Under the thumb: A review of Thumbtack for photographers

January 24, 2017

 What is Thumbtack?

We send you customer requests. You choose when to quote.

Thumbtack helps you find new customers and grow your business. The process is simple. Customers tell us about their needs and we send you the details of their requests (for free). If it looks like a fit, you respond with a custom quote and work out details with the customer…

I decided to try Thumbtack after it was mentioned to me by a photographer friend of mine. His experience was not altogether positive, but I thought it may be useful to me: a new photographer on a new continent trying to build a business from scratch.

It is an online service which puts people that need services in touch with those service providers.

It is an online service which puts people that need services in touch with those service providers. For photographers it sounded like it could be a useful tool, after all you only bid on jobs that you want and you get to name your price, and there seems to be fair competition.

Thumbtack is very good at SEO (might be something to do with being in bed with Google) and this oft-peddled photographer is wheeled out left, right and center as a shining example of how Thumbtack is great for photographers. I couldn’t resist giving it a go myself.

How does Thumbtack work?

First, a little background as to how Thumbtack works. The customer requesting the service (‘requester’) pays nothing to submit a basic quote which then lands in the inboxes of all professionals (‘pros’) who have specified on their profiles that they can provide that type of service.

The pro gets a notification of a customer request, and must submit their quote fast. There is a need for speed because a maximum 5 quotes can be submitted to the customer – so you are always competing with other pros just to get your quote seen by the customer. Payment takes place off the platform.

Sounds pretty good so far, right? Well, maybe, if it weren’t for one pesky detail.

Credits.

How do credits work?

Thumbtack monetizes by selling packs of credits to pros that they must redeem in exchange for the chance to bid on a customer request. I read somewhere ‘think of credits as postage stamps to send your quote’ which is an apt way of thinking about it.

The price of a pack of credits isn’t set in stone as it seems there are constant personalized promotions and price fluctuations, but in my own personal experience I bought 40 credits for $46.65, followed by 20 credits for $29.99 5 days later, then 2 for £3.33 another 3 days later. The credits cost $1.16, $1.49 and $1.65 each respectively – economies of scale apply.

It would be lovely if sending one quote costs one credit but this isn’t the case. They ranged from 2 credits up to 16 credits – meaning sending this one quote could cost as much as $23 or more depending on which credit pack was purchased.

Currently credits are refunded back to the pro if the requester deletes the quote or doesn’t view the quote within 2 days.

Is Thumbtack worth it?

After having used Thumbtack for about a week, I decided to throw in the towel for now at least because it just isn’t worth it for me. I spent $80 on credits and got one job out of it, bringing in $175 in total. That leaves me with a gross of $95.

But worse than that is the way that it forces you to do business. Because you have to be so fast submitting the requests you basically need to stop what you’re doing and rush to your computer every time the notification goes. Despite the need for speed, Thumbtack urges you to personalize your messages, refer to the specifics of each job and tailor each response. Yup, I’ve sure got all the time in the world for you, Thumbtack!

The few good jobs there are on Thumbtack seem to go within literally minutes

My stats give the competition level as ‘high’ in the photography field and state that I competed with 4 other pros on average – that isn’t surprising. The few good jobs there are on Thumbtack seem to go within literally minutes which makes you feel you’re under Thumbtack’s proverbial thumb the entire time you’re actively using the site for leads.


What are the problems with Thumbtack?

My main problem with Thumbtack is the lack of quality control. Are the customer requests genuine? Are the pros really professionals or just opportunists?

It costs nothing to submit a request via Thumbtack. Indeed, many pros submit requests to check out what the user experience is like from the other side of the table. It’s a pretty easy and consequence-free way of snooping on your competition. Pros writing about Thumbtack think they are justified posting fake requests in the name of research like Binary Bound and Steve Huff Photo.

Photographers are notoriously guarded about sharing publicly what they charge. If a photographer wanted to find out what other togs are charging it’s simple. Create a free profile, fill in some details about a fake wedding with absolutely no detail necessary and wait for the quotes to roll in.

It takes five minutes and costs each pro 8 credits (about $12). Thumbtack pockets $60. The fake requester loses nothing and what’s to stop them issuing more fake requests? It’s actually good for Thumbtack because it makes them more money.

It’s hard to say whether Thumbtack itself uses bots to spit out bogus requests as some more conspiratorially minded have contended.

The business model doesn’t benefit the users of the site who actually fund it (i.e the pros). It favors the requesters. The ease of the requesting process and its lack of quality control costs pros money and time. It wouldn’t take much to introduce a more level playing field.

So why doesn’t Thumbtack start doing something sensible that makes the requester partially accountable for the transaction, like, for example having them pay $1, or 1 credit if you must, to submit a quote? Only genuine requesters would even bother. In other words charge per hire, not per lead.

charge per hire, not per lead.

Another idea would be to have the ID of the requester verified in the same way that pros’ ID gets verified in order to earn the right to have this badge on your profile:

What about an algorithm that rewards requesters who write a custom message instead of just filling in a few fields from drop-down menus? Requests in which people have bothered to fill in more than three fields could have more prominence and rise to the top as they are more likely to be genuine requesters ready to hire.

It’s hard to quote for a job in which there is no information given about what the job actually is except ‘Life Event (Other)’. That was it. True story. ‘Hi, _first_name_! I’d be thrilled to be your photographer at your Life Event (Other)! Sounds wonderful! Nothing like a good Life Event (Other)!’

Are there scammers on Thumbtack?

It is so easy for people to use Thumbtack for scamming purposes that the very first bite I ever got was in fact from a scammer. Calling himself Dave Scott in Albany CA, (and 5 minutes later Daniel S in Berkeley) he implored that he had a favor to ask me and asked to correspond over text message. He sent me the following message:

Alright sir the event planner he does not have credit card facilities to charge my card so i would need you to add extra sum of $3500 for the event planner so i can send you my credit card to charge for the payment and once you have the fund, you can go ahead and make a cash deposit to the event planner bank so we can have everything in order before the party?

This kind of thing drives me nuts and it’s a wonder it didn’t exhaust my already dwindling supply of goodwill towards Thumbtack once and for all.

To my ‘credit’ I persevered, bought yet more credits and plodded on, like a gambler determined not to walk away from the table with less money in my pocket than I had when I walked in.

As a side note here, the gambling analogy is very apt because that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s part of a rising tide of ‘gamification’ which now encroaches on most aspects of our online lives from social media to business tools.

Examples of photography contests such as Viewbug and unapologetic ‘online gaming platform for photographers’ Gurushots use gamification techniques to entice people to spend huge amounts of time and money on the sites, with very little meaningful reward to show for it.

It feels like a losing game… and to many it is.

Thumbtack is no different but rather than points or prizes, the endgame is to make some profit to recoup all the money you’ve lost buying credits! It feels like a losing game… and to many it is.

OK, so what are the other problems with Thumbtack?

My other gripe with Thumbtack is simply it’s a race to the bottom. The chance of getting consistent quality leads on this site is slim to none. Sure, it happens – it happened to me – but I had to send dozens of quotes to find one genuine person who liked what I did, chatted on the phone then booked me.

Check out this request.

They are looking for 6 hours of wedding photography, including physical prints and travel between venues, for around $900 in San Francisco, incidentally the most expensive place to live in the US. Admittedly it is on a Thursday but these kinds of requests are not uncommon.

While a cheapo wedding might soon be perfect for myself, a newcomer to professional photography, not yet shooting weddings on my own, the experienced professionals that Thumbtack prides itself on wouldn’t get out of bed for this.

Is it really worth sifting through dozens of these requests a week to find the one or two that – for an established professional with a decade or two of experience – aren’t insulting? Probably not. For myself and other newbies, it may be worthwhile but with so much profit margin taken up by the uncertain business of bidding on jobs, even that is in question.

It’s fascinating to see how Thumbtack has gradually phased out the use of the word ‘experienced’ on their website and marketing. This courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

March 2015:

Jan 2016:

Dec 2016:

Like with how TripAdvisor has dispensed with the controversial word ‘trusted’ from their website following a UK lawsuit (I documented their many scandals here), it seems Thumbtack too is unable to carry on promising something which is completely unproven.

They have remarketed themselves to pros as ‘a tool to grow your business’ which to me anyway implies that many may be starting out, seeking their first few clients before they can start charging proper money via more specialized and established marketing avenues.

What’s the verdict on Thumbtack?

Even though my review hasn’t cast Thumbtack in the most positive light, I still feel it might have some value to a limited cross-section service providers.

The math is unsustainable.

First, it might work for those in industries in which each gig represents a significant proportion of monthly or even yearly revenue. In my experience in a competitive industry, it has cost me $80 to bring in a job worth $175. The math is unsustainable.

Take an industry like construction in which each job may be worth several thousand dollars. Spending even five hundred dollars to secure a $15,000 job would totally be worth it, if it were a quality lead. But this also has its inherent issues which could end up costing those companies money. It has to do with the ‘fixed price’ model of quoting.

This Visual People article highlights the problem. “For [possibly any construction service business] bidding online is not really possible. Providing sight-unseen estimates would rely on what the consumer tells us…. The consumer is obviously not a professional, and would not know what to look for even if provided [with] detailed questions.”

Secondly, it might work for – how can I put this delicately – bottom feeders and those that have no other choice but to pay to find each gig.

This model would surely in the long run lead to a poor quality services becoming the norm on Thumbtack – if it hasn’t already. Indeed, sites like Pissed Consumer are rife with tales of builders not completing jobs, unreliable electricians, nightmare petsitters and cleaners who never turn up.

I would prefer to use my marketing budget to advertise on reputable sites tailored to my industry on which service professionals can list what they do, and consumers are free to click through to any providers that are of interest, visit their websites, find out more or request a phone call, all at no extra cost to either party.

I’d rather grow my business organically with quality, service and integrity

I’m also putting efforts in to building my real-life network of clients in the hopes of referrals which are worth so much more than leads of questionable quality; and building connections with other photographers which will also build growth and credibility.

I’d rather grow my business organically with quality, service and integrity always at the forefront of what I do than be dependent on any website, especially one which has so many disgruntled users.

**UPDATE APRIL 2017**: I have no idea what’s happening! But I recently turned Thumbtack new requests notifications back on, and saw that they’ve changed their credit system slightly. Now, they proudly proclaim, “It’s free to reply!” Great! But now, or at least for this one request I received before opting out requests again, it costs 90 credits if the customer replies. 90 credits!

So let’s say that someone, a pro, in my position wanted desperately to respond to this particular quote. This pro is down to zero credits. I would need 90 credits in the bank so I can follow up with this customer, hoping they reply and we take things further and discuss their wedding, business and so on. Essentially what is the least amount of money they can spend to follow up the conversation with this customer (i.e acquire 90 credits)?

First off, it is really, really difficult to find this page. What I linked to there was Thumbtack’s most up-to-date price list for pros purchasing credits. Why this information is so hard to find, and not optimized for search engines to be able to find, I have no idea.

As you can see from the price list above, the very cheapest way for me to acquire 90 credits is to buy a 50 pack of credits and two 20 packs. ($73.30 + $29.99 + $29.99). That makes a total of $133.28, or $1.48 per credit instead of $1.67.

So that’s right. Just to reply to this one request, and be ready to correspond with the customer until I had converted the enquiry into a sale, the least amount of money I would have to pay for the privilege now is $133.28. Nuts!

© Zoe Larkin Photography 2017

I provide candid, contemporary wedding photography for alternative weddings in the Bay Area with a particular specialization in vintage-themed, boho-chic & artistic nuptials. Read my frequently asked questions, what to expect when working with me, and to find out more, please contact me.

Comments

Thanks for writing such a detailed review on them. I just started to dabble in using them to grow our clientele (not start) and I feel better to know that within the first week of using them, I noticed everything you mentioned.

Hi there Patrice, yes, I started looking into it and before long felt I’d opened a can of worms and because it’s how I am, I decided to write about it and share it with others! I think for those growing their businesses, it has even less value than for start-ups because in my experience, what you compete on as a vendor is price, not quality. That’s my subjective opinion, in my limited experience.

Hi Zoe,
I enjoyed reading your review. I started using Thumbtack about 18 months ago and was having decent success because their credit fees were much lower. Since then they have hiked up the prices to the point of ridiculousness. I have also found that fewer and fewer quotes are actually being viewed. I am slowly weaning off of this terrible site.
Wayne

Thanks Wayne for the comment! I think what they started was a great product but now things have changed. They have basically gotten greedy. The prices have risen, not to mention accusations of fake job requests and a mysteriously low rate of quotes being viewed and customers interacting with pros. I’d steer clear, but then again, it has definitely worked for some businesses and I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon!

“They have basically gotten greedy.”
Exactly. And, in doing so, they have opened themselves up to cheaper competitor. Once a customer is lost, they are difficult to regain. Thumbtack is losing more and more businesses.

Why did I write a long review of “Thumbtack” and post it on my blog before looking to see if others had done so?

Live and learn. I wish you the best Zoe.

Glad I landed here & read this. I’m starting out in the wedding industry as well & was considering their services but no more. Thank you for sharing this. “I’d rather grow my business organically with quality, service and integrity” as well. Cheers, I’m behind you all the way!

Thanks ML. Some people swear by it and have had good and even repeat customers and I don’t doubt it. It’s the way that it’s done that irks me – the idea of having to rush to the computer/phone to send a quote each time, the lack of follow-up from clients which makes me think not all requests are exactly genuine, and the ridiculously low prices that you have to match to stand a chance of being within the average customer’s budget.

All a bit silly.

iseebeautyallaroundbyrobpaine

Thank you Zoe for your very helpful post on Thumbtack. I started using Thumbtack and I found your words helpful.

After responding to to a good deal of Thumbtack requests in my opinion it seems to me that the most of the prospective clients I’ve interacted with are fishing for the cheapest price possible. This is too bad because I think in theory with some improvements TT is a great idea.

I can only imagine how the client who actually finds a photographer who will shoot an 8 hour wedding for $800 (including prints) reacts when they see view their proofs. As the wedding quotes are not realistic I stick to bidding for portrait shoots.

A recent exchange went something like this : Client wants an hour portrait shoot with a cost range similar to $120-150. I low bid at $130 which includes everything she needs ( very low I know). She writes back and says can you do it for $90, which was even below the price range she posted in the first place and it is a price automatically makes it a money loser for me.

Problem number two : it seems as a good deal of
TT clients do not have a realistic idea what photography services cost. Would these same people expect a plumber to install a new toilet for $50 or a mechanic to install new brakes on a car for $50 (including parts of course!)?

My suggestion for Thumbtack would be to have a tutorial for clients which would explain how much it costs a good photographer to run a business and somehow explain that you will get what you pay for most of the time.

The other thing I think would be helpful would be for Thumbtack to do is to establish minimum fees for some of its most requested services.

For instance if a client wanted to book a wedding photographer on Thumbtack, the starting bid price would be a mandatory $2500 for an 8 hour wedding. This could reduce the chance of clients hiring an incompetent photographer to do a wedding for $800.

This would be a win-win for everyone : Thumbtack will draw a better quality of photographers, its clients will come to expect a better level of work and the current unlimited low ball bidding system will not artificially lower the prices across the board of what photographers can charge clients.

Thanks again for your blog, Rob

Thanks Rob for your kind words of appreciation.This blog will be shelved as I’m changing direction and will be showcasing blogs, photos, work etc relevant to brides, rather than photographers.

You’ve hit the nail on the head, and I’m sure every photographer who’s ever used the site (except those who are in Thumbtack’s pocket) will tell similar stories. They want cheap prices, are shocked by actual market prices, not even high prices.

Unfortunately, unlike with installing a toilet or changing a car’s brakes, there is a sense of ‘Well, I can do that myself’. We are almost meant to feel grateful that someone’s paying us to do the exact same thing they could very easily do themselves.

Now that everyone takes pictures everyday, it’s hard for the general public to understand exactly what the costs are of being a professional photographer. Sure, they know that the equipment costs money and you have to have insurance, but the huge costs of being in business are lost on most. They simply see us as people that turn up, press a button, then go home and in the process, must get really wealthy for taking people’s money like that.

Minimum fees would be a good idea in practise but against the free market economy. Everyone can charge what they like – we have to differentiate ourselves on something other than price, and the place to do that is anywhere but TT.

Basically to ‘compete’ on Thumbtack, the only way is to lowball everyone else and make sure your quote is the darned cheapest one going. Perhaps the only pros for whom this might be an advantage, are the newbies. The beginners to business trying to build up their portfolios.

Well on that count, we’re also done a disservice. I myself am setting up a wedding photography biz, and the area I’m in (SF Bay) is the place for being very niche – and only taking on weddings or projects etc that fit the specific niche being targeted. Why is it that nobody on TT ever write a note describing the style of wedding which is arguably one of the most important aspects – e.g we are planning a rustic farmyard wedding with barndancing & grandma’s apple cider or we are having a heavy metal, Harley Davidson inspired wedding with a live goth act until 3am? That’s the kind of stuff I’d need to know – not the things that are chosen from a drop down list!

I don’t do photos but I am a member of thumbtack or will continue to get their alerts as I am a balloon decorator.. Nothing you said here was wrong at all. I completely agree. And what’s crazy is how i found your blog I have been trying to figure out what determines the amount of credits the pros are charged. I can get two requests of the same thing and the only difference is the date by lets say a month. One request will be 3 credits and another request could be 5!!! Are they insane?? Its the same service, same type of party same everything but because the date is different the credit charge is different. This along with reading your blog makes me done with this type of service! I will claim what I have spent thus far on my taxes as a business expense and call it a day! Thumbtack makes no sense!