Last updated on March 3, 2019
I saw an old-but-always-interesting question on Quora a while back:
How viable is it to make 100k a year as a freelancer developer in sites like Upwork?
Here’s my take.
It’s possible, but I’d hesitate to call it viable. I recommend a two-pronged approach. But first, let’s talk about why Upwork alone is a dicey proposition.
Marketplaces like Upwork were designed explicitly for buyers whose #1 priority is cost-of-project. Not quality, not value, but cost. This cripples your interaction with most of those potential clients in a few key ways:
They’re focused on the wrong thing.
Once a client starts to focus on cost, getting them to focus on value or quality – things that you can successfully differentiate yourself with – is like trying to push a stalled train. Very, very difficult. This is one of the problems inherent in giving ballpark estimates, I might add.
You’re been presented as a commodity.
It’s hard enough to stand out on these marketplace sites without cost being the primary attribute a client pays attention to. You’re going into the situation being viewed as though you’re effectively the same as all the others, except for – you guessed it – your cost. There’s a very narrow path to framing yourself as an expert.
You don’t own the client relationship.
Again, because the marketplace is designed to keep the client focused on cost-of-project, you don’t have may opportunities – if any – to develop a relationship with and market to the client. They want something cheap, they want it now, and my golly, the “undercutter’s marketplace” has promised them they can have it.
So, can you earn $100K+ on a marketplace such as this? Sure, you can, and some people have, but a great number of variables – some of which are solidly outside of your control – have to fall into place. It’s not likely, although it can be done.
If you have to use a marketplace to get your start, because you need to start earning some money now, fine. But don’t look to these marketplace sites as your sole source of leads.
As I mentioned at the start, a two-pronged approach is best to take here:
To make Upwork pan out, you’re going to need a few things.
A clear-eyed view of what you’re good at.
You’re going to be competing against 5,000 other people who all look like you, whose resumes read like yours, whose portfolios look just like yours. If you can’t actually perform at a high level, you will get busted by the first client that hires you.
Be legit, or don’t bother pitching. Take a hard look at your skillset and your experience, and figure out what your strengths really are, what things you really shine at.
A laser-focused “ideal project” profile.
Building on your most legitimate skills as identified above, pick one – two at most – very specific types of project you want to chase after. And when I say specific, I’m not talking about your tech stack, I’m talking about the business problem or vertical industry you want to do work for. As a random example, if you’re thinking “WordPress sites” you need to be thinking “Security and analytics for WordPress sites”. Get more specific!
The more specific you can get, the better you can tailor your pitch and feel confident about executing well on any work you land. Look back through your existing portfolio of past work, or your prior job experience, sometimes it will reveal specialties of your that you didn’t even know you had!
A compelling, reusable pitch.
Once you know what specific type of project you want to go after, write a pitch template that you can re-use and easily tweak as needed.
Introduce yourself, point to your experience with solving the specific type of problem the project deals with, and point out convenience factors you may have to offer, such as being in the same time zone as the client. Write and re-write this pitch until it’s lean, to-the-point, and paints a picture of you as the specialist this client needs.
Pro tip: being a specialist in the problem the client is hoping to solve means you can charge more than the John-and-Jane Generalists who will also be angling for the same projects.
The courage to charge a real rate.
It’s very, very obvious after just one look around Upwork – most of the clients are looking for cut-rate prices. Because of that, most freelancers who seek work on Upwork go immediately into “race to the bottom” mode, setting a price that they think will be palatable enough to get work.
Don’t do this.
Instead, building on the clear understanding of what your’e good at and what specific project you’re going to apply those skills to, charge a solid rate. Do a search for other freelancers who have worked the same type of projects you’re looking to work. Look at the top tier – there’s always a top tier, trust me – and see what those folks are charging. I guarantee you that the real players are charging 3x, 5x, or more of what the also-rans are charging.
Position yourself in that layer of freelancers. It’s going to be scary. Do it anyway.
A top-tier profile.
Now that we know what you’re good at and what problems you intend to solve, and have seen what the top tier of freelancers in your ecosystem are charging, the last thing to do before soliciting work is to make sure your profile is in order.
Do you have a clear, professional-looking profile photo? Have you incorporated a more-detailed version of the pitch you’ll be sending to clients into your profile? Have you uploaded screenshot of prior work? Don’t let your profile look like a ghost town, or else clients will be more inclined to ghost you.
This is the hard part. I’ve heard of people having to submit for 30, 50, 70 projects before landing one, even following the advice above. Remember, all you have to do is land and complete one project in order for your profile to have some history – and therefore credibility – to it. After the first project, the second one comes a bit easier.
While you’re working the Upwork angle, don’t forget about…
Working your network
A more direct path to paying clients is to turn to your existing friends and contact. Get out and start getting to know people in your local business community. Go to meetups. Go to chamber of commerce events. Go to industry events. Talk to people. Become a known quantity to the people doing business where you live.
Don’t expect to make a sale right off when you meet someone, just set an explicit goal of making friends in the business community. And of course, stay in touch with former bosses, co-workers, vendors, and other people you’ve worked with in the past.
Building a network such as this takes time. A lot of time, in some cases. But as a long-term investment, it pays off, and it pays off much better in the long-term than any marketplace site ever will.