James W.D. Stewart

James W.D. Stewart

Embrace "The Suck"

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Are freelancer exchanges viable when your goal is mutually beneficial partnerships with clients willing to pay a fair amount per project?

When it comes to finding and winning clients as a freelancer, there isn't much that I haven't tried…  I graduated the school of hard-knocks with several scars and the odd badge of merit.  So, when it comes to giving advice to freelancers who were maybe where I was several years ago, I speak from a position of experience.

The type of hair-pull—face-palm—head-in-sand experience that you can only get from a good few years trying, failing and winning, to get something to work.



A Guide to Not Working on Freelance Exchanges (i.e. Fiverr, Upwork)

Count Words — Reading Time
by James Stewart
Updated:    Spelling
Location:  Greater Sudbury Public Library, 74 Mackenzie St., Sudbury, Ontario, P3C 4X8, Canada


Are freelancer exchanges viable when your goal is mutually beneficial partnerships with clients willing to pay a fair amount per project?

When it comes to finding and winning clients as a freelancer, there isn't much that I haven't tried…  I graduated the school of hard-knocks with several scars and the odd badge of merit.  So, when it comes to giving advice to freelancers who were maybe where I was several years ago, I speak from a position of experience.

The type of hair-pull—face-palm—head-in-sand experience that you can only get from a good few years trying, failing and winning, to get something to work.

My stance on Upwork, and freelancer exchanges as a whole, has been largely unchallenged to-date.  One of the key differentiators I live by is my point-blank refusal to get embroiled in the small stuff and be a part of the over-cooked (or, worse still, reheated) ideas and opinions that you'll get from a lot of freelancer advice Web sites.  You can find plenty of places to get '10 weird tips' on the font size that you should use in your proposals or which keywords to choose for your Upwork profile.

One of those places, this isn't.

As always, this shouldn't be taken as elitist, inflammatory, nor ignorant…  Quite the opposite.  I've experienced the ups-and-downs of freelancing.  So, I believe that I have a duty to tell you everything I know…  If, I believe that there's a better way.  In doing so, I give you the opportunity to not make the same mistakes that I did.

Here's an excerpt from a book.  In this chapter, he's talking about building attention and interest in you and your freelance service.  It pretty much sums up my take:

We live in a noisy world.  Whether it's the irresistibly tactile Facebook notification icon or the audible blip of your email client, everybody wants a piece of your attention.
The same is true for your prospective client.  Their time is limited and ability to pay attention severely exhausted.  This is compounded by the fact that there have never been so many easy ways to seek answers for the pains and problems they have (that your service would ultimately remedy).
This makes for a cloudy online environment and your dream client has developed self-preserving defences, which guard against advertising, information overload and general interruptions.
Most freelancers see this 'noise' as a barrier, "how the Hell is anybody going to find me among this herd?"  More often than not, this pushes them into channels like Elance or oDesk.  "Well this should be more productive, people are actually looking for freelancers on here, right?"
This is flawed logic.  We feel some comfort in the fact that potential clients are being attracted to this honeypot every day.  We sense that at least we have a chance of making a sale here without actually understanding what type of sale we might make and more importantly, to whom.
You're voluntarily blending yourself into the herd, and in doing so procrastinating, putting out fires short term while holding off doing the longer term activities that will land you your dream client down the line.  By treading water in freelancer exchanges you're willfully attracting bad apples.
My first time around as a freelancer I played the same mind games with myself, "hey this guy has earned like $900k this past 12 months on Elance I must be able to at least get a slice of that?"
What I neglected to inform my naive former self was that this was in fact a 60-person web development house based in India whose average project fee was $200.
Do you really want to take on 20 projects a month just to meet your financial goals?
I thought not.
So how do we multiply our exposure, build attention and look at this cloudy online environment as a help rather than hindrance?


I'm acutely aware however that this is my own personal opinion, based on my own personal experiences and I'm always happy to be challenged and/or air another point of view.  So, I was delighted to receive a really awesome e-mail from Carol Hampshire; top 5 amongst 200,000 graphic designers on Upwork…  Currently, doing great and generating over $10,000 USD per month in revenue.

From:  Carol Hampshire
Subject:  I'm a top bracket freelancer on Upwork!
Hi James,
Although I do agree with the points you made, it looks like I am one of the exceptions.
I am a top bracket freelancer on Upwork (in the design & multimedia category) and attract similar top bracket clients, therefore eliminating the bad apples and all that goes with the normal exchange sites.
I am able to pick and chose which projects I want to work on, projects that bring me creative license and fulfillment as well as high financial reward.
My income in November last year on Upwork was in excess of $11,000.00 — not bad going for an "Upwork" freelancer.
In fact many of my clients would tell me I am by far the most expensive, but they still award the project to me.
So I must be doing something very right and have a good strategy in place for this success.
The rewards from being on Upwork have been wonderful, I own two properties in South Africa and relocated to a wonderful beautiful seaside holiday town.  So yeah — living the dream and all that…
I have been able to successfully explain the value of the service a client would get working with me in a proposal and I can back this up with hundreds of testimonials on Upwork.
I am ready to double my income in the coming months with even more innovative strategies that might not include Upwork in my future, but its been a fantastic platform for my business.
Did I have to work my ass off and take on some shady clients on Upwork to get to this position — YES!!
But having said that, this is a normal process for every designer to go through before they have finally reached a top bracket and learn valuable lessons the hard way.
Its a pity that you do not have the strategies to create an empowering article showing your tribe how to succeed on exchange sites instead of knocking a potential way for them to thrive professionally, creatively & financially as I have done.
All the best from South Africa!


You can, probably, imagine me receiving this e-mail and cracking a smile.  It really was a slam dunk of an e-mail correspondence…  I'm so happy to have smart freelancers, from all over the world, consuming the ideas that I'm putting out and feeling comfortable enough to question what they're being told.


Question Everything

So, I was inspired to at least give a fair debate as to the potential benefits of Upwork, and to work a little harder to assert my ultimate opinion that freelancer exchanges aren't the right place for you if you're looking to make the break-through into the top bracket ($5,000–10,000+ per project) freelancing.

So, let's start with the positives.  Here's where Upwork and the like can bring benefit to your freelance business:

  • Genuine Access to Revenue Opportunities:  It's beyond question that there are hundreds of jobs awarded to freelancers every single day.  The combined potential of all of this ready-to-spend revenue is huge.  Far more than one person could ever wish to receive.
  • Low Barrier to Entry:  One of the key drawbacks, in my opinion, has always been the 'great normalizer' effect of an identical profile page for every freelancer.  But, what this also provides new freelancers is a low barrier to entry; which doesn't require the build of a Web presence of their own.
  • Some Great Client Opportunities:  I use Upwork.  A lot of my peers in the entrepreneurship space use Upwork.  I even use Fiverr at times.  And, if someone does a great job for me, then there's the opportunity for that to continue outside of the confines of the particular freelancer exchange.


How Great Clients are Born

My philosophy on freelancing is that, ultimately, great clients should come to you.  You should've built enough exposure and be doing enough great work to ensure that you're never without new client opportunities.

Here is the eventual flow I teach freelancers to achieve:

  1. Define a specialist client market & reflect that in a Web site of your own.
  2. Put in the work to be known in this space and demand attention.
  3. Spark non-sales relationships with no brainer ways to get in touch.
  4. Transition to a more commercial conversation.
  5. Put together great proposals which look awesome and justify value well.
  6. Make the initial sale.  Then build a longer-term, mutually beneficial, partnership to reduce reliance on continually winning new business.

Having a client acquisition flow like this is the key to developing project fees of $5,000–10,000 and more.

Here's where freelancer exchanges work against this methodology…


We're all "Identicalancers"

On freelancer exchanges, there isn't a whole lot of room to develop a central presence which is tailored to your style and message.  Instead, we're offered an identical profile to everybody else, and are strictly forbidden from providing links to external locations which may do a better job of giving the client a picture of us as a person; not just a faceless service provider.


No Control over Client Market

I strongly advocate developing a vision for a dream client.  In doing so, you're proposing finding a smaller sub-set of an audience to double-down on.  The benefits to this approach are numerous, it's much easier to become visible, demand attention, and make the sale within a smaller pool of prospective clients.

This is near impossible to achieve on freelancer exchanges.  The platforms are configured to encourage a mass-market environment.


A Lack of "Discovery" Opportunities

One of the key traits of the effortlessly-successful freelancer is their ability to really immerse themselves in the client's vision.  To work diligently and develop a collaborative solution with this end-goal in mind.

This is more difficult on freelancer platforms.  The prospective client tends to be prodded into developing quite a rigid brief.  Moreover, the bidding process is heavily focused on quoting a price up-front or as early as possible.  This leaves little room for deep discussions around vision and the ultimate client goals.


A Restrictive Platform

It's vital to their future revenue opportunities that platforms like Fiverr and Upwork keep all dialogue inside of channels which they can monitor.  This means that relationships cannot be taken outside of the system; for fear of losing the project commission.

Of course, these rules are often circumvented, but the platform is policed vigorously with these guiding principles.  The deterrent of a closed account can make life uncomfortable when aiming to speak freely, providing external links for review, recommending dialogue over e-mail, and/or looping a client into your own project management system.


Inability to Start a non-Sales Relationship

An important element, when developing a long-term and commercially viable partnership, is an informal start to the relationship.  I advocate developing a Web site which speaks to a prospective client world-view and maps out the beneficial outcome before offering a no-brainer opportunity to start an informal, non-sales, relationship.

This might take the shape of a short book, cheat-sheet, or sample service that the prospect would engage with prior to making full contact.  This type of interaction and prospect nurturing is impossible on platforms only set-up to manage time & resources.


No Opportunity to Demonstrate Flair with a Proposal

It's possible to attach documentation to support your bid on platforms like Upwork, but it isn't the norm.  Moreover, this is a time-consuming process and when you're proposal 14 of 85, it becomes harder to justify the time investment.

So, for most, settling for a simple text based proposal often becomes the status quo; reducing the ability to show flair in your approach and to separate yourself from others.


A Project Mentality; Not a Partnership One

Finally, freelancer exchanges are fundamentally built to serve a 'labourer' mentality.

  • A project is outlined.
  • A bid is placed.
  • A project is completed.
  • Job done.

This goes against my general recommendations to put in the work early-on in a relationship…  To build trust, develop a longer-term plan, and work together collaboratively long-term.


In Summary

In summary then, it's prudent to point out here that I've no real vendetta against freelancer platforms.  They do the job of 'introducing work to workers' well.  The types of people I teach though, want to be more than 'workers' or 'laborers'.

They have a fire of ambition, strive to exercise creative flexibility, and create professional freedom.

I feel that freelancer platforms aren't calibrated to deal with the growing service provider looking to build a platform in a space and benefit from long-term relationships.

So my advice is this…  Use freelancer exchanges as a stepping stone; a thoroughfare.  As soon as you can, build your own voice, demand your own attention, and own your own future.

Categories:  Business, Technology  
Tags:  How to, Opinionated, The Suck

Syndicated to:


  1. Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer: The Evolution of a $1M Web Designer
    by Liam Veitch Published: 


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Creative Commons Licence :: BY-NC-SA James W.D. Stewart by James Stewart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.  Based on a work at https://github.com/jwds1978/jwds1978.github.io.