Freelancing marketplaces like Upwork are perceived as places where cheap clients go to get subpar work completed at minimal rates: pay peanuts, get monkeys as they say.
It’s easy to see why this perception exists: clients requesting complex sites for $500 and below minimum wage hourly rates are common.
But it’s not all bad.
As someone who started their freelance web design career on Upwork, I thought I’d tell the story of how it worked for me and why I think Upwork deserves a place in the industry.
In 2013 I began a career transition that would take nearly four years to complete. Despite 15 years of experience building websites, I had no freelance experience.
After some Googling, I found Guru and Elance, Upwork’s predecessor, and I created profiles on each. Many applications later, I got my first job on Elance: move a site between servers for $30. Not exactly big bucks, but I was pleased to get my first gig.
The feedback I received from this helped me to pick up more jobs, and things snowballed over the years. I gradually increased my rates inline with my experience and the profile I was building.
A race to the bottom?
A common complaint about platforms like Upwork is that they encourage a race to the bottom. Freelancers are pitted against a global market, including countries where $5/hr might be a decent wage. When I started working on these sites, I was living in London and knew that $5/hr, or even $10/hr, wouldn’t be sustainable.
I started looking around Upwork and noticed a strange paradox. Most freelancers were supposedly highly qualified, but they had poor feedback and often their portfolios weren’t up to scratch.
It struck me that the key to breaking away from low paying jobs was simple: differentiate yourself by offering a quality service at a premium rate.
I’m not talking about ripping clients off. My starting rate was $25–30/hr. That’s a low rate, but fair given my experience and location. That rate didn’t last long and more than tripled in four years.
When I was starting out, I read articles on how to make Upwork work. I came across a great piece of advice: at the end of the project ask the client to leave a five-star review. If they’re hesitant, ask them what they would need for them to do so.
Most clients are reasonable people who want a job doing well at an agreeable price. Almost all of my clients have left five-star reviews during my time on Upwork.
Five-star reviews led me to be ranked as Top Rated with a Job Success score of 100%. These might seem like useless badges, but on Upwork they’re one of the key factors clients consider when shortlisting candidates.
Now I’m in a position where I don’t need to apply for jobs as clients invite me to them. I receive 2/3 job invitations per day. On the rare occasions I apply for a job now, I’m likely to get it.
My portfolio is diverse and features clients from everywhere. Many of these have provided me with regular work at a respectable rate. This would not have been possible without Upwork.
This might seem like it’s all been gravy, but the road hasn’t been entirely smooth. There have been uncomfortably long periods when I didn’t get a job for months.
I’ve also had bad client experiences. Usually, this has been down to me ignoring red flags – something I can spot from a mile away now.
One or two clients have taken the biscuit with scope creep and revisions. More recently, during a job interview, a client kept asking me irrelevant personal questions: I didn’t follow that up.
Out of the 100+ clients that have employed me, that’s not bad. You’d be hard-pushed to not have similar experiences with clients found through traditional methods.
Making the most of Upwork
Here are some tips that will help you to get more from Upwork.
1) Ignore lowball jobs
It’s easy to get wound up by job postings where the employer’s average hourly rate is $0.34, or clients asking for Google for $500. Forget them. Focus on serious clients who respect the time a project needs and the value you can bring.
2) Exceed the bid
Bid what you want to be paid, despite the stated budget. If a client’s budget is $2000, but you think the job is worth $2500, bid that amount. I’ve won clients by explaining my process and the value I bring.
3) Make sure clients leave feedback
At the end of the project, make sure your client closes the job so that they’re forced to leave feedback. Remind them to leave five stars!
4) Protect your ratings
If a client gives you any red flags, avoid them. It’s not worth the potential damage to your ratings. Make sure you only take on projects that you know you can deliver. This isn’t always possible if the client fails to reveal something critical but do your research before accepting a job.
5) Look at the client’s employment history
See what other freelancers have said about the client. A lack of feedback on jobs is a good indicator of a poor client. Check the client’s average hourly pay, and the feedback they’ve left for previous freelancers.
6) Communication is key
Like any client-supplier relationship, good communication is crucial. Be quick to respond to interview messages and keep your client in the loop throughout the project.
7) Don’t spend a day on each job application
I recently saw a YouTube video where the author was complaining about the hours they had spent carefully researching and applying to a job not to hear anything back. Don’t do this. Send clients a short message that shows you understand their problem. That will get their attention over a 1500-word proposal.
8) Use a TransferWise account
Upwork provide several payout options, including PayPal, wire transfer and direct to a local bank account. PayPal seems like the obvious choice as it’s quick to set up, but I recently switched to TransferWise and couldn’t be happier. You’ll need to wait a day longer to receive payment, but the exchange rate is awesome.
If you use this link you’ll get your international first transfer (of up £500) free. If enough people sign up, I’ll receive a commission, so use it if you feel this post has been valuable.
9) Check your professional indemnity insurance
If you're working with clients abroad, you will need to make sure your professional indemnity insurance covers the countries your clients are from. For instance, most professional indemnity insurance won't cover the USA unless explicitly stated due to the litigation culture.
Get familiar with the platform
Googling Upwork quickly turns up plenty of horror stories. Clients going AWOL, jobs going wrong, clients being a nightmare, not being paid etc.
You can avoid these situations by sticking to the processes and guidelines that are in place. The systems are there to protect freelancers and if a client isn’t prepared to work with them, that should be a huge red flag.
If a client has a bad history, it’s worth avoiding them. Occasionally the comments might show it’s not the client’s fault, but be cautious.
Is there a place for Upwork?
I felt weird about relying on Upwork for a large per cent of my income. Because of the stigma, or my perception of it, I also thought that the work I was completing was illegitimate.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The work I’ve done on that platform has been of huge benefit to the clients I’ve worked for.
I think freelance marketplaces like Upwork are useful for clients and freelancers.
Clients can hire freelancers with verified feedback, safe in the knowledge there is a dispute resolution process should anything go wrong.
Freelancers receive the same benefits and can use the escrow services to help make sure they will be paid.
Ultimately, it’s another potential revenue source, so shouldn’t be written off.