Since January of this year, I’ve been regularly using Upwork as a side hustle. Upwork is polarizing for sure, but it’s been helpful in teaching me the ropes of freelancing. At least, the lower rungs of it.
Then, last month, I was laid off and, in lieu of better options, had to rely upon Upwork as I grew my freelance business. Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons.
I’m not here to choose a side in Medium’s debate over whether Upwork is horrible or awesome. For desperate freelancers like me who needed something to pay the bills, Upwork sufficed. It did help me grow my portfolio. It kept money flowing in.
But it’s also cost me a lot of hours, and it’s not somewhere I want to be long-term.
Your Upwork profile needs more care than it deserves — it needs a lot of finesse, and then you have to return to it every time Upwork changes the platform. I initially drafted something akin to a cover letter and put up a couple of projects I’d done through my 9-to-5 job. I took dozens of proficiency tests and put my scores on my profile (and then Upwork removed the tests within a few months, claiming that people could game the system). Then, I had to add featured projects and specialized profiles when Upwork rolled those out. And then I applied for pretty much everything I thought I could do.
What I Learned
In time, I learned that I needed to specialize and moreover, advertise myself as a specialist. No one would believe that my experience was actually that broad or that I could be good at so many things. And truth be told, there were certain types of projects I just didn’t want to do on Upwork. For example, I realized that it’s simply not the place for graphic design projects. No one pays enough. So I don’t advertise myself as a graphic designer, and I rarely apply for those jobs (unless I see something that sounds particularly interesting — and pays well).
I also learned that the dreaded Job Success Score, or JSS as Upworkers call it, would become the bane of my existence. For my first few months, I had a 100% JSS. Then I closed some old contracts because someone advised me that if left open, they’d hurt my score. I’d finished the work and the client had paid, but my score plummeted to 68% anyway because they didn’t leave feedback. I went weeks without landing any jobs until the few I had in the queue garnered five-star reviews and boosted my score. Still, I get regular work and nothing but positive feedback, and my JSS hovers at 82%. Because this devious thing is called the “Job Success Score,” it heavily implies that I only completed 82 percent of my jobs successfully, which is not true.
Upwork won’t divulge the basis of the JSS, citing concerns over people gaming the system, but they do admit that if you have a lot of contracts with no feedback, or if you close contracts without earning anything, your JSS will drop. They claim this indicates that the clients were dissatisfied.
This is a problem because those scenarios can come about in a number of ways:
- As in my case, new Upworkers won’t realize that they have to close contracts if the clients don’t. By then, the clients have forgotten about the work and don’t bother to leave feedback.
- Clients sometimes hire someone, then ghost them, discover that the budget was not approved, or both. This is not the freelancer’s fault.
- Clients who rarely use the platform will take the work, pay and leave. They have no incentive to rate or be rated.
What I REALLY Learned
The many hours I spent on my profile taught me that I needed to work on selling myself. I needed to answer clients’ question, which wasn’t “Who are you?” but rather “What about me?” By describing myself as a solution rather than a person, I won more jobs.
Many people advise you to start your rates low to get established, but you’ll walk a treacherous line between pricing yourself out of the market and landing high-paying clients. If you accept low-paying work, it’s hard to break out of that lower tier.
Don’t forget, potential clients can see what you’ve been earning on Upwork, which leads to confusion when they see your bid but also that you worked for another person for less. “Why are they charging me more?” they’ll wonder, not realizing that Upwork contractors are limited in what they can clarify on their profiles.
You can hide your earnings, but some Upworkers advise that this can come off as inauthentic. I just raised my profile rate and I’ve already gotten questions about why I bid at my new rate when I was obviously working for less money before. (What, can people not improve their skills and command a higher rate over time?) Unfortunately, you can’t hide your earnings when you apply to a job, so there’s not much you can do besides demonstrate why you command that rate.
I started on Upwork by bidding in line with a project’s budget or simply using my hourly rate, which I initially set to $30 per hour because I was already a professional writer by day. I got nowhere, so I lowered the rate under the advice of an established Upworker. Unfortunately, in my nervousness about money, I didn’t take the second part of his advice: to use that profile rate as a base rate and customize it to the job. Upwork will even suggest a rate for you and a potential client, based on what they’ve paid previously. Don’t ignore this. Lowering your rate just makes you seem inexperienced or like you’re admitting that you’re not worth much. I can say with all honesty that most freelancers are worth more than they think.
Sean Meyer has some great tips here, but the bottom line is that you should not take a budget at face value, unless the job listing is clear that they will only pay you $3 an hour (please don’t bid on those jobs!). Always feel free to bid at a rate that works for you. In time, we’ll train these clients to expect that quality articles cost much more than $5.
What I Learned
They say the hardest thing about freelancing is knowing how to set your rates. Unlike in traditional jobs, your employer doesn’t set your salary, and it’s not based on showing up to work every day. It’s heavily tied to your projects, and that’s why “scope creep” is a problem. That’s when clients take advantage of freelancers’ flexibility to ask for extra things. In traditional work environments, this is common — your boss asks you to do something, you’re compelled to do it, you get paid. In freelancing, every expansion of the project outside the contract should cost the client more money. That’s why it’s important to lay everything out in writing.
What I REALLY Learned
Despite all my feminist discussions about boundaries and consent, I wasn’t applying those principles to myself as a worker. I happily worked without limiting the sets of revisions a client could get. I happily worked fixed-price jobs that didn’t reflect the number of hours required (more on that in a minute). I happily accepted new assignments without consideration for my mental health. And here’s the thing: I wasn’t happy. Freelancing — something with the potential to provide me with a fulfilling, happy life — was making me miserable.
Now, I set boundaries and expectations with clients, and I turn down work that I know is going to suck up my time for not enough value. I work for myself now — and I don’t want to be a bad boss.
How You Work
There is some debate about whether or not fixed-price contracts are better than hourly contracts. I recently received an inquiry about how I’d been working for “a much lower hourly rate” even though I’d only done a couple of hourly contracts. I guess the potential client was making assumptions about how many hours it took me to write an article for which I’d received $50, and she was balking at paying my rate ($65 an hour). The article in question only took me an hour to write and edit, so I’d effectively been working at 76 percent of my hourly rate. That’s hardly a huge difference, and although the person was nice about it, I can’t help but wonder why she felt the need to point that out to me instead of reading all my five-star reviews and portfolio pieces and deciding for herself if I was worth my rate. (I am.)
What I Learned
That’s why some Upworkers advise pitching a fixed-rate contract that already reflects so that clients don’t balk. Often, clients don’t know anything about writing and they don’t know that experienced writers take less time. They hear $65 an hour and imagine it will take 10 hours. If they hear $130 and the freelancer can do it in two hours, that’s the same rate, but it sounds better.
That’s the catch: clients can either pay someone $20 an hour and the freelancers will happily take their time (or because they’re crappy writers, they simply take longer) and cost the client $100, or clients can go ahead and pay $100 an hour and get the product in much less time.
When you set your rates at a level that suggests professionalism and proficiency, you establish expectations that paying more = better product.
What I REALLY Learned:
In “regular” jobs, you work for the person paying you. You may have to accept lower wages for difficult work, and your bargaining power is limited to performance reviews or the one chance you have to ask for a raise.
In freelance jobs, the person paying you works for you. This was a hard lesson to learn as I let clients call the shots. I figured that they were the ones with the money, so I’d better do what they wanted or I wouldn’t land the gig. Now, I know that I call the shots. I can hire and fire clients, and I don’t have to accept any nonsense about how my rates are too high. Once you learn that clients need something from you, you realize that anyone who haggles over price isn’t a good client.
I also learned that I’d been hurting other freelancers. By underselling myself, by delivering high-quality content for cheap, I was establishing that you can get really good articles for only $30 (or FOUR EFFIN’ DOLLARS, apparently!). I was undermining the expression “you get what you pay for” by giving people the deal of the century. My business isn’t about offering deals. It’s about supporting myself and my family by doing what I love.
Recently, I’ve been landing jobs to fix other people’s work. And guess who did that work? Upworkers with a thin grasp of the English language, who have no sense of the field they’re writing about, who deliver shoddy work for cheap.
The bottom line is that Upwork, and freelancing in general, has taught me to value my skills. The fatigue I experienced from busting my butt for low-paying jobs wasn’t solved by any glowing review. What helped was when I started setting my prices accordingly. It’s as though I’d flipped a confidence switch in my mind. Not only did I land more jobs, I learned to ignore jobs that were low-ballers. I learned to appreciate my experience and talent, and unlike in my 9-to-5, I learned the value of my time.
Freelancing is not easy. I spend more than half of my time just promoting myself, pitching clients, and networking. I’ve had to overcome my fears of talking highly about myself, talking about money, talking on the phone, and I’ve also learned the value of saying “no.”
Some great pieces about Upwork, from both sides of the debate: