Articles - 27th March 2020

Staying afloat on freelance recruitment platforms

Words by Ben Walker
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Last summer I lost my job with little warning. I had worked for several years as a journalist and editor in the hospitality and tourism sectors and had continued my London-based job while living in Italy. It was hard to find similar work in Bologna but I needed a source of income quickly.

A friend suggested trying an online freelancing platform. Upwork and both claim to be the largest in the world. There are plenty of reviews and comparisons of these sites to help you decide which might work for you.

If you are completely new to freelancing, the consensus is that it’s easier to make a start with, although there’s an upfront fee to register which ruled it out for me.

My friend had worked on Upwork as an IT consultant. It hadn’t worked for him because his competition in China or India was willing to work for next to nothing. “But, you’ve got an advantage as a native speaker,” he says now. “A lot of the job posts specifically want UK English writers.”

Registering on Upwork is reassuringly rigorous. You upload proof of ID and an Upwork employee schedules a video call to confirm you are who you say you are. Once approved, you can set your hourly rate of pay and start pitching for jobs.

There are specialist writers on Upwork with rates of pay that will make you green with envy, but you will have to calibrate your rates downwards at the beginning to win the work. The platform is well-designed and easy to use.

There are lots of negative reviews about Upwork from freelancers who have been badly treated or scammed. With millions of users, this is inevitable. So, it’s very important to only choose clients with ‘verified payment’ status and an established commissioning history.

My first pitch was to a US property maintenance firm looking for an article on cleaning out gutters. After putting in my rate, they replied: “That’s beyond our budget. Maybe one day, but for now we’re trying to piece together what we can with nickels and dimes we gather from the sofa cushions.”

It was a poor start that highlights two sides of Upwork. The upside is that you are engaging in an enormous marketplace of entrepreneurs and businesses. If you want to widen your writing beat and tackle new topics and subject areas, there is no end to the variety – it’s not all about gutters.

The downside is that Upwork tends to attract businesses that are strapped for cash. Working for clients who are short of money is never fun and should be avoided. I had one job that started with a budget of $100 a week. This quickly dropped to $40 when he told me his website wasn’t making any money. He expected the world for almost nothing, so it was time to move on.

Another gig was interesting and enjoyable: researching and writing about investing in documentary films. My client gave me very detailed briefing notes. He was very positive and complimentary about my work, which was nice, and he gave very detailed feedback too. Some of his requests were easy to fix, but others went off at various tangents. It was thinking aloud.

I was sure I had fulfilled the original brief, so being asked for such an extensive re-write was a little concerning. But then he said it was fine to clock up more paid time to re-work the article.

On Upwork you can decide on a fixed fee (known as a ‘milestone’) or get paid by the hour using a timer app on your desktop. In this case I was paid by the hour, so I clocked on, re-submitted the article and the same thing happened: gushing praise and reams of detailed changes. What he wanted was constantly shifting, but I was grateful for his enthusiasm and, of course, the paid work.

The cut that Upwork takes from your earnings is pretty high: 20% of the first $500 for each client. After $500 the fee drops to 10% and then after $10,000 it falls to 5%, although very few freelancers last that long. And if you live outside the US, the numbers on the screen get chipped away again before reaching your bank account.

As the spread of the coronavirus poses a threat to freelance incomes, more of us will be looking for support and new ideas to supplement our pay. Freelance platformers may offer an easy solution, but subscriptions are up, meaning competetion at this time will be more fierce than normal. Be aware.

As a microcosm of a freelancing business, Upwork can be a good test of your professionalism, your ‘can-do’ attitude and the boundaries of the ‘yes-to-everything’ freelancer mindset. It has provided me with at least some guaranteed income and interesting work during a difficult time.

I started with three clients and I’m now down to one. I quickly realised that I needed to devote more time to getting better-paid work outside Upwork. These platforms may seem like an easy option. Whether things go well for you is partly down to luck. In most cases they cannot be a substitute for building your own freelancing career.


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