How is changing the creative economy $5 at a time

The website Fiverr poses two immediate questions for its community of users: What would you do for $5 and what would you pay someone else to do for $5?

And with a rapidly growing base of 600,000 service gigs, the answers to both appear nearly limitless.

"When we looked at what was out there, we realized that there were options for people that were willing to work for as little as one cent," Fiverr co-founder Micha Kaufman told Yahoo News in a phone interview from Israel. "Or if you are a very professional freelancer, you probably have some options. But in between, there is a huge gap."

When Kaufman and co-founder Shai Wininger launched the site together in February 2010, the options for users were fairly simple: Offer a service on the site for $5 and see how many people were willing to pay you for it. The self-described "gig" could be as simple as singing someone's name or something more complicated like helping someone build a new website.

Nearly two years later, Fiverr began offering what it calls Gig Extras for its sellers, who can now offer expanded services for buyers who are willing to pay a little extra for the myriad services offered by the site's independent merchants.

"The grand vision of Fiverr is really to create a marketplace where people can start small but take this hobby and create a business out of it," Kaufman told Yahoo. "Very similar to the revolution that eBay brought to products."

Fiverr's success is a strong counterpoint to critics who say that Americans are not willing to work for smaller wages. But it's also a growing testament to an evolving economy, one where workers do not punch a clock from 9 to 5 and take home a steady salary. In fact, Kaufman tells Yahoo the worldwide economic downturn was a direct inspiration for his site's business model:

"We've been seeing this growth in unemployment," Kaufman said. "One of the things we had in mind when we designed this idea of what later became Fiverr was really a place that not only can cater to people who are already offering their services but really to create jobs for people."

As to how Fiverr itself earns a profit, they do take a small percentage of sales from users. But Kaufman says they put customer service first, noting that on the rare occasion when a transaction does not meet a buyer's basic level of satisfaction, Fiverr does not take its percentage of the sale.

"The most important thing is for people to talk with our customers. We're here to help people do great business," he said.

But the immediate question many people have, and it's a fair one, is can selling services for $5 really provide a sustainable income for an average person responsible for monthly bills like rent, groceries and even health insurance? To find out, I interviewed three of Fiverr's "Top Rated Sellers" to see how much money they've made from their gigs, how much time they put into the services and what they hope to get out of their Fiverr experience going forward.


"I had no idea what it was going to lead to. At the time my freelancing was kind of slow." Mary Ingrassia demonstrates speed drawing in this video illustration created for The Sideshow.

In January 2011, New York-based graphic designer Mary Ingrassia (UniqueFiveX) decided to give Fiverr a try. She had already had success as an independent contractor but was looking for some extra cash to help make ends meet while allowing her to continue pursuing the creative work she excels at. But her first gig was certainly out of the ordinary.

Ingrassia began employing her pet parrot, Pickle, who would perform a brief dance over an illustration she created. Pickle's videos have been a major success but Ingrassia then transitioned into a form of artwork called "speed drawing."

"Buyers send an image, I color, speed it up, do some video editing," Ingrassia told Yahoo News. "It's cool. People use it as video intros."

But it's the Gig Extras that have added a lucrative boost to Ingrassia's involvement with Fiverr. She's already made $9,000 off her gigs, working an average of 3 to 5 hours per day, several days a week.

"I absolutely love the Gig Extras; it's been huge for me," she said, estimating that about 75 percent to 80 percent of all her orders include the extra service options.

And all the attention she has received from her speed drawing has led to job offers outside of Fiverr as well.

"I've had some offers to do things outside of Fiverr like a video series for a year," she said. "[But] I'm actually pretty busy with the Fiverr gigs I get already."

Still, as successful as she's been, becoming one of the site's top sellers, Ingrassia admits the unconventional system caters to those who thrive in its unique working environment.

"It's not for everybody. I did the 9 to 5," she said. "You really have to pace yourself. You can't have your gigs run late. It's more challenging, but I really enjoy it."

"A lot of creative people don't have a creative outlet, especially one that pays. For them, Fiverr is the perfect thing."

Mark Gray has more than 22 years experience in the entertainment industry. Known as Professor Puppet, on Fiverr the director and puppeteer creates unique videos for his customers using hand puppets he crafts himself.

"It's completely self-contained. I get an order, read it, shoot it, and it's done," Gray told Yahoo News. "It's a really simple system, as opposed to show business."

And it's been a fairly prolific and lucrative one for Gray as well. In about a year, he's completed more than 2,000 orders, earning nearly $15,000. Watch some more of Professor Puppet's videos.

Gray is also a big fan of the Gig Extras, with 12 of his 20 current projects including extra services. For an extra $20, Gray will move your order to the top of his hefty queue. And for $50 more, he'll shoot your video on his green screen and superimpose a different background. "That's the way to really make money off Fiverr," he said. "You have to have a basic service for $5, and then you offer upgrades."

And like Ingrassia, Gray's top-seller status has led to job offers outside of Fiverr. "It's like a vending machine for videos," he said.

Gray said most of gigs are commercials for websites, YouTube videos and advertising for small businesses. "Probably 50 are SEO (search engine optimization) companies," he said.

So, what is Gray doing with that extra $15k? "Well, there's groceries, there's mortgage. It just goes on the pile," he said.

One of his signature and repeat clients is a junkyard in Australia.

And even though Gray came into Fiverr as an industry pro, he says the experience is teaching thousands of young, new professionals how to streamline their craft in ways that may have taken years in a conventional system of internships and climbing the corporate ladder.

"A lot of these vendors on Fiverr are just college kids with a webcam," he said. "In the year I've been doing this, I've become a master of the cold read."

"It's something I've been doing free for a number of years, so I might as well get paid for it."

North Carolina's Chris Hardy, 47, is a voice-over artist who has taken his vocal talents to Fiverr. For $5, he will sing your name in a four-part harmony. And if you're really into "The Simpsons," he'll give you a personalized message from Homer and Marge as well.

But some of his buyers on Fiverr ask for far more unusual services. "A woman wanted me to sing 'Muffin's Medicine,' a reminder on her cell phone to give her cat medicine," he said in an interview with Yahoo News.

For the basic $5 service fee, Chris will read a prewritten script with up to 60 seconds of material. And along with the Simpsons, he can perform your words in a number of iconic voices, including Kermit the Frog and Eric Cartman of "South Park." For an additional $10, Hardy will write your script himself.

Some of Hardy's regular gig work on Fiverr includes radio station promos, birthday wishes and doing voice-overs of website domain names.

While not disclosing the exact amount he's made since taking his talents to the site, Hardy did say, "It's enough to buy a car." And he sees no reason to stop his work as a voice of the $5 people. "As long as it's there, I'm going to use it," he said. "As long as I can still speak."

Even with vehicle purchasing power, Hardy has some conservative advice for those who think they can jump right in and make a bundle of cash without much effort.

"At first on Fiverr, people put a lot of restrictions on what they'll do, and they wonder why they don't have any gigs," he said. Instead, "give people way more than $5 worth at first. Then when you get a comfortable level of gigs (I get about 7 a day), that's when you can adjust it."

All three of the top sellers I interviewed for this article agreed on two things: One, at least as of right now, it's unlikely that Fiverr will provide you a sustainable full-time income to cover all of life's expenses. But for creative professionals, or anyone with a unique skill to offer, it can be a significant part of their overall income. And as the site continues to grow, along with the ever-changing economy, Kaufman says his company may in fact become a true full-time destination for many of its users in the not-so-distant future.

"One of the biggest things we realized is that the jobs market is changing," Kaufman said. "As fortunate as we've been to see amazing growth since we launched the site, this is pretty much the early stages of growing Fiverr."

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