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Can You Actually Make a Living from UpWork?

Since I’ve been lucky enough to go on a globe trotting tour which saw me settle down in Australia for 6 months without a visa to work here, and since I’ve 8+ years experience as a developer (Magento, Drupal & WordPress), Ecommerce Business Analyst, and certified Google Analytics analyst, I thought I’d try my luck as a “digital nomad” - which seems to be all the rage at the moment. Well, as my time in Australia draws to a close - here’s how I got on…

Now it’s only fair to give this endeavour a proper background by saying that I honestly didn’t approach this as it was a full time job, truth be told I hadn’t anticipated working in Australia at all. My plan had always been to read a lot and practice my cooking, but it turns out I can’t relax unless I am doing some form of work. So this account isn’t a full 6 months of slogging it, but rather ~2 months.

The Start

I’d been approached over LinkedIn by some companies who became clients, and some who had a chat and then I never heard from again - fair enough. After completing a few of these projects, and still being at a loose end work wise I got proactive and investigated what was out there in the wider world. Against all advice I joined Upwork.

Why is joining Upwork against all advice you may wonder. Well, if you hang around any of the freelance communities enough, many bemoan the general hubs of Upwork, Toptal, Freelancer, and the thousands of others out there for driving the hourly wage down, as Westerners find themselves competing on hourly rates with others from around the globe who have from a lower cost of living, and therefore can undercut a Westerner’s rate.

My thoughts are that there are so many variables amongst requirements, costs, quality, communications, timezones, etc that it can either work for you or not. Not a straightforward answer, but it’s the truth. A few examples:

  • As a customer if you’re in the US and require a basic 5 page brochureware site with a cookiecutter template where you provide all the content, then paying $10 an hour is workable for you as a customer, and can work for a vendor with a cheap cost of living somewhere, but it’s unlikely you’ll be getting great communications skills or much more than someone who follows instruction.
  • As a customer if you’re in the UK and are looking to implement an advanced Google Analytics tagging plan through Google Tag Manager to track your marketing efforts, then working with someone who charges $10 an hour with poor communications skills, is likely to prove itself as a false economy.
  • As a freelancer if a job is being advertised that requires an expert level of skill but is paying well below what you consider that level of skill requires, it is just as likely that that particular project may not be worth it for you.

Two good rules of thumb with remote working - which goes for general life as well - “if something is too good to be true, it probably is” and “you get what you pay for”. If you bear this in mind as both a freelancer and a customer, then it will should help limit, though not remove, any disappointment.

The Sign Up Process

It’s actually pretty straightforward to sign up as a freelancer: add your name, email address, country, whether you’re looking to hire / work, username etc, then click the confirmation link in your email and you have a functioning account.

Then to make the very best of it, you’ll need to fill out your account with a few more details; profile picture, your skillset, required rate, and ideally a short biography. The more details you fill in, the better - or so I’m told. Which I can also believe as well from a hiring perspective.

I ended up adding many, many things to my profile; work history, education history, Google certifications etc. So many in fact that it is now probably ripe for data theft. You can also take Upwork’s tests to supplement your profile information, where I embarrassingly scored below average on the English test. Despite being a red-brick university, educated native Brit.

Now you’ve got a published profile, you’re able to go ahead and hunt down projects.

Choose your Focus

I made the decision early on to not to chase the development jobs, but to focus on Google Tag Manager and Analytics. Purely for the reason that I’ve found in the past that development work on such sites is like a step back to the 90’s. Pushing files over FTP, and no test server. So unless the project has the budget for you to setup a local build each time, it’s time to don the cowboy hat and do all your testing on production, which increases my heart rate tremendously.

If you’re hunting down projects that are renowned for having a low barrier to entry such as WordPress, then you may find you’re in for a struggle. I’ve nothing against WordPress as a platform; it’s malleable, rapid to build, and certainly has some valid use cases. It also seems to proudly boast the “budget” tag that’s hung round its neck, not helped by pseudo developers who will build client sites as a franken-plugin-monsters for peanuts. So if you’re after WordPress work you’ll find yourself competing against these developers for clients who have a low budget and a long list of requirements.

If you have a skillset with a higher barrier to entry / greater value in the client’s eyes, e.g. Drupal 8, you are likely to find yourself in more of a niche where admittedly there will be fewer projects, but those projects are likely to have a higher price tag on them, with less competition. It of course goes without saying - only bid on something you have a proven skillset in.

With the above in mind, it’s purely been GTM & GA work I’ve been seeking, where the structure available within GTM allows to preview before deploying. So unless it is something magnificently risky and custom required, any negative impact on core site behaviour is mitigated.

Finding Work

Hunting for jobs within your chosen niche is the easy part, as there appears to be a neverending flow of new projects posted, and Upwork’s search engine does a good job of returning relevance. The trickier bit is finding those projects that are 1) worth applying to, and 2) projects that you are likely to get a response from.

A few tips:

  • Everyone’s price needs are different, so it’s difficult to comment on. What a 25 year old in Bangkok needs to live on differs vastly to what a 25 year old in Berlin needs to live on, so dollar amount I can’t comment on.
  • Jobs are rated in payment terms from $ (cheap) to $$$ (expensive). I’ve not seen any more clear-cut sign of jobs to avoid than when a project specifies the terms as $ and in the text require an expert level. Typically this will be a client who has a disjointed concept of what skills are required and their value.
  • As a freelancer applying for projects, you are issued 60 connects a month and each project requires 2 connects to apply. So essentially you can apply for 30 projects a month. After that you can buy more connects, personally I refuse to pay to apply to work, but each to their own.
  • Whilst it may sound a bit unfair - especially as it’s likely you’ll be starting out as well - avoid those job postings that are done by potential clients with zero feedback. It may seem unfair, but remember - you’re limited to how many projects you can apply to each month, and if someone is new to the process they may just be dipping their toe in the water, you may not want to be their guinea pig.
  • If the client does have feedback take a look at the average hourly wage they pay, if it falls below what you’re aiming for then move on. Purely observational with no data to back it up, but Australian clients seem to have a much lower average payment than anyone else I’ve seen.
  • If it requires a full proposal then skip it. Some questions (up to 5 in my opinion) for freelancers applying for a project is understandable and expected, but if it is a “provide a full step by step of how you’d do x” then skip it. I assume this is validation for the client to do the work elsewhere, and putting in hours of work to not get a response is painful. Trust me.
  • Stick with it, and you’ll be able to spot them from a mile off. Which rings true not just for freelance work through sites like these, but for all project based work.

Applying for Work

Now you’ve whittled down to projects that you can do, want to do, and have separated the wheat from the chaff with the above, you’re ready to apply and the time to treat it like a job….

  • Read through the description and ensure you fully understand the requirements, and most importantly are able to complete the project to a high standard within the time frame.
  • Tailor your proposal specifically to the job. It’s fair to assume that you have at least a generic template; who you are, what your experience has been, and for what clients, but at least 50% of the application should be specific to the project.
  • Ask for clarity if anything requirements are unclear, e.g. if the project contains a sentence such as “I need someone to fix my tracking”, then it’s important to know what’s broken, how it’s implemented, what platform it’s on etc
  • Advise when you’d be able to start
  • Specify your rate at either fixed fee and suggest how long it’d take to complete, or your hourly rate and an estimate for how long to complete.
  • Send it off and look for the next opportunity!

The Work Itself

Once you’ve landed a project - congratulations; you’re now technically a “digital nomad”, working wherever you lay your head, wherever you can find an internet connection, the millennial dream. Ish. Perhaps that and affordable housing.

The key to success with a remote freelance project has unsurprisingly the same key to success as a project executed in person: understanding the goal, communicating clearly from start to end, and executing with precision.

I’ve delivered a number of projects remotely, and ensuring that requirements and specifics are defined without any ambiguity is critical. You don’t want delivery to occur at the end of the project, and the client to be bewildered with any aspect of it.

The Hilarity

There’s no escaping it - there are some projects listed where the client requirements are so detached from reality that you can do nothing but laugh. If some poor soul wants to pay $50 for a custom Drupal 8 module that fundamentally changes core behaviours, with some broadbrush hand-waving brief, and believes they’ll get what they want, then there’s really no helping them.

Upwork - Expert Requirement

Sometimes, it’s worth just taking some time out of your day to scroll through some of the absurdities you’ll see on there to re-confirm your alignment with reality.

How Payment Works

As mentioned above, there are essentially 2 payment streams, one by the hour, and by the project where milestones can be specified and cash released as and when key project milestones are completed.

I won’t go into the full details of this although generally for milestones you can specify how many milestones you want, and what amount of the fee should be released for each completed milestone from 1 to how many you want. What makes sense to you depends on the scale and risk of the project.

If an hourly project makes more sense for the project, perhaps if it’s a data entry or ongoing reporting project, logging hours daily makes sense. You can either do this through logging time manually, or downloading and running the Upwork time tracking application which will take a screenshot periodically (~10 mins is the default I think, but can be amended) and log it. I personally detest this approach, but each to their own, and they do seem to offer some form of guarantees, but I find it horrifically intrusive.

Payment to your bank account can be scheduled for the same time every month or can be triggered manually. It’s really quite flexible.

Fees

The fees are the true absurdity in the whole process. Matching skillsets with requirements on a large scale will undoubtedly incur fees along the way, but given that the platform essentially works as a self platform for both client and freelancer - with the only mediation appearing to be the holding of funds in Escrow - which is undoubtedly not altruistic - for project durations. Other than, I am unaware of what they do for their fee which is….wait for it…

  • The service fee - 20% for jobs with clients where under $500 has been spent throughout the lifetime of the relationship between client and freelancer
  • The service fee - 10% once that $500 has been exceeded.
  • VAT fee

So for example if you’ve completed a job for $50 for a new client, then your account will incur the following fees:

  • Service fee of $10
  • VAT fee of $2

Giving you the total of $38 for your $50 project. Dependent on your payment method, and which currency you require to convert to (as Upwork is all in USD), you can expect some further commissions to be taken from that $38 before you can use it in your local pub.

Is it Worth It?

So is it worth it? This is the $1,000,000 question...or given that this is upwork.com it’s more like the $100 question (excluding fees).

Is it worth it is entirely dependent on your needs, wants, lifestyle and skillset. If you’re somewhere with a low cost of living, have an in demand skillset, and a desire to put in the hours, then yes - it most likely is.

If you’re a Westerner used to the rates and reliability of agency or contract work in your home city, then you may be in for nothing but disappointment. I don't doubt that some have made it work. I have not, and could not. I’d be interested to hear from someone who has had some success...