People at all different stages of their freelance careers turn their noses up at Upwork, and for the most part, they do it for the wrong reasons.
Upwork is a sea of low bids, iffy pay structures, and scams for sure, but that doesn’t change one, simple fact — it’s still THE place that a lot of legitimate, paying, potentially-great-client companies come to when they need to outsource work to freelancers. The trick to Upwork isn’t so much not using it wrong, it’s being deliberate and using the parts of the platform that fit your needs.
What gets left out of the discussion most of the time, is that Upwork isn’t just some flat marketplace where people buy and sell freelance work. It’s more of a collection of features, tools, resources, and programs that you should be picking and choosing from to add on to your freelance business. If you aren’t aware of them, here’s a quick overview of the highlights beyond the general marketplace…
Enterprise — Upwork’s program that connects large companies with qualified freelancers.
Pro — Connects select freelancers with higher-dollar projects (about $5K and up)
Teambuilder — Program for freelancers (writers, admin, and creatives from what I see so far) looking to work 30+ hours per week.
Skills Index — Quarterly report that’s good for staying on top of what kind of freelance work people are actually paying for.
You might have noticed that all the programs require a background on the platform before you get accepted (another reason to build a profile and portfolio there). Don’t let that frustrate you though…even if you aren’t accepted into a program, Upwork can be a powerful research tool in understanding what skills, niches, and opportunities are in demand.
Still, I know you’re looking for something you can get started on now, which is why I want to give you some tips for turning Upwork into a platform that really does work for you.
You can’t just “be on Upwork.” You have to use Upwork as a supplemental tool to your freelancer toolbox.
For example…Since Upwork is one of the first places companies looking to work with freelancers go, people who are just considering freelancing can use it to find out what kind of skills are in demand (and in what niches) before they dip a toe in the water. Folks who are looking for their first clients can find a few low-dollar projects to build their portfolio (just a few…you don’t want to stay low-dollar too long.)
After someone gets some experience (and raises their rates), they might use the search function to find jobs particular to their niche and really flesh out their portfolio. As an advanced freelancer, it might just be a place to drop in occasionally or find work when things get slow or pick out a few, choice clients that pay well.
In all those cases, your presence on Upwork serves a distinct purpose that you control and adjust as you develop.
Perfect Your Presence
One thing you can’t phone in, is your profile. Whether you’re hoping to get accepted to a program, contacted by a great client, or chosen when you’re up against other applicants, your profile has to demonstrate the fact that you care enough to fill it out, but also that you’re happy to explain what you do for your readers.
Don’t know where to start? This will help for the basics. Beyond that, you can also always search for tips on how to write an Upwork profile just for your niche. (For example, here’s one for customer service folks.)
The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be complicated or long. Hit the basics to start and add on as you go.
This right here? Isn’t optional.
I mean…if you want to take the road of trying to freelance with multiple skills in multiple niches, you have my blessings. It does work for a few rare cases. Enjoy!
But…if you’re trying to build a freelance career that’s profitable, less stressful, and leads into other opportunities, you gotta make some choices, and that usually means choosing one skill. I know you’re a great designer/writer/coder/photographer, but most clients want you to be an expert. Generalists generally don’t get paid, and focusing is how you grow.
Take me for example. I’m a writer. I also know enough WordPress to run circles around most of my clients. I’m not good with WordPress by ANY means, but for my clients who have established sites that just need some tweaks, could I help them out and charge them for it? Sure!…but there are certain levels of writing that I simply will not get to if I’m spread across two worlds trying to keep up.
Pick one skill. Figure out what about that skill sells to clients and get good at it. Get great at it. Leave the rest for outside your freelance life or when you’re advanced enough to make an informed decision how to incorporate other skill offerings into your business.
That’s just the first step though…Not only do you need to settle on a skill, you need to pick a niche, and preferably one that balances your interests and earning potential. That means picking an industry, business stage (startup, expanding, exiting, etc.), business type (B2B vs B2C), geographic region, etc. that has solid potential. It also might mean rethinking how you envision yourself as a freelancer.
Another example to open that point up a little…I know a lot of people out there want to build a career writing on social justice and racism. That’s deeply important. However, just because something is important or right doesn’t mean it’s in demand or profitable (somewhat of a good thing, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
If a sustainable income is your goal, this is probably not one of the spaces you should look to for stable earning (take a clue from the employed world and look at how Black jobs in high-profile media dried up as soon as President Obama finished his term.) Tech, health and nutrition, anything that even gets mentioned in lists like these…you’ve probably got a good chance at making some solid income in the long term.
Finding a good niche (or sub-niche) can be hard to figure out, so check out this post to make it a little easier.
One thing you can’t do with Upwork, especially as a new freelancer, is toss a profile up, sit and wait. I can almost guarantee you won’t get any responses.
Upwork is way down on my tool list, but I still, even with a full client roster, drop by to see what’s going on, who’s posting, and what they’re looking for. You don’t have to spend hours there, but put it on your marketing calendar for 15 minutes a week, set up some saved searches (based on your niche and skill set), and make it a habit.
…and respond quickly. I know from hiring there myself that the first responses resonate the strongest, so get your proposals out there ASAP.
Speaking of those saved searches, save yourself time by having the results of your searches delivered straight to your inbox. It takes literally seconds to open and review what’s going on. Bonus, even if you aren’t finding great positions, you’ll be educating yourself on your freelance world and getting info on what people are actually paying for (something you should always be doing.)
Most importantly though, use Upwork in a way that works for you. If someone says they hate it or that they love it, ask them why. Ask them how they were using it and how long they’ve been there. Ask them how much time they put into it — what didn’t work for them might work for you and vice versa. Keep in mind that freelancers are an incredibly diverse set of people. Upwork may or may not work for you, just make sure the reasons it does (or doesn’t), are your own.
P.S. Looking to get even more out of Upwork? Check out this freelancer who earned over $100K there.