All Work, Little Pay: The Life of a Freelance Writer in the Gig Economy - UnderPinned

Gareth Hancock writes on leaving his job as a builder to become a copywriter and the race to the bottom that content mills and online freelance marketplaces create.

When I became a freelancer in 2011, I had big dreams about the lifestyle: hours that fit around family time, holidays when I wanted them (not when my employer would grant me them), cinemas on a Monday morning while my friends were miserable at work — the kind of lifestyle you’d expect work from homers to have.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out. After three years of working ten hour days just to make ends meet, I quit and took a job in an office.

Freelancing the way I did it isn’t the way freelancing should be done.

Living the dream, but without the filter

If freelancing was an Instagram selfie, the first three years of my career were the bit just before the photo was taken and the filter added. The bit where it’s just you looking distinctly average in the mirror.

I’d always liked the idea of being a writer but never thought about it as a job. It wasn’t really the done thing for a working-class lad. Manual labour, however, was. So that’s the route I took. But when the recession hit in 2008, I was in and out of work for two years, until 2010 when I was laid off for the fourth time. After seven solid months on the dole with not even a hint of an interview, I had nothing to lose.

I searched online for ways to make money, and sure enough, there was a way to get paid to write. People actually hired writers to create articles. And not just a handful of people, hundreds of them, from all over the world.

I’d found my golden ticket, and the chocolate factory was called Freelancer.com. I was going to become a freelancer!

I got the first gig I applied for. The brief asked for writers to produce 500-word articles on motor-racing. It didn’t matter that the only thing I knew about motor-racing was how to keep a car on a Scalextric track, I went ahead and wrote a sample (for free) and sent it across. To my shock, they liked it and I was hired.

I spent all day writing and editing that first article so it was perfect. After a round of editing for SEO, my payment was cleared. The grand sum of FIVE DOLLARS.

I signed off the dole, happily telling them I was a freelancer and churned out articles on different marketplaces for $5 (Freelancer.com used to trade in dollars) for almost a year.

Then things started to pick up and I was able to earn $10 or even $15 a piece from clients. Some clients were difficult to deal with and scope creep was an issue from time to time, “Oh, can you just add an email and some social posts, and can you do it by tomorrow for the same money I’m paying you for the article.” — That sort of thing. Other clients would disappear off the face of the earth before paying, usually after they’ve received the completed work. Fortunately, there was usually a financial milestone in place, which meant I was able to declare a dispute and recover some of the money being held in Escrow.  However, for the most part, income was regular and clients we’re fine, which meant I was a proper freelancer, albeit a poor one.

Looking back I can see how ludicrous these figures are, but at the time I knew no different.

I was getting paid for doing something I loved and $5-$15 was just going rate for living out your dream. I put my head down and got through as many articles as possible in a 10-12 hour working day. If the work kept coming, I kept doing it.

By the time I’d paid my fees (these sites take a chunk of everything you earn), I had earned between £400 and £700 a month for three years before getting fed up of barely making ends meet. The freelance lifestyle was a fraud, and I had taken the bait.

So I quit.

I applied for a job as a copywriter at a local agency. I worked there for almost three years before being made redundant (again) and returning to freelancing with a new perspective on how to do things right.

You see, the cushy lifestyle is possible if you get the work bit right. And that means staying well away from content mills.

The easy way in

I regret all of those years wasted on freelance marketplaces but I get why I did it, and I get why 73% of all freelancers use them to find work. They’re convenient. They offer an easy way into the world of freelancing. Building up a freelance business takes time. You need a website and a portfolio and you have to invest time in marketing yourself like a real business.

It’s why many successful freelancers recommend starting out in your spare time while working a full-time job and aiming for the equivalent of six months wages in savings to get through the lean early months.

Marketplaces give you the chance to hit the ground running. There’s never a shortage of people looking to hire freelancers and it’s possible to land a gig within hours of signing up.

When you’re taking your first steps into the world of freelancing; when you’re desperate to get paid for work so you can officially call yourself a freelancer, the marketplace model of ‘the work’s here, you just have to come and get it’ can be more appealing than marketing a website and waiting for the phone to ring.

A race to the bottom

When I started writing 500-word articles in 2011, $5 per piece was bad. What’s worse is that rates remain the same in 2018.

According to Payoneer’s annual freelancer income report, 24% of freelancers charge $6-$10 an hour and over half (57%) charge less than 15 dollars an hour.

The number of freelancers able to demand higher fees is much lower, with only 4% of freelancers charging $51-$100 an hour — the kind of rate you should reasonably expect working as a self-employed creative.

So why aren’t more people upping their rates? Why are the majority of freelancers struggling on the kind of pay that forced me to quit?

Because if they charged more, they risk missing out on work to others that are willing to work for less. Sites like Freelancer, People Per Hour and Upwork use a bidding system. Clients post jobs, along with their budget, and freelancers send over their pitches in the hope of landing the gig. With a strong profile and positive ratings for previous work you have an advantage, but only if the price is right.

But price is a big leveller.

Yes, that guy over there has fewer reviews than you, but he can do the job for half of what you’re quoting. And the job isn’t that difficult — not difficult enough justify paying an extra $10, so he gets it, and you don’t. Then you notice this becoming a trend — people keeping landing gigs over you. You lose confidence, and this is reflected in your rates, which drop to a level that clients are happy to pay, like $5.  For a freelancer in the West, it’s very difficult to compete. Even $6-$10 an hour is too much for some clients.

And that’s because freelance marketplaces are global platforms.

In Africa and Asia where the cost of living is much less than that of the West, freelancers can afford to do work at lower prices. As an example, a web developer in India can expect to earn £7,905 a year, compared to £52,000 for the same role in the UK, which begs the question; Why would a client pay me £50 to do a job when a freelancer from India could do the same job for £5?

Based on the 1.5p that content mills often pay, a copywriter needs to write 564 words an hour (650 words if you’re in London) for eight hours day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Job dissatisfaction

At this point, you won’t be surprised to hear that freelance writers rank amongst the lowest when it comes to income satisfaction, nor that my story isn’t a one-off.

I nodded along in agreement when I read of freelance writer Patricia Willis’s story of earning $0.014 per word and $300 after tax for two weeks of hard work. And I share Fintech copywriter, Andre Spiteri’s regret at spending eight hours a day on the weekend writing content for £20 an article.

Award-winning freelance writer, Carol Tice, who runs Make a Living Writing — a blog and community that teaches writers how to move away from content mills — asked members of her Freelance Writers Den for their experiences with freelance “content farms” and it was the same deal: $3 per article for one writer on Upwork, £7,000 in a year and a half for another on People Per Hour and $8 per assignment on BlogMutt. The worst, though, was the writer who made $1 per article on my old stomping ground, Freelancer.com. ONE DOLLAR PER ARTICLE.

“Buyers want people to work for peanuts. For example: When a gig for 50 articles (500 words each) that paid $2 per article was posted, people went crazy bidding over it,” one writer said about Fiverr.

This is what we’re up against.

But my industry isn’t the only one that struggles. Graphic designer, Brent Galloway, didn’t fare any better on marketplaces. Programmer, Dustin Sites, had his life ruined by Freelancer.com after the platform firstly withheld a $1000 wire payment and then refused his perfectly legal identification which meant his account was limited. Dustin was left without over $5000 in payments and on the brink of eviction before the matter was resolved.

Was it all bad?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. My opinion of freelance marketplaces is worse now than it was when I was using them. Because I know now what I didn’t know then — that freelancers are paid rates that reflect their importance to businesses.

But I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I had no idea about copywriting or what it takes to produce quality content before I started freelancing on content mills. And I’ve amassed enough knowledge about things as varied as ironing boards and life insurance to hold my own in a general knowledge quiz.

They were a good learning ground. But that’s about it. While everyone has to start somewhere, that somewhere should still pay enough to live on. Freelance marketplaces didn’t do that for me. They have worked out for others, though. Web designer Dave Smyth recently wrote about his successes on Upwork and writer Hannah Whiteoak enjoys her career as a content mill writer despite the pay. A search for “making money on Upwork” will bring up all kinds of “living the dream” stories of people making huge money. But for every person making a living bidding for work, there’s a dozen struggling to make ends meet.

If I were to start over again would I take the same route?

Absolutely not.

While the concept of marketplaces isn’t inherently bad, the way they operate makes for a miserable existence for a writer stuck on the hamster wheel.

What’s the solution?

Freelancing is a viable option for someone who is currently unemployed. The cost of entry is low (all you really need is a laptop and internet connection), and while it’s hard work, the opportunities are there. 64% of UK-based businesses rely on freelance workers in some capacity. If you have the skills and drive to market yourself like a business, you can make a career working for yourself. Marketplaces, however, aren’t the place for a new freelancer to make a decent living. In truth, if you’re starting from scratch, factoring in benefits, unemployment makes more financial sense than a content mill. That should never be the case.

So the solution for clients on marketplaces is to pay the living wage as a baseline.

Simple.

On average, freelancers make £50 an hour according to research by Kalido. They earn that to account for tax and lack of employment benefits such as holiday pay, sick pay, and pension. Yet, here we are with writers earning one-tenth of that on marketplaces. Will rates ever increase across the board? Probably not on the leading marketplaces. It would take a new platform that attracts the very best freelancers and clients that sign up expecting to pay top dollar for top work. Until that happens, a better solution is to avoid marketplaces and build a business that works with clients directly.

This is where support comes in. It shouldn’t take three years of low pay to get to a point where you can earn a decent wage. New freelancers looking to develop their careers and thrive in the gig economy need places to go for a helping hand. Thankfully, communities like Freelance Heroes, IPSE and Procopywriters are all committed to educating freelancers and providing the kind of support I wish I had back in 2011. What it all comes down to is pay and respect.

Online freelancers possess skills much like hairdressers or plumbers or mechanics, and you don’t see anyone in those professions doing jobs for pennies. Their rates are never questioned because their professions are respected.

Freelancers need to be respected in the same way.

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