“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” – George Bernard Shaw
On July 20th, 2014, I celebrated my 2-year anniversary working as a freelance copywriter on Upwork. The date also marked the close of a 12-month period in which I’d earned $100,000. Yes, all from Upwork.
People said it couldn’t be done.
I’ve had this said to me personally, and I’ve seen countless posts on forums from freelancers who say it’s impossible to make a full time living on sites like Upwork.
Here’s one little gem in particular:
But posts like this totally miss the point. This one in particular is full of red herrings.
Because being a successful freelancer isn’t about journalism, newspapers or ad agencies. It’s about solving people’s problems and providing value to their business.
If you can do that, and be/become very good at your craft, then your background will be totally irrelevant. And if you can’t, then you can have ad agency experience like Don Draper, and you’ll still starve.
All of this misinformation wouldn’t bother me much except for I know how easy it can be to believe it when you’re just starting out. Or after you’ve hit a brick wall in your earnings. It’s like being saddled with “freelancer kryptonite.”
Consider this post the antidote.
Because as you’re going to see, if I can do it, just about anyone can.
So if you’re trying to figure out how to make money on Upwork, this one’s for you.
Author’s note: I originally wrote this post about Elance, which has since rebranded into Upwork. While the post remains as relevant as ever, I’ve made some minor cosmetic updates to reflect the change
Think you need previous experience to make money on Upwork?
It’s a fair question. It would be perfectly natural to wonder whether or not I’d ever worked for an agency, whether I’d had any articles or books published, or whether I’d studied writing or journalism in college.
Not only did I not do any of those things, but I think you’ll agree that I had just about everything working against me.
This was my situation at ground zero of my Upwork career:
- No copywriting experience
- No college degree
- No agency experience
- No freelancing experience
- No other income source
In other words, I literally did roll out of bed one morning and decide to call myself a copywriter.
And I think it’s safe to say that regardless of who you are or what you’re going through, there’s a good chance you too can make a full time living (or two) on Upwork. It isn’t 1983 anymore, and you certainly don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do it.
The power of focus
For years now, freelancing forums and blogs have been bombarded with posts by freelancers complaining that there aren’t enough good clients on Upwork to make a decent living.
But I’ve never bought into this argument.
I saw — and continue to see — plenty of good clients on Upwork with my own eyes.
I was even fortunate enough to land a couple of them pretty early on (they paid well, were easy to work with, and several of these Upwork clients are still giving me regular repeat business to this day).
It isn’t like Upwork allots you a certain number of premium clients and then cuts off your supply. You’re free to find as many as you can. I knew if I could find 2, then I could probably find 5, 10, 20, and beyond.
So I decided to go against the status quo and focus all of my efforts exclusively on Upwork.
Instead of wasting time on the endless marketing tactics freelancers get lured into, I built my freelancing career with:
- NO blogging
- NO networking
- NO cold contacting
- NO social media
- NO newsletters or follow up emails
- NO accounts on other freelancing sites
Essentially, I outsourced all of my marketing to Upwork. And the plan worked like gangbusters.
I won lots of jobs. I had enough time to devote to doing them right. I got plenty of repeat business and great feedback. And I built up an awesome Upwork profile that quickly stood out to top quality clients.
Every single day, tons of qualified clients flock to Upwork for the express purpose of hiring freelancers.
To me, trying to generate leads on my own instead of leveraging all of their marketing power would have been like going buffalo hunting because I was in the mood for a bison burger. Hitting up the meat counter at Whole Foods works so much better.
Do Upwork clients pay less?
Anyone who really believes that the rates on Upwork are somehow inherently low is living in a self-imposed prison.
Let’s look at a real life example. The client in the screenshot below hired me to write some blog posts for her company’s website. Do you think her budget magically shrank just because she hired me on Upwork?
If you think that question is ridiculous, that’s how nutty this entire superstition really is.
Sure, some clients come to Upwork looking for a good deal.
Guess what? Some people walk into a Mercedes dealership looking for a good deal too. They can drive off in a brand new Benz for less than the price of a Camry. This doesn’t change the fact that there are plenty of others who are happy to spend 2-10x that.
And by the way, whether it’s Upwork or the car dealership, both of these types of clients offer value (more on that in a minute).
“But don’t the low bidders drive down prices?”
Upwork isn’t an economics classroom, and freelancing services don’t trade like commodities on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
At least not if you’re willing to put some work into your game. Offer the right service to the right clients, packaged in the right way, and your market value goes way up.
One of the ways I know this is because, when I’m awarded a job, I’m usually the highest bidder.
(…by the way, all of the above jobs turned into repeat business.)
Unlike the complainers, I pay no attention to the percentage of Upwork jobs posted by higher paying clients.
Of course there are going to be fewer of those, the same way online dating sites aren’t fully populated by potential mates who are all rich, smart and beautiful.
The more attractive something is, the heavier competition will be for it, and the harder it’s going to be to get it. That’s life. There’s a reason we call this site Freelance To Win.
But the best clients think in terms of value, not price.
They’re not interested in the cheapest freelancer any more than they are in the cheapest restaurant, the cheapest office chair, or the cheapest laptop.
If you can provide value (i.e. solve their problems), you can find more of these good clients than you know what to do with. Below are some more examples…
By the way, all of the above clients became repeat customers as well.
Two of them even confessed that they’d been “looking for someone like me for years.” Freelancers may be ubiquitous, but problem solvers are hard to find.
How to make money on Upwork – the truth
Upwork is an ecosystem.
All of the clients and freelancers serve a purpose.
Clients who pay $15 per hour are much more valuable than the whiners would have you believe.
These good folks help beginning freelancers break into the game and cut their teeth. (My first Upwork client was one such person, and I am extremely grateful to him–and judging by the feedback he left me, the feeling was mutual.)
New freelancers in turn help these clients build their businesses on a lean budget that more experienced freelancers would never consider. Win-win.
It gets better: freelancers who do well get repeat business.
Pretty soon they become busy enough that they can raise their rates, and start turning down business at the old rate. This opens up new job opportunities for less experienced freelancers, who can then follow in their footsteps.
Some of those freelancers will do well…and get repeat business of their own…and the virtuous cycle continues.
Meanwhile, some of those $15/hr clients will grow their businesses, too. As they do, their needs and budget expand, creating new opportunities for more experienced freelancers with advanced skills.
So the idea that there is this fixed “pie” of clients and money on Upwork, and that we’re all competing for little slivers of it, is totally flawed.
In reality, the pie is actually growing all the time.
The only question left is: How big of a piece do you want?
Now go get it.