​The Ups and Downs of Working Through Freelance Sites

I grew up with a pretty crazy/fun Uncle. Nothing was ever serious with him.

He would walk around talking his own made up language and singing to his own tune.

One time I showed up to his house at 5am to take him to the airport and he was walking around in his tighty whities. It was like I was the adult.

But every once in a while on long car rides he would share something really insightful (while also sharing how one relieves oneself with a soda bottle).

One piece of advice that really stuck out to me was the idea of instant gratification.

It’s something that he thinks we have become obsessed with.

With our Netflix, our Cell Phones, our Credit Cards, etc. Everything we could want is literally at our fingertips.

Never do we pause to consider the “cost” of getting everything right away.

The top cost being that we don’t know how to put the effort into building towards success. Instead we settle for a lot of short-term, and short-lived, wins.

What does instant gratification mean for freelancers?

When facing a downswing in the feast or famine cycle, it’s human nature to cast around for quick injections of ready cash. More than one freelancer has eyed sites like Upwork (formerly eLance and oDesk) that promise a quick hook-up with clients and wondered,

Is it really that simple?

Of course not!

It’s like some strange dating site where you are assigned a mother-in-law and THEN you start dating… with her always in the room!

Bret Fisher, who has been freelancing in DevOps for so long (20 years) it used to be called sysadmin/ops, talked with me about how he worked through eLance/Upwork for several years. Bret made it work, getting up to six figures, but found it had it’s limits.

“ … the overall theme there is quick work means you want clients that are ready to buy and start now.”

In Bret’s experience, they also tended to be the “it’s broke, please fix it” clients who aren’t willing to pay competitive rates. And, he adds,

“It also means you’ll likely be dealing with PITA clients.”

Neurotic ex-girlfriends for $100, Alex.

To put our conversation in summary:

And even if you successfully land those projects, the accompanying clients can bring a new kind of struggle not directly linked to the paycheck but very real all the same.

Look, it’s not you, it’s me. Okay, it’s you …

Does that mean that sites like Upwork aren’t worth the effort? Should you just invest in a class or a program that will teach you better lead development and conversion strategies?

Maybe both.

There is a way to do it right, of course, when working through a freelance site. But it’s not the norm.

“Friends who have tried it and gave up, I’ve always found they didn’t do the things I would recommend.”

Bret’s “quick work” tips include:

  1. Fill out your profile 100%
  2. Stick with jobs in your own country (i.e. in the US, “1099 work only”)
  3. Focus on meshing your schedule with the project goals
  4. Start with a lower rate, but increase each job

Ultimately, though, Bret says,

“I’ve always found more value in focusing on leading/bleeding edge clients that want to pay for the new hotness.”

Rather than focus primarily on fast turnovers, Bret found it more profitable to build and maintain client relationships, and now works primarily from referrals and away from freelance sites.

Danny Margulies has also shared strategies that he used to successfully work through eLance (now Upwork). It began with setting his own standards first.

Don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t date girls who do…

For him, the right combination was

  1. Sleeper hit clients
  2. Repeat business, and
  3. Invite-only jobs

(Read his full article to find out exactly how it worked. It’s good stuff.)

I find it interesting that neither of their success strategies involved a magic pill that showed itself true just by signing up on Upwork.

The real advantage is that as an independent freelancer, you “own” your clients and are free to develop the relationship as you both see fit.

The best relationships take time. No mother-in-law. And a little less Uncle Tighty Wightie telling you what’s gone wrong.