Can Photographers Make a Living from Thumbtack (and Other Platforms)?

Thumbtack and Bark are two "gig economy" services that match service providers with interested customers.
Thumbtack and Bark are two “gig economy” services that match service providers with interested customers.

Is your photography business part of the gig economy?  Should you be using online matching services like Thumbtack, Bark and others to land jobs?  I’ve spent the past few months trying out Thumbtack in order to find out if it was worth my while (and because I wanted to write about it).  Here’s what I’ve learned.

You’ve probably been hearing the term “gig economy.”  It describes an environment of temporary jobs, one offs, without a full- or even part-time employer.  People moving from gig to gig with a series of temporary and flexible jobs.  Often, technology is used to match people seeking a service with those able to provide that service.  Think Airbnb and Uber or Lyft drivers.  Craig’s List and Angie’s List were two of the early websites that could link customers and providers.  They’ve since been joined by a host of other online services and apps seeking to do the same.  Two that have recently been on the radar of photographers are Thumbtack and Bark.

Many photographers have always operated in a gig economy.  Unless we’re one of the increasingly rare shutterbugs who has a job with a publisher or is the official photographer of a large organization, we’ve always lived from job to job.  We do weddings, portraits, events.  We may sell a few prints or teach photography or lead workshops and photo tours.  We may get some repeat business, but we’re always hustling for the next job.

A service that would put your business in front of people actively looking for exactly the services you offer is a seductive prospect.  Does it work?  Is it worth the time, effort and expense?  The answer is: it depends.

It depends on whether or not you are an established photographer or someone just starting out.  It depends on whether you need to get living-wage fees from each and every job in order to make it, or whether you can do a few at low price points without killing your cash flow.  It depends on whether you have any paid jobs under your belt, with the recommendations and work samples they provide or whether you’re a complete rookie with nothing to show prospective clients.  There’s a place for services like Thumbtack and Bark and their siblings, but it’s a limited place.

How It Works

Operations like Thumbtack really begin to take off when they get enough customers and vendors to be able to match almost any normal request with a potential provider.  Need a leaky toilet replaced and can’t afford a house call from a plumbing company?  The service will match you with several possible people with plumbing expertise.  Want a wedding cake?  The service will match you with several bakers.  They make their money by charging a fee every time a match is made.

As the customer, you fill out an online form detailing what you’re looking for, when and where you want it, and what you’re willing to spend.  You then receive one or more bids from service providers from which you choose the best fit.  You’re under no obligation to hire anyone and you don’t pay a fee to the website.  You can review the vendors’ profiles, work samples and recommendations from previous customers.  And you can contact prospective vendors for more information or to seal the deal.

As the vendor, you fill out a profile listing the services you provide, the geographic area you cover and your fees.  You’ll fill out a form that asks a number of questions, like “Why should customers hire you?” or “What is your typical process for working with a new customer?” which potential customers will see.  Plan to spend some time on this, and on collecting sample photos, reviews from past customers, and thinking through your pricing.  Once you’ve finished your profile, you can begin getting matched with customers.

Vendor profile
Part of your vendor profile is basic information, like hours and days of operation.

You are notified whenever a customer is looking for a service you provide and you can then send them a bid.  You can also set up your profile to automatically bid on any job that fits within the parameters you’ve set.  When, as a result of your bid, a customer contacts you, the website charges you a fee, based on the dollar amount of the job, the number of photographers who match the job and other factors.  You pay the fee whether or not the customer finally hires you.  It’s up to you to close the sale.  If you’re not booking clients, this gets expensive, fast.

In my experience, Thumbtack offered multiple match opportunities every day.  There was no shortage of potential clients.  And, with some reservations (detailed later in this story), Thumbtack did a nice job of sending automatic bids to appropriate potential customers.  The matching service works pretty well.

Thumbtack’s website does a good job of explaining how it works.  The information is clear and relatively easy to find.  You can dive as deep as you want or just skim the surface.  I’ve had good success using the chat feature to get specific information and advice.  There's an online community, where you can go for advice and hear from other pros and Thumbtack sends you weekly information about your account activity and some basic information about how you match up with competitors.

In addition, Thumbtack offers customers a “guarantee” in the form of insurance that will cover up to $1 million worth of property damage caused by a vendor hired through the service.  This does not replace your own business insurance (you do have that right?  See my previous article on What Photographers Need to Know About Insurance).  However, it is an inducement that gives some extra peace of mind to potential customers.

The First Problem

The big downside to these services is that what seems like the vast majority of potential customers are looking for very, very, very inexpensive vendors.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw people asking for a photographer for a wedding with over 100 guests and were only willing to pay $150 or some almost insultingly small amount. (I don’t do weddings, but I do shoot events and the two are in the same category on Thumbtack, so I see a lot of wedding requests.)

Now, some of these people are, no doubt, of very limited means and simply can’t afford much.  I can sympathize with someone who is eloping or having a small, backyard wedding because of the costs and who is willing to pay what they can but also be realistic about what that will buy.

Some, I believe, truly have no idea what a good photographer should cost.  We all want to save as much as we can, whenever we can.  They don’t realize how much time we spend preparing for the shoot and processing their photos after the shoot.

But $150 for a wedding with 100 guests at a swank venue?  I’m certainly not going to spend five hours shooting a wedding and reception, then cull and edit photos, and deliver jpg files for $150.  Are you?  And I’m not going to shoot a family reunion or charity event that’s booked in an expensive hotel, with expensive catering, and receive $100 for my time.

The expectation among customers seems to be that they’ll find someone who’ll do the job for next to nothing.  And, in making those matches, and drawing in photographers willing to work for almost nothing, these online services contribute to the devaluation of photography, lowering the bar of expectations for all of us.

If, however, you set your fees at a level that will sustain your business, you’ll get a lot fewer matches, a whole lot fewer.  Charging $5,000 for a wedding will weed out a lot of the people who come to services like Thumbtack looking for cheap photographers.  However, it’s worth it.  If you do get a match, that prospective client is likely to have more realistic expectations and you have a better chance of landing the right kind of clients.

The Second Problem

As easy as these matching services seem, at first glance, they can be more complicated once you start looking under the hood.  Once you set up your profile, if you provide a wide variety of services, you could get a lot, and I mean A LOT, of emails.  Every potential customer who fits the criteria you’ve set up will generate an email from Thumbtack to you.  And you’ll get a reminder email if the job is still open a day later.  I live in a major metropolitan area (Washington, DC) and could receive dozens of emails from Thumbtack on a busy day.  There may be fewer if you live in a less populated area but, depending on how wide you make the settings in your profile, your inbox could fill up in a hurry.

The categories offered by Thumbtack seem too broad to me.  Business event photographers are not the same as wedding photographers, yet they’re lumped together, along with birthday photographers, so you get notified for all inquiries, even if you only do one of the three types.  Headshots are different from portraits, which are different from senior portraits, which are different than modeling shots, which are different from maternity shots, or newborn portraits, but they’re all lumped together.  I can understand Thumbtack’s need for broad and basic categories—who wants to choose from a list of 300 options?  But it means that you get a lot of chaff along with the good kernels.

And, you have to keep on top of it, bidding as soon as an email notification comes in.  Otherwise, other photographers will bid and you’ll lose the opportunity to compete for that job.

Instead, you might want to try the automatic bids, so you won’t have to be constantly on alert.  I’ve got my profile all set up, listing what kinds of jobs I take, where I’ll work and how much I’ll charge.  I set a separate weekly budget for each type of job (events, portraits, weddings).  Thumbtack will automatically send my bid to each potential customer that meets my criteria.  As customers contact me—to ask a question or book a job—Thumbtack takes a fee via my credit card and applies it to the weekly budget I set.  Once I’ve gotten enough contacts to exhaust my budget, no more bids are sent until the next week.

Thumbtack's Calendar feature.
Thumbtack's Calendar feature is accessed from the drop down menu under your profile picture.

The automatic bids save you a lot of time and effort monitoring and bidding on all the emails you get about potential customers.  Cool!  But, then you might start getting customer contacts for days when you’re already booked or are traveling.  And you’re paying for those contacts that’ll never turn into work.  In that case, you probably didn’t read all the fine print and instructions, so you didn’t set up a separate calendar on Thumbtack did you?

Thumbtack has a calendar feature that’s not immediately obvious and easy to overlook.  Any job booked through Thumbtack will automatically be reflected in your calendar, which is nice.  However, you have to fill in all of the days and times you are not available or have other bookings to avoid having bids go out and customer contacts come back for work you simply can’t do.  And you have to remember to keep adding to and updating that calendar.  If you’re anything like me, having more than one calendar is a recipe for trouble!  It would be nice if there was a way to sync calendars, so Google or Outlook calendars could talk to Thumbtack’s calendar.

The Third Problem

At this time, I can’t speak to Thumbtack’s responsiveness or ability to solve a problem or dispute, should you encounter one.  I recently ran into an issue and it’s too early to tell if it will be a big problem or not or how responsive Thumbtack is.  I will update this article if the problem is resolved, satisfactorily or not.  As noted, Thumbtack charges you when a potential customer contacts you, whether or not they hire you.  I’m OK with that, as they are already interested and my bid is in the ballpark, so these are legitimate leads.  However, I recently had a contact who simply said “Thanks for the quote.  My budget is $100.”  My quote was notably higher.  I imagine this person was being nice and essentially saying “thanks for quoting but you’re too expensive.”  Or maybe they were hoping I’d lower my fee.  None-the-less, it was technically a contact and I was charged a fee.  I’ve filed a request for a refund with Thumbtack, arguing that it wasn’t a legitimate contact as there was no chance this could lead to a job at that price.

That was ten days ago and I’ve heard nothing back from Thumbtack.  To their credit, it was easy to find out how to file for a refund.  Now we just wait and see how and if they respond.

Update: Upon investigation, Thumbtack determined I was due a refund and credited my account accordingly.

So How Can You Effectively Use Thumbtack

I’ve learned that Thumbtack and its competitors can be a part of a photographer’s business and marketing plans, under certain conditions.

If you’re a brand-new photographer, fresh out of photography school or changing careers, without any work to show or clients to provide references, this could work.  For a while.  And as long as you’re willing to work for low pay for a period of time while you build up the experience, portfolio and references.  But it’s not a sustainable way to work.  You’ll burn out trying to do enough jobs to make a decent living and/or you’ll starve.

If you’re an established photographer, this can be a supplemental way to get clients.  Assuming you set realistic prices, you may get a few leads that turn into jobs to fill some empty slots in your schedule.  Thumbtack isn’t going to pay your bills, but it could provide some extra gigs here and there without too much effort on your part.

If you’re established in one area of photography (like weddings) and are trying to add another skill set (like doing senior portraits) to your arsenal, Thumbtack can help you get started.  You’re only relying on it for a small part of your overall revenues, while you get a little experience under your belt and some decent portfolio images.

If you’re somewhere in between rank amateur and professional, a service like Thumbtack can be a part of your business and marketing plans so long as you’re aware of its limitations.

And if you’re just looking to do an odd job here and there without caring much about the money, Thumbtack and its ilk could definitely be for you, so long as you don’t pay out in fees most of what you take in from jobs.

In the End

I might get one solid lead per month, which often turns into a job.  So, Thumbtack isn’t going to keep me in business, but it does bring in a little extra work and income.  So long as you understand the advantages and disadvantages of a platform like Thumbtack and its siblings, they can be a smallish and supplemental part of your business, or a way to gather a bunch of experience, portfolio images and recommendations in a short period of time.  Just know, going in, that many, if not most, of the customers are going to be looking for very low cost vendors and, except for some limited circumstances, that’s probably not you.

Have you had any dealings with companies like Thumbtack?  Share your experiences in the comments section.



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