Creative Freelancers Bid, and Sites Take a Cut

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- Does your company need a fresh look for the New Year? While overhauling your website and marketing materials might seem like a daunting -- and expensive -- project, online talent-scouting sites have made hiring freelancers easier and more affordable than ever.

Two factors have helped increase small businesses' access to creative talent. First, waves of layoffs at advertising agencies and media companies have left thousands of designers and copywriters out of work -- and looking to take on freelance projects. At the same time, there's been increasing interest in crowdsourcing, the concept that the "wisdom of crowds" can be used to solve problems.

Those trends have led to a new take on the temp agency: websites that match companies with workers on a project basis. Businesses post what they need done and what they're willing to pay, then watch the offers to work come in.

The plus for small businesses? You get access to a worldwide network of creative types, which is especially valuable for companies outside of major urban areas. Another bonus: The sites take care of all legal paperwork, so you won't be stuck haggling over intellectual property rights.

Here's a quick guide to the most popular sites by kind of job:

Graphic design
The recognized leader in this field is 99designs.com. Essentially, the site allows you to offer an online design contest: You complete a written description of what you're looking for and what you'll pay, and submissions are posted for everyone to see. You rate each idea and offer comments and suggestions so designers can adjust their proposals accordingly. At the end of a designated length of time, you chose a winner. You have to prepay your fee (to show you're serious), and 99designs takes its cut from that payment. Recently, companies have been paying $250 to $500 for a company logo and $1,000 and up for website redesigns.

CrowdSPRING.com works in a similar way, but allows for more confidentiality. (The current website of the powerful Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was designed as a CrowdSPRING project.) The company charges a listing fee of $39-$199, plus a 15% commission on the price you pay for the project. The more you pay, the more privacy settings you can activate, so competitors won't know what you're up to.

Software development
If your website needs more than just cosmetic changes, head to eLance to find an experienced developer. For $10, you can post a listing so contractors can respond with proposals of what they will charge to do it. (You pay eLance between 6.75% and 8.75% of the final price.) To keep tabs on remote workers, you can access screenshots of your freelancer's desktop or set up "milestones" when a worker is required to check in on their progress. The site is particularly good for developers and programmers, but you can also find thousands of experts in marketing, design and research.

oDesk works like an online temp agency: You post a specific project or browse listed contractors, then make a deal to hire a particular person at an hourly or project rate; the contractor gets 90% and oDesk takes the remaining 10% as a fee. The site also allows you build an online "team," if you need a group of people to work collaboratively on a large-scale project.

Photo research
Sometimes it takes only a few photos to give your website or brochures a fresh, more compelling look. Thanks to iStockphoto.com, you can get access to high-quality pictures at very affordable prices. Photographers (professional and amateur) post pictures they want to license, and you buy the rights. Prices vary by picture size and photographer, but you can get a professional quality, high-resolution picture suitable for marketing purposes for less than $20.

A cautionary note when using these sites: Remember that you get what you pay for. Offer a lowball payment and you'll get low-level talent. For 99designs, in fact, there are minimum amounts that must be offered for each category of project.

An inexperienced newcomer may pitch a great logo, but don't expect to pay pennies and get professional-quality work on complex projects. There are plenty of talented, creative people who have signed up with these sites because they can't find a full-time job in their field. Show respect for their time and experience, and you'll get results you can both be proud of.

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