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Freelancing ≠ Upwork

Ignore the dangerous advice that you can hit it rich on cheap marketplaces. Your ideal clients don’t live there.

I started writing on Medium because I believe freelancing will continue to become a bigger and more important part of our global workforce over the next decades. I’ve been doing it since forever and believe I’m pretty good at it. I’d like the share that experience to help others succeed.

I’ve naturally also been reading more on Medium, and I’ve been noticing a frightening trend of poor advice to new freelancers.

Some people — even prominent ones with many followers — are recommending Upwork as a great place to learn and grow your freelance career. I can’t sit by and watch this terrible advice spread. So here are my two cents.

This isn’t an attack on Upwork specifically, or any other freelance job marketplace. It’s an attack of their entire concept — a concept which doesn’t serve freelancers or their clients well!

Why freelancers use Upwork

Let’s examine why a freelancer might think it’s a good idea to use Upwork or similar marketplaces:

  1. Boosting your project pipeline. Upwork says they help match you to ideal jobs for your skills, which could help you find good jobs faster than you would on your own.
  2. Security. The “Upwork Payment Protection” sounds like it might help streamline and secure your payment process, if that’s something you have trouble with.
  3. Build a reputation by earning good feedback/reviews from clients. The more good Upwork reviews you have, the easier is it to get those top jobs.

Essentially, Upwork is trying to make certain parts of running a freelance business easier — mainly finding new clients/projects — but the tradeoff is huge. They take up to 20% of your pay! You are not desperate enough for new jobs that you should work for a 20% discount for the privilege of being on their system. They are counting a huge volume of lazy or inexperienced freelancers to believe this is their only way to find new work. Don’t take the bait.

For starters, if you’re desperate for new leads, there are talent agencies that help place freelancers into contract gigs. Some of them take a cut only from the client, while other take a cut from both sides. But usually not more than 10%, which is half of what Upwork takes from your pocket. What Upwork offers here is not unique, just overpriced.

Secondly, the “security” you think you’re getting by running all your payment through Upwork is a double-edged sword. See this or this if you don’t believe me. There are countless stories of workers being screwed by being locked out of their accounts with no way to withdrawal the money they’ve already earned!

Is getting paid so difficult that it’s worth letting a corporation without your best interest at heart control your entire income flow?

Lastly, that feedback system is not real reputation. It’s like monopoly money: valuable in the game, but worthless in real life. Try to spend that good Upwork reputation elsewhere and you’ll see.

Their review system also puts new members at a disadvantage. As a client, why would you hire someone with no reviews, when you can pick another with 100 great pieces of feedback? (Never mind that all but the best online rating systems are quite easily gamed). Not a great environment to put yourself into as a beginning freelancer. It only benefits those with a lot more experience, but once you have that experience, Upwork is of little value to you.

Professional freelancers don’t do “gigs”

Are you expendable, temporary help, or a valuable long-term business partner?

Why would clients use Upwork?

If you’re looking for creative talent to help you with your project, why might you look on Upwork to find the right person?

  1. Upwork analyzes your job to help match you to freelancers with the right skills.
  2. Many freelancers are competing for your job, so it’s a good way to get cheap prices.
  3. Have confidence you’re choosing a reliable freelancer by checking out their review first.

The major upside for those looking to hire is getting dirt cheap prices. That’s really why you’d look there right? Because it’s no good at finding you the best freelancer for your job.

Why? The best freelancers aren’t on Upwork! Truly good ones are busy. They turn down work all the time because they can’t keep up with their demand. Why on earth would those professional, successful freelancers be on Upwork? I can’t think of a single reason. If you know one, I’m genuinely interested to hear it so please share in the comments.

Here’s the real kicker…

Good client’s aren’t on Upwork either!

Marketplaces like this are full of bad to mediocre freelancers serving naive or downright scummy clients.

Who’s your ideal client? I hope you know, because defining that is a huge part of charting course for a successful freelance career.

Think carefully about the type of business and person you want to be working for.

Would that ideal client be looking on Upwork for you?

Chances are, they wouldn’t. No scratch that. They definitely wouldn’t, unless your ideal client is one that wants to pay as little as possible.

Freelance success come from pairing great clients with great creatives

To be blunt, Upwork and other similar marketplace are shit at both sides of this equation. Great clients don’t hang out there because they know great freelancers don’t live there either. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Except for Upwork — they’re still raking in the profits no matter how poorly they serve clients and freelancers.

Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?

Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.

Look, if you want to compete for the lowest price with thousands of other people from developing nations who’s cost of living is way cheaper than yours and can afford to work for practically nothing, by all means go ahead.

Does that feel like your path to freelance success? Is that the independent career you dreamed of?

But, but, I don’t know where else to find jobs?

Here’s the thing. Being a professional freelancer is a choice. Part of that choice is setting yourself up for success, which means putting yourself in a position to get where you want to be. That’s not always the easiest path! In fact, it rarely is.

That path involves knowing intimately what problems your ideal clients have, and how to solve them. If you’re playing a game of pretend freelancing on Upwork, you are not getting yourself closer to your ideal clients and projects. So what then, is the point?

Instead, go hunt down your ideal job. Be proactive — cold-email if you have to!Pitch a well researched, confident idea to one dream client and see how they react. Land one of those, and you’ve done more towards building your successful freelance career than you would have done from years of Upworking.

Many years ago when I was just starting out — this was pre-Upwork days. Maybe it was Elance back then, or maybe that didn’t even exist yet — I recognised these shortcomings of freelance marketplaces and never took the bait. Not even when I needed the work and would accept any job that came my way.

Instead I focused on getting small, local clients through connections with my school, friends or family. There are always better ways to find clients.

How I earned $15,000 last month from freelance design

Hint: there’s no shortcut. I’ve been working at this for 17 years.

What does this all mean?

I wrote this piece because I felt genuinely sorry for those who may believe that working on Upwork is what freelancing is all about. And annoyed at those more experienced of us who are advising others to follow that precarious path.

There’s far more to being a successful independent business owner than scratching for jobs on a cheap global marketplace. That’s the slum of freelancing. You don’t want to live or work in the slum.

Freelancing is first and foremost about being a professional. It’s a conscious choice to say “I’m damn good at what I do, and I want to build my own business around that service.” If you make that choice, you’re doing yourself a disservice by wasting time slogging through Upwork when it’s not getting you any closer to your business goals.

Why being ultra-professional instantly makes you a top-tier freelancer

More than mastery of your craft or years of experience, being a trustworthy pro gets you a big step ahead of your competition.

Don’t be complacent. Don’t grind through months or years on a shitty marketplace of bad clients and hope that maybe, magically things will get better. Maybe if you work hard enough, you’ll land that one big Upwork job that finally launches your career.

You might land that big job, but even the biggest and best of Upwork are small fish in the sea of freelancing. Jump out of your little pond and join the big fish, little Nemo.

You’ll never look back.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.