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How I Earned More on Upwork than I Did at One of the World’s Largest Market Research Firms

I love Upwork.

I logged in almost every day for four straight years (since June 7, 2016 — the day after I quit my job to work full-time for myself).

In that first year, I earned more on Upwork than I did the prior year as an analyst at one of the world’s largest market research firms. My Upwork profile launched my solopreneur success, and ultimately sparked the idea behind my fast-growing startup.

Until recently, and despite my company’s growing brand (and hefty Google Ads budget), I got more leads on Upwork than I did from any other venue.

I mentioned my Upwork success story to another freelancer the other day. He was surprised I found any clients at all. He said he’s been on the platform for a year, applying here and there, but never found a single client.

That’s when I realized just how much I’ve learned about the nuances of Upwork, and just how finicky the platform can be. It’s far from intuitive, and following a few simple unspoken rules can make all the difference toward your success freelancing on Upwork.

Here are some tips on how to find success on Upwork, whether you’re a full-time freelancer or side-gig warrior.

PICK A NICHE

Almost no one goes to Upwork looking for a marketing generalist or a project manager. So pick something more specific. I use survey analyst, though that hardly describes the full breadth of my skill set. But it’s an in-demand skill, and one that gets me in the door. I’ll often end up doing more than just survey analysis for a client, once they learn that my skills extend beyond surveys and into the breadth of the market research process.

Even if you are a “generalist,” pick one thing you’re really good at — designing logos, for example. Or writing winning sales emails (not “copywriting”). Or quick turnaround, Facebook-friendly infographics (not “graphic design”). Brand yourself this way on Upwork, and become a “robot” who can churn out those specific deliverables on tight timelines.

KEEP YOUR PROFILE ACTIVE

It’s tempting to create a profile on the hopes that an unsolicited job will fall into your lap. But it’s not worth it.

Lately, I see more and more colleagues create Upwork profiles for themselves with no real plans to use it or to actively pursue clients. The profile ends up looking sad — if I didn’t know they already had a full-time job, I might think they are unemployed and unsuccessful at finding work. That their skills or their presentation must be lacking.

This is especially bad if you list an excessively high hourly rate. You end up looking like someone who thinks too highly of themselves, and it’s a tell to prospective employers about what you think you’re worth (and, by implication, whether you’re actually earning that rate anywhere).

(And come on…Steve the CMO charging $100/hour shouldn’t need a dormant Upwork profile. Seems like he should be busy enough doing other, more important things.)

So if you want to have a profile, be sure to actively apply for work.

UNDERSELL YOURSELF (at first)

An inherent feature of online freelancing is that your client really doesn’t know you.

She sees your picture and profile and maybe some nice testimonials. She may even call you to learn more about your skills, or to explain her project further.
But at the end of the day, you’re a total stranger. And you probably always will be.

That said, you absolutely must discount your hourly rate to account for the risk your client is assuming. When just starting out, you won’t have any client testimonials, which increases your potential clients’ risk. So start by working for half of what you’d normally work for, then slowly raise your rate as you gain more testimonials, hours worked, and a higher Upwork score.

One of my first-ever Upwork projects was a 40-hour programming job. I charged the client $240, but got a strong rating in exchange.

CREATE NEW PROJECTS FOR NEW WORK

I’ve found that clients will often have more work than they initially specified. So once you’ve delivered your work, ask for more!

But here’s the key: Don’t just change the terms of your existing contract. Instead, set up a new project with new milestones. This way, you get the benefit of two strong job ratings and testimonials. And while I can’t be certain, I’d bet Upwork’s algorithm favors freelancers whose clients come back for more work — it’s a strong sign of someone’s professionalism, above and beyond a five-star rating.

No matter what, be sure to keep all work on Upwork — it’s against their rules to work around their platform, and I promise you that Upwork’s fees are worth paying for the exposure they give you for doing good work. I get unsolicited invitations to interview for Upwork jobs almost every day.

RESPOND TO EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY

Upwork is all about speed.

The average Upwork client hires in three days. I typically hire in three hours.
Predictably, Upwork considers your responsiveness when scoring your profile. That said, leaving a “request to interview” hanging hurts you in many ways. If you’re going on vacation and don’t want to deal with unsolicited interviews, change your profile’s availability setting accordingly — then you won’t get invitations during your vacation.

Upwork also likes to see that you’re saying “yes” to at least some requests to interview. So to keep your ratio high, block potential clients who repeatedly invite you to jobs that you don’t want.

EXPLAIN YOUR THINKING

Your clients should know your progress at all times, and should have a good sense of what’s going through your mind as you work on their projects.
This is true with any client relationship, but it’s especially true on Upwork. As I noted above, Upwork clients take big risks when hiring strangers on an online platform. They value transparency and general talkative-ness from potential hires, to help offset the mystery surrounding the tiny profile picture to whom they’re sending all this work (and, potentially, sharing important company information).

And even before you’re even hired, be open about your thoughts on how this job might be challenging, how you’re super busy, but how you’re going to make time for this project if you do accept the offer. Again, this all has to do with the risk your client is taking on by hiring you. The more they can see into your mind, the more comfortable they will be working with you.

PARTNER WITH OTHERS

Don’t pass on a job opportunity on Upwork just because you can’t do all the work needed.

If you need to use a friend or colleague’s help for parts of a job, say so. Be honest and upfront with your client about this.

Of course, don’t skirt the rules and misrepresent yourself, or pass off work entirely while pretending like you did it all yourself (not only is this against the rules, but it will come back to haunt you when the client has questions that you can’t answer).

But it’s fine to have a friend take a look at some code or trouble-shoot an error or give a second opinion and make tweaks to your design. Or better yet, engage another Upwork freelancer for help with particularly tough issues. Clients will appreciate the fact that you are taking their work seriously enough to engage another professional. Just be sure to handle any revenue-sharing on your end — don’t burden the client with paying little fees to others who help you here and there.

FIX YOUR PROFILE PICTURE

This is something you should do on all your social profiles. I’ve hired on Upwork several times, and the picture is the first thing I see at when evaluating a proposal — both by nature and by Upwork’s design. So smile genuinely, clean background, camera at eye-level, and be sure your face fills most of, but not the entire, photo.

And ideally, use the same profile picture across all your social accounts. Upwork clients are going to vet you outside of Upwork — being recognizable (and professional) across the internet will do nothing but boost your odds of landing good contracts.

These might seem like simple rules, but they’ll make all the difference in the end. The future of work is remote, distributed, and project-based, and Upwork is leading the way.

Don’t wait to master the nuances of Upwork and other digital freelancing platforms.

  1. 3

    Great read. I’ve built my business on Upwork. Love the platform.

    1. 1

      It gets a lot of hate, but it can be a treasure trove for the right kind of freelancer.

  2. 2

    Been hearing some creatives making monstrous amounts on Fiver too. Intruiging

    1. 1

      Yes, it's important to find the right niche. And if you can offer something repeatable (productized service), even better.

  3. 2

    There's some great advice in here (from the buyers perspective).

  4. 1

    Great post and insights - thanks!

  5. 1

    These are all great points - most of which I followed back in the rentacoder days.

    I broke the top 100 out of 50K profiles at the time, so something must have gone right.

    I would add, it's ok to take breaks between gigs every now and then.

    Being super active can be exhausting and it's better to chill a bit than to burn out in the middle of a project.

    I'm glad they're doing something about the unfair multi-level project shops (I mean how does anyone do 10 complex projects at once?)

    1. 1

      I'm glad you found success, too.

      And YES! It is absolutely exhausting -- especially given the pace at which many clients make hiring decisions. I missed many good opportunities because I didn't get back to the potential client almost immediately.

      This is why I've let up a bit on Upwork as my main business has grown. I (thankfully) don't have to rely on Upwork leads so much.

  6. 1

    Nice tips, I started my freelancing career on Elance that became ODesk and finally Upwork.

    1. 1

      Thanks!

      Yes, lots of rebrands. I remember the Elance days...

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