Three Months Using Upwork

by Matt
Over the summer we were passing doldrums by drinking with new friends to help us forget about boatyard pains. A cruiser who had spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean years ago was commenting that you used to see many more young couples cruising. They could get an inexpensive boat and when they ran out of funds they could pick up work where ever they landed. Now, countries had become too protectionist in their employment policies and this was more or less impossible to do. We all agreed that this was true, and true in basically every cruising ground we could think of. The only workers are folks working under the table or doing odd jobs for other cruisers for coconuts. But what we didn’t talk about that evening, which I’d like to add now, is the great equalizer known as the internet.

Office desk?
The Internet is full. It is full of bullshit that doesn’t help anyone except the person who is selling you something. There couldn't be a better example than the topic of “making money online”. Everyone is just trying to sell you something, be it an e-book they wrote or a slot in their MLM/pyramid scheme. The Internet is the worst. With that in mind, here’s an article posted on the Internet.

Upwork is a mega-website for online freelance work. There are a lot of sites that do the same thing, but Upwork is by far the largest with over 1.5 million website visitors per day. There’s a lot to dislike about Upwork, but, against all of my expectations, I made over $500 on Upwork in my first month. Month two has started much slower, but it is getting better in the last few days. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Is this even worth it?
This is the first question you’ve really got to answer for yourself. If you think it’s pointless and hopeless, just give up now. If you need immediate, steady and reliable income, don’t even try. You’ve got to dedicate yourself to doing it and doing it professionally. You’ve got to accept that some weeks will be slow, especially in the beginning. The website is full of folks who have filled out profiles and bid on a few jobs here and there, don’t get any gigs and then disappear. Employers want to hire expert freelancers, so an incomplete or poorly written profile is a sure way to not get a job and if you don’t have any hours worked or any feedback you do not stand out.

Do whatever it takes to get the first contract
Once you have one completed job, you are better than probably 70% of Upwork profiles and users. Having passed that one hurdle, your bids for jobs are all the more appealing. If you aren’t having any luck getting your first contract through the site, consider getting an existing client (or even a friend) to create a job just for you on the site. Proof of this for me was the fact that while I had had an Upwork profile for over a year (I just never used it, I was one of those people from #1), Upwork never bothered to verify the profile until I got the first job! Once Upwork assigns a “Job Success Score”, which comes after 5 or so completed contracts and is based on the feedback you’ve received, your profile is more or less complete and you can settle in for the long haul. 

Specialize in something profitable
There are a lot of jobs on Upwork. If you do any kind of web or app development, front-end, back-end, full stack (whatever all that means), I think you’re golden and you can make bank. I don’t have that skill set and sometimes I wish I’d gone to school for something useful like that. I don’t have solid numbers, but I would guess these are the best paying gigs for online freelance work if you are really good. I would also include in this social media marketing jobs, which are extremely common online. Basically, these are skills that not everyone can do and require specialized knowledge and that’s the real secret to making money online.

The next thing people talk about is writing. There are a lot of writing jobs on Upwork, a lot of them. There are also a lot of writers trying to make it online, and they will underbid you. The advantage comes to native English speakers who can actually write, which isn’t many people. You have to prove it with an amazing portfolio, and still, you should only expect about $.01 per word. Writing blogs and content marketing is the number 1 skill people need. I seldom find writing jobs on Upwork that have fewer than 50 applicants (more on bidding for jobs later). There are much easier websites that will pay much better without this bidding process (more on them later too). The money here is poor, primarily because nearly everyone thinks they can write. I’ve had a lot better luck writing for textbroker.com (more later).

Photography and photoshop is much like writing: everyone with a copy of Photoshop on their computer is underbidding you. Photo manipulation jobs are underpriced and the quality of work clients are getting is extremely poor. So there is an opportunity to get some work here if you are really good with professional experience and a portfolio to prove it.

Illustration and graphic design is the same story. With an amazing portfolio, you can likely do well. I have a marginal portfolio (it’s getting better!) and this is where I’ve done my best. Layouts and typography jobs rarely pay well because everyone thinks they can do that and the general population of clients doesn't know enough about design to tell a professional design from an amateur one. Illustration has been successful for me because it does take a bit of skill. For one thing, people who can use Adobe Illustrator are rare, and rarer still are folks with any analog artistic skills to match it. The most common jobs people are looking for are logo design, character illustration, web/app illustrations, and infographic design.
Our ship's plaque, inspired by the one on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
Will Lagoon move production to the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars? Come on Elon, get on it!

Another very interesting tack to take on Upwork is to work as a digital assistant. This is broad enough to catch a lot of word processing, data entry, calendar, travel planning, etc. So basically, you do a lot of small jobs that don’t take you too long, and then do them for many clients. I think this is a very interesting possibility that doesn’t require more than basic business skills, but there is a lot of competition.

Get Paid While You Learn
And maybe this is the most important thing to keep in mind about Upwork…it’s not the end-all-be-all of online work. You’re able to bid on interesting jobs and get paid. Even if you aren’t getting paid as much as you like, you are getting useful experience working online and building your portfolio. How amazing would it be to be a college student learning the skills of your field and being able to work online and learn from doing while learning the academics?

So what do you think? Is the internet the worst, and full of people just trying to sell you something? Or is the internet the most awesome, powerful tool ever, that just might enable folks to kick their 9-5 jobs and live on a sailboat in paradise, working from anywhere they want?  

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  1. That was really interesting, Matt. Thanks for the info! I'm going to pass it on to some of my more industrious nieces and nephews -- it looks like a good way to build on their professional portfolios.

    1. I hope it works out for them! It's pretty awesome that there are so many different ways to build a career these days.

  2. The internet is both good and bad, probably like most everything else, except chocolate. Chocolate is always good.

  3. I think that a smart person should have the ability to filter the good from the bad the internet has to offer, especially when trying to make money. I am a member of "middle websites" who try to put a company and a writer/translator/proofreader together and, you are totally correct... I have not found any jobs through them, because other English speakers from less developed countries with a lower living standard underbid, like the Indians. It is a lost cause and after years, I am now very particular whom I sent my resume to.

    It takes a lot of research and determination to hook up with the right company (directly) and then receive work. That's how I now get translation jobs. They are infrequent, but they pay well and I don't have to bid, so I jump on them whenever I am able and have the time.

    Thanks for the lay-down on UpWork. Maybe, one day, I'll check it out, but 1 cent a word for writing jobs is peanuts!

    1. Yes, it takes a lot of time and energy to try and get ahead is these very competitve fields, especially when buyers just want content and don't care if it's good or not. Translation work that you don't have to bid for sounds pretty perfect!


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