it would take to do 30 projects. To recoup those costs, you either have to charge 30 times as much or go bankrupt awfully quickly.

    As well, it does open the door for legal issues. You’ve suddenly got 30 designs that you haven’t paid for. If you use elements from any of the unchosen designs then you run the risk of using copyrighted material.

    If all you need to know is whether the company can produce a good product then use their portfolio…that’s what it’s there for.

    Would you perform the bulk of your services before a project has even begun? If so, I have a project I’d like you to bid on. ;)

  • Or quoted it higher to cover project scope creep and knows he quoted the outer boundaries of what it COULD become.

  • This is an interesting pair of blogs. I think I’d consider providing a free mockup if, taking into account all the factors I was aware of, I thought it would make me look better than my competitors. But it would definitely be key to have a quite detailed RFP to work with, otherwise I’d just be throwing water balloons into the wind.

    What’s interesting about Andrew’s post is that after having 30 bids submitted on eLance, he went with a completely different provider. So even the guy on eLance who stuck out from the crowd by providing a mockup didn’t get the job.

    On any of these cattle call bidding sites I figure the typical professional designer has a 3% chance of winning–usually because the client chooses a template version of a site for $100. So considering the typical designer would have to reply with 33 proposals/mockups (at least 66 hours of work) to land a project on eLance/Craigslist/whatever, I think it’s really a much better deal to focus one’s sales and marketing time elsewhere (unless you’re the guy who does the $100 “just like eBay” sites).

    Now, if a client were to seek me out and say, “hey, you’re one of three web designers I’m looking at”, now that’d be a situation in which I think I’d consider doing a mockup on spec, not to mention a full-blown proposal. Of course, I’d still need their detailed RFP.

  • chaosengine

    “However, I still wasn’t completed satisfied with their mockup. It seemed a bit cliche and generic (as some of you predicted it would).

    So I invited a designer that I know and like (and who is an avid Sitepoint reader) if he wanted to bid on the project. I let him know that I had a mockup from another firm, and that I liked some things but not others about their mockup.”

    Exactly why designers should NEVER do this. Perhaps they spent 2 days on this work. How nice that they didn’t get paid a dime by you, and that someone else got to use their work as a jump-off point to make the revisions you wanted?

    Brilliant! Thanks for the life lesson!

  • Nick Besseling

    So Andrew you actually advocate the use of mock-upds to stand out from the crowd but you only use them to get a different supplier.
    Remind me never to do a propsal for you.

  • joe

    Well, I think it’s great that you didn’t end up going with someone off eLance. You had 30 bids and weren’t happy with any of them… it shows the lack of skill on eLance.

  • To “ecaptus” and others expressing frustration with elance being a “bargain bin” marketplace:

    I had once considered selling my services on elance several years ago when business was slow. I decided against it when I realized how extremely competitive and price-oriented that marketplace is.

    Since then, I’ve come to realize–and embrace–the obvious; that elance is a buyer’s market, and should be approached as such. We IT professionals in the US and UK have no hope of competing with the rates that Asian entrepreneurs are offering, so why try? Why not use it to your advantage, and seek out elance contractors to subcontract your work and serve as “temp” employees to help grow your own business at home?

    If these two blogs and my own browsing on elance have taught me, it’s to use these cheap, bargain-bin contractors to your advantage, instead of trying to compete with them.

  • Interesting blog. You’ve just made a perfect example of why a firm should never do a free mockup. Lets look at this from the firm on Elance’s perspective: they basically shot themselves in the foot by providing the mockup. They spent several hours mocking something up only to have you take that mockup and show it to another designer and allow him to make changes based on what you liked or didn’t like about the original design. Had they not provided a mockup, you would’ve been forced to evaluate everyone based on their portfolio, and regardless of whether you ended up going with them or not they wouldn’t have wasted time getting ripped off. Andrew – asking for free mockups is like me asking you for a free 5 hour consultation / analysis of my business. Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is? Sorry if this sounds so wierd, but creativity and time are what’s up for sale. If we give that away what’s left to sell?

  • Firstly, let me thank Andrew and everyone else who posts to this site regularly.

    i think this issue is so open ended and has no right or wrong answer. at the end of the day, go with whatever works for your situation.

    I’ve provided free mockups before the client did exactly what Andrew did and went with someone else – so it’s ALWAYS a risk – but business is all about risk-taking! I seldom provide free mockups nowadays but would be more than happy to do so if it was WORTH THE RISK.

    Having an optimistic view of every activity in your business is crucial – so decide for yourself and take advantage of every opportunity!

  • Mapo

    First off, I wholly disagree with Andrew when he says:

    “The process of using mock ups is one of dozens of approaches to build trust, establish credibility, and build a RELATIONSHIP with a potential customer.”

    It’s building a relationship with a MARK.

    People who will fall in love with the visuals and assume it’s a gleam of the designer’s problem solving abilities.

    That may be a path to a sale… but not a path to a focused project. If a focused project isn’t important to you, and just making money is, go ahead.

    How does this bad for the design industry? Simple.

    If every designer charges rock bottom cheap prices and boosted the pitch with a mock up, new clients will flock to that cheaper pitch. $500 for a website with about 50 hours worth of work means the designer is working for about $10 per hour. That is really peanuts compared to what a designer should make. A first year secratary makes more than that. And you are using your brain MUCH more than a secratary. Nothing against secrataries. :) If you’re coding a website, designing a website, synthesizing business objectives, writing copy, that’s about 4 different jobs you’re doing. You should be getting paid accordingly. You should work to get paid what you SHOULD be getting paid and not what it takes to land a client. You’ll starve. It is truly going for broke.

  • I think Geof may have uncovered at least one reason for some of the disagreements we have discussed over the past few days.

    When I talk about giving a free mockup, it is me and my one man show, and that is the point of view I speak from. I would not expect a larger firm to do give free mockups because their reputation and the fact that they are a ‘larger’ firm should speak for their credibility.

    To be honest, I have been taken advantage of when it comes to doing free work. On the other hand, I have also mocked up a web design with a logo idea for a potential client (not realizing he already had a logo because it that wasn’t prominent in his marketing) and not only did he appreciate my enthusiasm, he took me on as his web designer, and, changed his business logo to the one I did in the mockups. We have had a 3 year business relationship ever since.

    My point, how you work may not be how everyone else is doing it, but, before you go blowing your own horn, have a little appreciation for the situations others are in. Thanks Geof for opening my eyes a bit. I was thinking on the one man show level. MOre of us are right they we are giving each other credit for.

  • Sorry… More of us are right ‘then’ we are giving each other credit for.

  • melancholic

    Pardon my comments, they are a little biased…

    The company on eLance that provided a mockup did a fine job, and clearly set themselves apart from the other 24 bidders (now up to 30). However, I still wasn’t completed satisfied with their mockup. It seemed a bit cliche and generic (as some of you predicted it would).

    Alright so be it Andrew, you were “not satisfied” as “it was too generic”

    So I invited a designer that I know and like (and who is an avid Sitepoint reader) if he wanted to bid on the project. I let him know that I had a mockup from another firm, and that I liked some things but not others about their mockup.

    At what point did you decide that the firm contacted through eLance was incapable of doing the changes that the designer you know and like could?

    Was this always the plan? get some designer to do the ground work, then get your favourite designer/developer to finish it off? ;) heh

    I ask this because this has happened once to us before, handed in the final mockup and it was a cold break.

    – where I and one of the designers I worked with decided to stop doing stuff like this –

    We’re busily in contact for days. No complaints, no negativity, then as soon as we mockup the “final” version of the design – BANG, no more emails, no more comms.

    Cold break.

    We tried to chase them up, no response. Once or twice we get the “Call you later” responses.

    A week later they told us that they were going to go with someone else.

    Of course at this point in time, the designer I was workin with thought that this was just a matter of “taste”, they didn’t like what he dished out – a little down on confidence. etc.

    3 weeks later, the site’s launched and there’s the design with different coloured buttons and their logo in a certain angle (why in the world would you tilt your logo to an angle?)

    Those of you who think that providing mockups to clients is belittling to yourself and the industry — that’s kind of strange to me, but whatever. If it works and gets you satisfied clients, why wouldn’t you do it?

    Strange? I think the example you gave is another testament as to why mockups should not be given before contracts are inked…

  • Michael K.

    Andrew, I agree with most of the comments here and cannot understand how you want to promote the use of free mockups by design firms and at the same time prove why designers shouldn’t do this. Sorry, but this seems unethical to me.

  • Much discussion on this topic. We are all in business to make money. Unless you really enjoy sitting in front of a computer screen and putting graphics together vs. taking your dog for a walk or going to your kids school field trip.

    Anyway, there have been times when it made sense to do mockups and other times when it wasn’t necessary. The problem with resources like ELance is that you CANNOT get to know your potential client and build any kind of a relationship through the RFP process. If you are using ELance to find resources then I would say you havn’t found someone you know and trust yet to do consistent work for you. Get the right people on the bus!!!

    Andrew mentions this site is for a non-profit and only 10 pages in length? Go to a stinkin template site like monstertemplates.com or perfectory.com and pay the $60 and get your trusted resource to make your changes.

    And don’t forget we want to make money and at the same time provide a quality/applicable site for our clients.

    Would you use ELance for a 50 page site with many features that would need to be programmed? I doubt it, but it might not have been a bad idea for a 10 page non-profit page.

    I agree I’m not sure about the free hosting and maintenance. Maybe for months of the margin was good enough.

    Remember, you don’t work for the money. You work because of what you want to do with they money!

  • I held off posting on that last round of mockup discussion, but..

    A little perspective from an alternate reality: I’m a copywriter rather than a web designer. Doing mockups really isn’t an option in my case, because there’s not much difference between telling the client what you’re going to write and then actually writing it. It can be a real thin line sometimes, which makes it even more important to first establish a relationship; until I get to know a prospect (and they get to know me), there is simply no way of knowing the best way to walk that line.

    About a month ago I was contacted by a company I recognized by brand name; an opportunity had arisen (I’ve since learned that it’s a big opportunity), the decision makers involved are exploring their options, and everyone’s taking their time because a lot of money and reputation is at stake. I could have immediately kicked a set of conceptuals their way, not knowing the full story. If I had, though, I’d be long gone by now – only after a month of conversations and a meeting or two have I learned enough about their situation to even *begin* to consider directional possibilities, much less advocate them. They’d be fools to trust their marketing to someone they don’t know or trust, and they haven’t gotten to where they are now by being fools.

    I believe that it’s the job of a quality vendor to provide for quality clients; quality clients don’t chuck a few starving designers into a pit with some raw meat just to see who will be the last survivor. Those kind of clients don’t want a relationship – they want control, and control only gets you so far. Sooner or later you have to trust, and trust only happens within a relationship of equals.

    Meanwhile, the control freaks spend their time complaining that not enough vendors are willing to act like slaves. Personally, I’m happy to leave them to my competition – their nonsense keeps my competitors out of meetings with my most promising leads.

  • Andrew NEVER actually said he showed the sitepoint designer the previous mock-up. Don’t make assumptions. I have read Andrew’s articles and blog for a while now and I do not think he is the type of person who would do something like that. Here is what he said:

    “I let him know that I had a mockup from another firm, and that I liked some things but not others about their mockup.”

    He does not say that he actually showed the mock-up to the new designer. Andrew can certainly explain further but I am guessing he just provided the same information he did to the first elance designer so he could see what a trusted designer he has worked with in the past could do. I don’t see anything wrong with that and obviously when the pot was sweetened with free hosting and unlimited revisions it probably sealed the deal.

    I don’t think by offering unlimited revisions that it makes you some kind of small time designer that won’t be in business very long. I think if you have confidence in your abilities as a designer as well as your abilities to know and understand your client, then you should not have too much trouble coming up with something that pleases them and not something that you have to spend hours and hours revising.

  • WB,

    Agreed about assumptions. Good point.

    But I think this whole episode shows up something else as well: that a mockup within an established relationship is a world removed from a mockup outside of one. The designer that Andrew knew (and who knew Andrew) did the smart thing in producing a mockup – for him, it was a calculated risk based on inside information. What the eLance designer did was a crapshoot gamble.

    Personally, I’m willing to do a lot for an established client (or within a warm prospect relationship), well above and beyond what I’d be willing to do for one cold. You tend to learn the hard way on that kind of thing.

  • I thik Robert makes a point we all can agree on. If an established, trustworthy client is the one needing work, then I would most likely produce a mockup without being paid. Your risk is exponentially less in this scenerio.

  • I definately think that providing a mockup blindly leads to trouble. I try to let my previous work get me the job.

  • The best part about each of these two posts by Andrew is that it got everyone talking (and maybe thinking) and that it showed us different approaches we may want to have when we’re selling to our target market. Do you want to provide the more customized, personal approach or the quick & dirty eLance way?

    There’s a market for both.

  • shadowbox

    I just find it hilarious that all these random designers were slaving away producing all these mock ups for a little 10 page static site.

    In my experience, it’s always the people looking for small web sites on the tightest budget that expect you turn cartwheels for free just for the privalige of getting their custom.

    Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. That’s what it’s there for.

    I’m looking for a new accountant – do you think I can go to a few and ask them to audit my books for free, just so I can see what the quality of their work is like?

  • another think we can agree on… Andrew really got a bunch of professionals debating this topic in reaction to his post. If that was the intent, it was a success!

  • Type0,

    I’m not so sure it’s a one-or-the-other kinda thing; experience tells me it’s more of an analog than a binary equation, with high cohesion on one end (networking-based, personalized, consultation-based, trust-based) and low cohesion on the other (cold calling, eLance, selling blind, etc.).

    The best-paying, most reliable clients are always going to tend toward the high-cohesion end of the spectrum because they know that’s what they’re paying for; they know that they’re not paying your fee because you deserve to make that fee, or because it’s industry standard, or because you demand it. They pay it because you’re delivering high value and high service.. if you don’t deliver it, they’ll go elsewhere. The better clients simply expect it, and expect to pay for it.

    The market gets unstable the more you move to the low-cohesion end. Lower pay, lower expectations, lower standards, lower stability. Finally you get down to the bottom-feeding crapshoot.

    The question IMO isn’t whether a service provider wants to work in one market or the other, but where along the spectum they’re most comfortable in operating.

  • aneitlich


    I like your distinction a lot!


  • you know, thinking about it some more, the free mock up idea is running wild here on sitepoint. Just check out the contests forum…

  • It’s very odd to me how much contradiction is between these two original posts.

    “Everyone should consider using free mockups! It’ll help the me consider you, and then I can use your free work to lay the ground work for someone else! Oh, wait…I guess that doesn’t help you any…but it sure helps me! Everyone should do things that help me out!”

    I have to hand it to you though, it took guts to post a follow up like this…

  • Anonymous Coward

    Free mock ups are just plain stupid. No way around it.

    1) You are reducing the percieved value of your work, heck, you were willing to do the mock up for free, and the mock up is what they want – so why should they pay very much for it now since you already gave it to them?

    2) You are putting yourself at significant risk to have the client rip-off your work.

    3) You are telling the customer that you are so not in demand that you have time to screw around doing make believe work instead of working on paying projects.

    Free mock-ups are great for cheap-o nightmare clients that I run screaming from. The fact that the poster even looked at elance would indicate to me that he was looking for “cheap” (read sweat-shop in china) pricing. These types of clients are never happy. Even when you give them a deal, they will always want more and more for less and less.

    Free mock-ups are great for bottom feeding “designers” who want to be even more attractive to the cheap-o clients than the other bottom feeders on elance and score the big $500 job and make $2.50/hr.

    I’m not bitter. I’ve been doing design work for 10 years, and have been running my own successful design business for the last 2 years. I’m booked solid for the next good bit. And doing free mock-ups is stupid. If you work is worth nothing, than why be in business in the first place? Always charge something for your work, otherwise it’s a hobby. Train your clients that your time is valuable. You’ll be glad you did.

  • Jeff Cochran

    In general, I’ve found that designers providing mockups, especially free ones, are normally either reusing a previous design or providing a theme/template design from a portal. As well they probably should, since the only way to do a mockup without significant client input is to use a templated design.

    Normally I do a mockup as part of the process, usually several. But I ask the client to give me examples of sites that have features they like. I also ask them to rank those features in preference, must have, should have and neat but not critical.

    Given those things, plus an idea about current graphics/logos/color schemes/etc. I can do a mockup tailored to the potential client and closer to what they may want in the end. I don’t normally just do this on a random qoute without a good idea that the job is ours, but if the mockup section of the project doesn’t go well and we can’t meet the client’s needs, we don’t charge them either.

    I do disagree that it’s hard to find a designer/developer that can do graphics, copy, layout, architecture, coding, etc., because the issue isn’t finding that one person, the issue is finding the correct firm or team. If a client is looking for one person that does it all, they’re dreaming. If they’re looking to have us do site design and navigation, another developer do coding and someone else do graphics, then they’re looking for someone other than us. We don’t do work with several parties involved in the project unless we control the parties, and we have always had the luxury of not needing to.

  • pgdevelopment

    Very interesting blog and I figured I’d chime in with my experience. When first starting out about 6 years ago I did provide free mock-ups but only because I didn’t have a portfolio yet. Quite honestly, without some kind of proof that you can do the work, you

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