At least once I week I hear somebody talking about how terrible Upwork (or any other bidding site) is and each time I shake my head. That’s because I know it’s really likely they’re missing some critical opportunities to access a powerful tool in their freelance career.
That’s especially true if they’re new to this life.
Don’t get me wrong here. I know REAL well that Upwork can be a cesspool of low payment, scams, and just generally low-quality jobs…but so is freelancing in general (and so is employment these days if we’re being honest). I have yet to hear a critique of Upwork that doesn’t connect directly to the challenges that every freelancer can get tripped up on in their growth as a professional…and that’s exactly why I recommend Upwork to most beginners.
It’s simply a great training ground…if you use it right.
I know a lot of us want to skip right past the swamp of bidding sites and jump into the pool with high-paying, organized, appreciative clients. But unless we have careers that involve quite a bit of solo client relationship management and a natural talent for navigating the sales process, we’re just not ready.
We’re not ready and we need practice, refinement, and time to understand both ourselves and the world of freelancing we’re stepping into.
So how does Upwork facilitate all that? It does it like this…
It tosses you into a microcosm of freelancing.
Upwork and other bidding sites filter for one thing really well, and that’s proactive clients.
I’m not sure if anybody’s taken the time to find out what percentage of companies and individuals who work with freelancers use bidding platforms, but my guess is it’s not a strong majority.
That means using these platforms connects you with a group of self-selected clients who (at least somewhat) understand freelancing as a concept and want to take advantage of it. Still though, they’re diverse in industry, payment rates and, well, sometimes ethics.
That’s a good thing.
You get to start your career with people who get freelancing at some level and don’t have to burden yourself with the task of teaching your clients how the relationship should or shouldn’t work (because Upwork does a LOT of that for you.) You also get a least a sample of the pitfalls that all freelancers have to navigate in the open wilderness.
It helps you get used to research.
I don’t know why it doesn’t get mentioned more, but freelancers do a LOT of research.
You’re researching to discover your best niche, researching to find prospects, researching to understand your client, researching to finish a project. It…doesn’t really stop.
I have freelancers tell me they get frustrated with Upwork because there’s so much noise on the site and all I can think is “wait until you get out into the untamed Internet!”
Freelancing requires a specific set of skills and research is one of the most important. Learning how to filter out noise, refine your freelance palate, and focus takes time. It’s easier to do that on a website that models the filtering process for you before you climb into the deep end.
It’ll help you catch up.
Alright, real talk…
Black people are behind at freelancing.
I don’t know the stats (not sure anyone breaks these things down by race) but while almost 50% of the U.S. overall is freelancing, I’m betting the numbers are much lower for Black workers, or disproportionately skewed toward the lowest-paid type work (or both). That means that a lot of us are stepping into freelancing at a bit of a disadvantage—not only do we not likely know as many people who freelance (and can help us get the most out of our independent careers), we also missed the good ol’ days when bidding sites had a lot more quality work and opportunity and where a lot of established freelancers cut their teeth.
Now, that might sound like you should skip right a site like Upwork, but I don’t see it that way. You still need to spend some time with training wheels, you just have to be smart about it. The thing about Upwork now is that the challenges it presents are no different than freelancing overall, so you can refine a lot of habits and skills under their umbrella before you step out on your own.
It forces you to establish boundaries.
On that same note, research without purpose or boundaries will leave you frustrated and likely tossing your baby freelance business out with the platform bathwater before you even give it a real chance.
I talk niches around here a lot for one reason in particular…they help new freelancers especially carve a path.
Go onto any freelance platform without some idea of where you want to end up and I promise you’ll come back with a nasty taste in your mouth.
Sites like Upwork let you try things the simplest way possible (with really basic features like search criteria that line up with niche dimensions, email alerts that automate your work, and preset payment schemes). Basically, they let you fail fast, reset, and try again.
It helps you refine your contract.
If you hang around, you’ll probably hear me talk about how much foolishness my contract prevents.
What’s buried in that statement is that building it took years…years of learning that it’s important to do things like flatly outline minimum deposits, mention a late payment penalty, and be REALLY specific about who can terminate the relationship, when, and under what circumstances. I started with a base contract that I hired someone on Upwork to develop for $50, but you can get something similar for free on Freelancers Union. What you won’t get though, is insight into needs that are particular to your work style and the types of clients that you work with.
Taking a few clients on a controlled platform is a great way to start that process with much less risk, since you’re (at least partially) covered by their agreements and terms of service. (You still might want to consider an LLC or incorporation though.)
You get to perfect your communication skills.
If communication is important in employed life, it’s 10x as true as a freelancer.
My communication skills were a WRECK after years of work as a project manager in a chaotic organization and the burnout that came along with it. I had to rebuild a lot and frankly, needed the structure of a platform to help me get through that period.
I can’t stress this enough, but poor communication skills can kill your career as a freelancer.
Clients can be super busy, really bad at specifying their needs or just coming from an organizational culture that communicates in a way you’re not familiar with. Every freelancer I know is continually refining their abilities to navigate all those variables.
The forms and questionnaires on platforms like Upwork though, force them to organize themselves, and at the same time, can give you some really good ideas for your future interview templates and communication requirements. So all those annoying boxes you have to fill out for a project? Pay attention to them, because you’re going to need those and more once you’re out there on your own.
It encourages a connection to freelancing as a sector.
OK…so freelancing is just basically a shift in a labor relationship. You’re still working with the exact same people that use employment contracts. At the same time, it’s a shift that’s changing the world. Folks are saying that half of Americans alone with be freelancing at some level by 2020, which means that freelancing is a world of its own.
If you take your career seriously, it’s one you’ll want to plug into at a high level and Upwork in particular is a great entry point. From their quarterly skills indices to a blog with general tips for freelancers, the site has proven over the years that it’s always growing and changing (not always for the better), and that’s something you want to keep up with.
If you’ve ever left a platform like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram for years and tried to come back, you know the pain of working to catch up with years of tweaks and upgrades. Don’t put yourself through that. Keeping even a loose connection can be incredibly beneficial to your understanding of freelance trends.
I’m gonna close this out by saying it again…Don’t go into Upwork without a game plan. If you don’t have one, this post on getting past frustrations on Upwork will help. Are there other ways to get your freelance career up and running? Of course! Should you stay on Upwork forever? Not likely. The point is to use it as a springboard so that when you’re ready to move on to more complex (and productive) ways of finding work, you’re as prepared as possible.