Illustration by Beatrice Sala

A few years ago, a friend of Cherise Lavah’s told the self-taught designer she should try freelancing on Fiverr. It’d been in the back of her mind for a couple years, and then the pandemic happened. “I was working in restaurants; everything shut down,” said Lavah, a Salt Lake City resident. “I’ve been teaching myself design for the past five years, and I’m in school for it now. And I was like, well, let’s just throw something on Fiverr and see if anything sticks.”

Lavah has slung some beers in her time, and she’s always wanted to design labels for them. When she created her Fiverr account, she uploaded a mockup of a beer can for a Grim Wheat Beer. It featured the specter of Death flanked by two blades of wheat, with the beer’s ingredients displayed around the points of a pentagram. On Fiverr, she promoted herself as a beer label creator, set her rates deliberately low enough to land a gig and soon enough, a job offer came in to design a bottle label. For juice. Close enough.

“I think it was $40,” Lavah said. “I woke up and it was like, ‘You have an order.’ I’m like, ‘What!’ I did not expect that at all. It was really exciting.”

With that first Fiverr notification, a freelance design career suddenly began in Utah. And it’s going quite well so far. When I spoke to Lavah in late March, she was putting in her two weeks’ notice at the restaurant. Now a Level 2 Fiverr user with dozens of glowing reviews and a steadily increasing per-project rate, Lavah focuses on design (and finally finishing design school) full time.

But about that first $40 fee.

For Lavah, it made total sense. She was a newcomer to a massive marketplace with hundreds of creative categories, hundreds of thousands of freelancers, and millions of buyers. She had created accounts on Upwork and 99designs before, and never got any traction on either. She decided to start “really low for a bit” and build a reputation on Fiverr while gaining experience along the way. Plus, thanks to the unemployment checks at the pandemic’s outset, she wasn’t all that stressed about day-to-day finances, which allowed her to focus more at first on what she was creating than what she was making per hour. 

Row of yellow beer cans
Design by Cherise Lavah

For critics of Fiverr and the other gigging marketplaces, low prices are a problem. The sites, they say, drive down the overall value of freelance design work by pitting designers against each other to offer increasingly inexpensive services. One of those vocal critics was Justin Gignac, the co-founder of Working Not Working, an online platform where companies and recruiters hire top-level freelance creatives for design-centric jobs. Gignac has talked about how Working Not Working is structured as the antithesis of platforms like Fiverr. Last May, when Working Not Working was up against Fiverr for a Webby Award, he tweeted that people who voted for Fiverr were “Ok with creatives getting paid 5 bucks for what you do.” He added, “Fuck that shit.”

That tweet made the rounds in February of this year when thousands of Working Not Working members received an email from the company, announcing that Fiverr had bought it.

 

When Working Not Working member Laura Welch heard that Fiverr bought the company, the Atlanta-based designer said she was shocked, and a little concerned. Through Working Not Working, she’d landed contract work, including the job she’s on now. Did the sale mean the site was going to get … giggy? 

“I don’t want to have to do 50 logos to make a decent salary—I want to have a contract,” she said, while laughing bleakly.  

“It’s weird. I feel like in some ways they are totally different offerings.”

Gignac and co-founder Adam Tompkins would agree with that. “I don’t think Fiverr has anything against our community, but some of the higher-paid people in our community are a little bit like, ‘Oh God, that’s the enemy,’ because [Fiverr] has all these cheap jobs and less expensive versions of what they do for big Fortune 100 companies,’” Tompkins said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think they serve the same customers at all. I don’t think that Pentagram is losing big branding jobs to Fiverr sellers.”

Did the sale mean the site was going to get … giggy? 

Fiverr launched in 2010 with the promise of connecting people to cheap help for all kinds of work. A Wayback Machine look at the site’s front page from April 2010, shows sellers offering to draw you a portrait, improve your website’s search engine optimization, or write you a love song, all for five bucks. The company’s original slogan expressed its commitment to offering remarkably low wages: “The place for people to share things they’re willing to do for $5.”

A year later, Gignac and Tompkins founded Working Not Working. From the start, the platform was geared toward connecting “elite” freelance creatives with the kinds of companies that could afford to hire them. A new creative who signs up for an account starts as a “member” who can showcase their portfolio, amass followers, and use that clout to find contract jobs with top companies that might otherwise be hard to break into. In return, companies like Apple, Google, and Wieden+Kennedy had a curated pool of creatives they could tap for any given contract job. Working Not Working’s membership board of about 350 members keeps tabs on the community, and if someone on the board spots a talented newbie, a vote can be held to determine if the member should get a “vetted” badge. 

After Welch graduated from a design school bootcamp program in 2017, she landed a placement at an NYC ad agency, making all of $15 an hour. A designer there told she had to be on Working Not Working, because everyone else in New York was. Welch switched careers in her early 30s, expecting to endure about two years of entry-level designer pay before landing a full-time job in a creative field she actually liked. But she kept getting short-term contracts through recruiters and Working Not Working, and she liked it. Rather than find herself stuck in an unhappy marriage with a job, Welch, now based in Atlanta, became a freelancer.

“I think I’ve only ever gotten one gig from Working Not Working that I actually submitted to,” she said. “Everything else, it’s been people that saw my profile, and reached out and said, ‘Hey we need somebody for this.’ So it’s kind of nice. It doesn’t totally remove your responsibility to actively seek work. But in some situations, it’s just been like, ‘Hey, we saw your thing. What’s your availability?’”

While fellow Working Not Working members deem whether you are worthy of vetting or not, a standard Fiverr user gets measured by metrics—response rate, order completion rate, on-time delivery, customer ratings, earnings, and more. A newer service from Fiverr, Fiverr Pro, includes professional vetting similar to Working Not Working, but most Fiverr freelancers level up by hitting numbers. The ways Fiverr and Working Not Working choose to market their creative talent highlights an undercurrent of tension around the acquisition. Both platforms enable a certain dynamic within the design world—namely, gig work—but they built their respective reputations on totally opposite approaches. Working Not Working by building an “obsessively curated community,” and Fiverr by leveraging the tools of big tech to create an expansive marketplace for anyone who wants to join. In the process, the freelance marketplace has splintered into a hierarchical structure where “good” freelancers use one platform, and everyone else uses another. Interpreted a little differently, the platforms’ users often break along geographic and educational lines.

“I don’t think that Pentagram is losing big branding jobs to Fiverr sellers.”

During a Zoom interview last month, designer and Working Not Working member Denzel Boyd pulled up Fiverr. He definitely had a preference between the two. “Working Not Working is about you selling yourself and not the product,” he said. “It centers around the maker.” For Boyd, the process of browsing other Working Not Working Los Angeles member profiles whose work he admired led to a job a few years ago when he wasn’t yet looking for one. He was interning in L.A., surfing through profiles to see what other people were producing and decided to message a designer whose work he admired and ask if he wanted to get lunch. 

“The next message was: ‘Hey, we’re hiring here at Compass. Are you looking for work?’” Boyd said. “We’d never met. He was so convinced that I’d be a good fit.”

Neither Welch and Boyd characterized Fiverr as the enemy during our Zooms, but plenty of Working Not Working members tweeted along those lines when the sale was announced. Some vowed to deactivate their accounts, and encouraged others to do so (Working Not Working didn’t give numbers on the number of members who deactivated their account after the sale). Gignac, not a habitual tweeter by any metric, waded into the replies.

He tweeted offers to talk about the sale over the phone. He also tweeted out a “How could you?” phone hotline where members could call and vent, which had the effect of applying a “How’s my driving” bumper sticker to the back of the Hindenburg. That idea was criticized for its triteness; the tweet got deleted and the hotline vanished. The co-founders now say that it was a giant, naïve misstep meant to bring levity at the exact wrong time for it. “There’s a funny thing that happens when you’re on Twitter, and you watch other people going through things and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, why would they ever do that,’” Gignac said. “Just don’t even engage. You’re not going to go and be able to convince hundreds of people of the nuances of anything in 280 characters. Don’t go and do it. And then you get in that situation, and all of that goes out the window so stupidly.”

Meanwhile, Tompkins, the social media averse co-founder, texted Gignac a photo of his feet kicked up in a bathtub. “I’ve never been so happy to be the co-founder that’s not on Twitter,” he said. 

A Daily Dot story chronicled the online pileup and quoted some of the Working Not Working members angered by the sale. Gignac sent a statement vowing to continue to advocate for creatives’ value and careers. “You make decisions, you’ve got to stand by them,” he said. “You’ve got to own them. You know, people won’t always see it in the short term, especially, you know, through a headline, but it’s all on us now to go and prove that, you know, this was the right move and is going to benefit our community in a massive way.”

For Fiverr, the interest in acquiring Working Not Working is relatively simple. They’re buying talent and the business (and reputation) that comes along with it. Fiverr built its business on commodifying freelance creative work; with Working Not Working under its umbrella, it’s essentially trying to expand into a top-tier market that it wasn’t built to service.

Like Amazon or Uber, Fiverr is, at its core, a horizontal marketplace that takes a cut of each of the millions of transactions taking place with the help of its tech. In the process, it built nine areas of service, like graphics and design. Across the nine categories, Fiverr now offers over 500 types of services, from resume writing to psychic reading. Along with offering hundreds of options, Fiverr’s also on the hunt for bigger clients. In a Zoom interview from Fiverr HQ in Tel Aviv, Fiverr CMO Gali Arnon said the company wants to tap into more top-level vertical marketplaces, and Working Not Working’s collection of top creative talent and big brands and agencies fit the bill.

Arnon says Working Not Working will remain an independent platform, but a week after the acquisition, Fiverr announced in a news release that it is developing a platform “aimed at helping the world’s leading corporate brands engage and manage teams of top tier independent creatives and agency teams.” The Working Not Working team will help in its development, Arnon said. 

For Working Not Working’s co-founders, the decision to sell required a long look at themselves (Tompkins’ words) and an ego check (Gignac’s). It involved an honest assessment of what their 10-person staff offers its members and clients, and what they could envision with the backing of a well-funded owner like Fiverr. Working Not Working was growing, but its internal team had stagnated. The founders realized there were limitations to how quickly they could scale and build resources for the Working Not Working community with a single developer and designer. “Our mission as a company is to eliminate the obstacles between creative people and opportunity,” Gignac said. “And we realized some of those obstacles were our own, and our ability to scale and our ability to be able to hire more than one developer and one designer, and we just feel an obligation to the community to do better for them and get a lot more people work.”

It also involved, as Gignac tweeted on sale day, reexamining what he thought Fiverr was. When Fiverr debuted in 2010, it was built on making cheap labor as accessible as possible. The model has changed some since then. Sellers now have leeway to choose their starting price points, and can also offer tiered pricing and services with Fiverr’s Gig Packages. Sales totals and good reviews help sellers climb to different Fiverr levels. Still, the company’s reputation for enabling an unhealthy “hustle culture” remains, as do the cheaper than market value services it offers.

When Fiverr’s team broached the subject of buying Working Not Working with the co-founders last summer, Gignac said he explored the site in a real way for the first time in a long time. He found some things he liked—the set fees that eliminate price haggling, the niche categories that help freelancers stand out for their specialties, and the automated invoicing service that saves creatives from chasing down checks. “All of that was surprising to me,” he said. 

The founders say the acquisition will give Working Not Working more technological support and a bigger reach. The way Tompkins sees it, the creative services industry is only going to get more global, and Working Not Working can’t ignore that. Joining Fiverr is one way for Working Not Working to build the infrastructure that supports that reality, even if that means being absorbed by a gigging monolith. “I talked to a lot of people, and they said, basically, ‘I just want Fiverr to go away,’” Tompkins said. “I was like, well, check out their stock price over the last two years—they’re not going away.” 

Design by Chris Botto

Like Lavah, a lot of people turned to Fiverr during the pandemic year. Read stories and annual reports summing up the company’s 2020, and they focus on record site traffic, a million more active buyers (3.4 mil at the end of last year) and 77% revenue growth ($189.5 million).  “I think what Fiverr has been preaching for the last almost 11 years now about the future of work and the fact that you can work remotely with talent and talent is global and you can work from anywhere just overnight got accelerated tremendously,” Arnon said. 

Scaling up, she said, will draw larger clients, more talent and lead to more career-level Fiverr users. Still, the $5 marketplace is alive and well. Search on Twitter for the terms “Fiverr” and “$5” and you’ll find a whole sub-economy of high-frequency tweeters promoting themselves as $5 voiceover talents, $5 copy editors, and $5 minimalist logo designers on Fiverr.

“Check out their stock price over the last two years—they’re not going away.” 

Chris Botto started at the bottom. A high-volume doodler and musician, he wanted to see if anyone would pay him to draw while he was at home with his kid when the pandemic hit. He posted his first gig in March, offering to draw and vectorize band logos for $5. The interest was quickly overwhelming. At first, he would shut off the gig. Then he started raising his rates and tweaking his search terms. A former bookkeeper, Botto kept track of how each change altered his clientele. 

“Once I started raising my prices, I think I started getting more brands,” he said. “And I don’t know if that’s because maybe when people are searching, they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t want somebody offering a product for $5 because I’m going to get a $5 product.’ Whereas bands are a little more like, ‘Whatever, you know, tear down the system, I don’t care.’” Botto now offers to draw and vectorize logos from $25 and up, with the low-end still dedicated to his musician brethren. 

Today, Fiverr is experiencing a division of culture amongst its sellers. Many sellers both in the U.S. and abroad maintain their low rates, leaving some people miffed in the Fiverr forum about how it’s financially feasible for designers to create a logo for $5 and what price undercutting means for designers who can’t afford (and refuse) to do so. In that same forum, you can also find post after post of users encouraging sellers to ask for what they’re worth. Fiverr has said as much on its blog:

“There’s always going to be a freelancer who works for less than you, but you can’t let that deter you,” Kate Devery, Fiverr’s senior brand copywriter, wrote in 2019. “If you want to make a good living doing what you love, or earn some extra spending money from a side hustle you enjoy, you need to charge what you’re worth.”

Lavah isn’t a Fiverr Pro yet, but her beer and product label design services start at $350 per project now. After she made that juice label, pocketed her portion of the sale and collected her five stars, another buyer contacted her a few weeks later. Then breweries started contracting her. Repeat clients developed. A scroll through her reviews shows clients from Orlando, New York, England, Omaha, Hong Kong, Australia and San Diego. Not one brewer, she jokingly lamented, has sent her a six-pack yet. She’s been envisioning a post-pandemic worldwide beer tour of all the places that her artwork can be found.

“I had no idea when I signed up for it last year that this is where I’d be right now,” she said. “I thought it was going to be another five years down the road before I got to this point. It’s so exciting. I feel like I definitely came in at the perfect time. Everyone’s drinking during the pandemic, so everyone’s brewing beers.”

When we talked, I asked her about the Working Not Working sale. She wasn’t familiar with the site, and I asked her to take a look when she had time. A few days later, Lavah replied that she hit a wall while poking around on the site. She’d have to sign up as a creative to learn more, but her initial reaction was a reinforcement of why Fiverr bought the platform in the first place. “From what it looks like, it’s pretty similar to Fiverr, save for the designers looking like they are more experienced/acclaimed,” she says. “I’ll definitely set up a profile on there when I can because I might as well be as out there as possible.”