Podcast 4: Is Upwork Worth It? (For Freelancers)

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In episode four of the HomeWorkingClub podcast, we answer a big question that many freelancers ask: Is Upwork worth it?

As usual, you can listen to the podcast, or read a full transcript below.

Upwork is a huge freelancing platform, and a potential source of lots of new gigs and clients.

But it really does get lots of bad press in certain circles.

In this podcast we have a very frank discussion of the pros and cons. Upwork isn’t perfect, but does that mean you should ignore it?

For a full answer to that question, you’ll have to listen to (or read) the podcast below!

Included in this podcast:

  • Upwork’s “mixed reputation” (1:40)
  • Pros and Cons of Upwork (3:37)
  • Upwork’s fees (6:00) – see clarification below.
  • Tips for getting started on Upwork (7:40)
  • Researching your clients and gigs (9:05)
  • About paying for “connects” (11:21)
  • Scams, and avoiding them (14:50)
  • Alternatives if you’re not accepted for Upwork (22:35)

Supplementary Links and Information

Clarification

During our discussion, we summarised Upwork’s fees incorrectly. The commissions charged to freelancers are as follows:

  • 20% of the first $500 of work for each client.
  • 10% for amounts from $500.01 to $10,000.
  • 5% on amounts above $10,000. 

Is Upwork Worth It? Full Transcription

Please note that some repeat words or unclear passages have been edited to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex.

BEN: And I’m Ben.

ALEX: How are you today, Ben?

BEN: I’m doing well. It’s nice and sunny outside today.

ALEX: Lovely stuff. Today we’re talking about Upwork and specifically, is Upwork worth it for freelancers? We’ll have a quick look at Upwork’s mixed reputation, some genuine pros and cons of the platform, and some tips for using it well.

So, in traditional HomeWorkingClub podcast style, Ben, pretend I’m an idiot.

BEN: Okay, I shall.

ALEX: Very quick as usual! What is Upwork?

BEN: Okay. Upwork is a huge global freelancing platform. It’s where freelancers can go and find clients and where clients can go and find freelancers.

When I say a huge platform, I really do mean huge. I mean, there’s hundreds if not thousands of new freelance roles added to the platform every single day.

Upwork could be described as probably the biggest and best place to get new leads and get new clients, but it can also be described as a bit of a Wild West, a bit of a jungle. And I think both descriptions are fair. We’ll move on to that in a minute.

ALEX: Excellent. So, do you have to pay for Upwork?

BEN: You don’t… exactly have to pay to be a member, although you can buy an enhanced package. What you do have to pay for is what they call connects, which allow you to bid for jobs.

So there is a small cost involved in using Upwork to bid for jobs. And then you do pay a commission on the money that you earn. Again, we’re going to move on to that in a moment too.

ALEX: So, as we’ve teed up, Upwork has a bit of a mixed reputation. Never good news when you hear that about something. So tell us about the mixed reputation, Ben.

BEN: Okay. Well, before we sat down to do this podcast, I did actually type “Upwork review” into Google and I found a few things.

The first was a YouTube video entitled “Avoid Upwork. Freelancers beware!” I then found an article called “Why you should never use Upwork, ever!”

Some people are very anti-Upwork, and I encounter quite a lot of those people in my day to day life running HomeWorkingClub. Looking on the kind of aggregate sites which pull together lots of different reviews, I’d say Upwork kind of averages out at a three star rating.

ALEX: Right.

BEN: But there are still a lot of disgruntled people who are giving it one star and have a lot of bad things to say about it.

ALEX: So yeah, as is often the case with very large platforms, you’ve got a lot of people who have had some bad experiences and some people who have had some very good experiences.

How long has it been going for?

BEN: Well, Upwork was formerly oDesk , and oDesk, before it became Upwork, also took over a company called Elance. So, I couldn’t tell you, without looking it up, exactly when all of those platforms started.

But I first started using oDesk, which was before Upwork, back in, I think, 2009-10. It has been around a long time.

ALEX: Over that period of time there’s going to be quite a lot of positive and negative experiences, I suppose.

BEN: Absolutely. I am going to spoil it a little bit in that my answer to “is Upwork worth it for freelancers?” is very much a big “yes!” But I will be very open about the downsides.

ALEX: It’s just going to be a short podcast!

BEN: We can just end it now, can’t we?!

ALEX: Have the rest of your day back folks!

You know, it’s very difficult with things like this, where there are a lot of negative things out there, to not focus on those. So, moving on… let’s weigh up the pros and cons.

So let’s start with some positives. Let’s give them some good press to start off with.

BEN: Okay, well, there are loads and loads of jobs. Lots of people recruit on Upwork.

That can mean individual solopreneurs who want their first help with the new project. That could be virtual assistant work, a bit of writing, some bookkeeping, having a logo designed, a bit of programming for a web site. I mean, literally, anything.

ALEX: Is there anything they don’t do?

BEN: Um, I imagine they don’t really hire waiters and things like that.!But then again, I mean, voice work for podcasts would be on Upwork. Video design…

There are thousands of jobs in all kinds of sectors, anything from programming to writing to editing.

ALEX: Cool, so loads and loads of jobs. And the quality of the jobs/clients?

Upwork review 2019

BEN: Well, they vary enormously. You’ve got what I would call the “bottom feeders,” who are clients who want to try and get work done for as little as possible.

Obviously because it’s a fully global workforce, you’ve got people who live in countries with a very low cost of living. This is real globalisation at work.

So you do have people in the Western world going out and hiring people from places like India and the Philippines, where people are happy to work for a much lower hourly rate because they can still have a decent standard of living.

ALEX: So it’s not the case, necessarily, that someone’s trying to scam you or get you cheaply. It’s just, that’s the market on Upwork?

BEN: Absolutely. I mean, not necessarily the case, but there are some people who really do genuinely want the earth and don’t want to pay for it. So that’s one of the downsides. At the other end of the scale, though, you’ve got huge companies. I mean, household name companies, who do use Upwork to recruit.

ALEX: Right?

BEN: So, as you’re going through the adverts you’ll think, “Hang on! That’s Microsoft, isn’t it?” And yes, those big companies do use Upwork as well.

ALEX: So you’ve got lots of jobs. Every level of jobs, from sort of beginner level stuff right through to as you say, well you know not necessarily CEO if Microsoft, but…

BEN: Well, no! But, there are people out there charging $150 an hour for their time, doing various things. But then at the other end of the scale, you’ve got virtual assistants who are literally charging $3-5 an hour.

ALEX: Wow! Okay. Of course, as we said, it’s global, which does have an effect on the rates as well. So yeah, bidding for work potentially against people from all over the world.

In terms of the cons, you touched on those… It does cost some money; you have to pay them some money if you get some work?

BEN: Yeah, you pay for the connects. But we’re talking cents rather than huge amounts of money and I think even the premium membership is only about $15 a month, which includes enough connects to bid for lots of jobs.

Where the big fees come in… and I think this is a very fair criticism, is that you get charged, for the first $500 worth of work you do for one client, you get charged 20% of what you earn.

ALEX: Oh, wow!

BEN: So that’s Upwork creaming an awful lot off the top. I mean, that drops off once you’ve done… I’ll put it in the show notes… I’ve got an article on the site about the exact Upwork fees. I think after you’ve done $500 worth of work the fee drops to 15% and then I think at maybe $10,000 it drops down to 10%. So you pay them less and less the more you earn with any given client.

NB. Please see our clarification above and our article on Upwork fees. The fees on higher amounts are less that stated in the podcast.

Upwork’s fees are high and there’s no getting away from that.

ALEX: And that’s every client. So, if I’ve got a client and I get $500 from them, then I pick up another client, I’m paying 20% on the first $500 there.

BEN: Yeah, that first $500. So obviously, the problem there is if you’re doing lots of small jobs, lots of $50 jobs, all for different clients, you’re paying 20% on the lot.

ALEX: Do you know if clients have factored that in, in terms of their rates, or do they just not care?

BEN: I think it depends how experienced the client is on Upwork and also how fair the client is. I’ve dealt with a lot of clients on Upwork to whom I’ve said “my rate is this because I’ve got to allow for the fees that Upwork are going to take.”

I think the wisest thing for a freelancer to do is to factor in the fact Upwork are going to take their chunk. But you are going to find some clients are amenable to that and understanding of it, other people just think “that’s your problem!”

ALEX: Right. Well, that just makes it like life in general really. Isn’t it, kind of thing?

So, if I’ve decided that I’m going to go onto Upwork. I’ve decided I want to, you know, engage in some better podcasts and get some voiceover work. That’s just as an example.

BEN: Okay.

ALEX: What should I do? How do I navigate it?

BEN: I think mastering the search facilities is really key. I would say what you want to be doing on Upwork is going on there regularly and looking at all the newest jobs.

Generally you want to be looking at a lot of jobs but not actually applying for that many. You want to be applying for the ones that seem an absolutely perfect fit for what you’re doing. An example I would give of this is when I have used Upwork to look for writing work. I do, sometimes, if I need lots of work, I’ll scan through pages and pages of new writing gigs.

But before I do that… for example, when I lived in Portugal I would use the search facility and just type in “Portugal.”

ALEX: Right.

BEN: I’d then find clients IN Portugal who appreciated the fact that I was nearby. I’d find clients who wanted writing done about Portugal.

Similarly, I used to write a lot about cyber security, so I would search for “cyber security.” If you know about health care, you could search for “health care.” For your example, you would type “podcast,” “podcast voiceover,” “podcast voiceover British,” and things like that.

So obviously, the more careful you are about how you search… You want to make sure you’re applying…not just throwing out applications left, right and centre….but applying for things that you are a good fit for.

Also, just doing real serious due diligence on the job ads that you’re looking at. Every job ad gives you an enormous amount of information. You can look at how established that client is on Upwork. You can look at the average hourly rate they’ve been paying their freelancers.

One sort of “pro tip” that I guess I would give is that for any given job, you can see how many people have applied for it and how many people the client has started to interview for it.

ALEX: Oh, I see. Yeah.

BEN: So one warning sign for me might be… say a client who is new to Upwork has put a writing gig up. They want to pay $50 and you can see that they’re already interviewing eight people. And you think, “Well, hang on, at the very least they’re wasting seven peoples’ time!”

I mean, fair enough for the clients to fully vet who they’re going to take on, but by looking at all the different factors… how much money that client spent on Upwork before, how they’re tackling the interview process, how many people there speaking to already… can kind of…

If a job’s already been up there for three days and they’ve already started talking to 10 people, you’ve got to realise that that’s lowering your chances.

So, timing’s quite important there as well, because if you are looking at the most recent listings, you’re going to be one of the first people who applies for any given job.

ALEX: We talked about this before, that just because it’s freelance work, just because it’s online, you shouldn’t sort of throw out anything you wouldn’t do if you were going for a face-to-face job.

You check out the person that you’re attempting to work for; you look at the job. And actually it looks like you’ve got the ability, which you don’t normally have in real life, of finding out, until you turn up on the day, how many other people are going for it.

BEN: Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to do some work on this and there’s actually a huge module on this in the freelancing course that I’m working on at the moment.

That’s not plug. It’s not ready to plug yet!

ALEX: But I think you are allowed to plug your own stuff on your own podcast…

BEN: Okay, there’s a freelancing course coming, and one of the things that I do cover is just how much information is in the Upwork job listings. How much you can find out just by putting a critical eye over all the information that’s out there.

Over time you do develop a bit of a sense of whether you’re going to hit a client who is too demanding, whether you might actually be looking at something that looks too good, like a really high hourly rate for something that you don’t need experience for, or something like that. You can get a sense of “Hang on. That might be a scam…”

ALEX: So if you’ve got that cost, you said that you pay for connects… so that doesn’t necessarily mean when you get the work?

BEN: No, that does quite literally mean that you are paying to apply. It is a reason, and I suppose a fairly fair reason, why people might object to Upwork’s business model.

At the same time, I do think that if you go back, I don’t know, 25 years and you wanted to apply for a job, you would need a stamp to send in your resume! So you’d need to pay for the postage. So I think it’s such a nominal amount if you’re not willing to invest $10 a month…

ALEX: You know that’s not a bad way of looking at it. You know, if you’re thinking, you’ve got a book of stamps in front of you and you’ve got maybe 10 stamps, and that’s what you’re going to spend on applying for jobs on Upwork, then absolutely it makes a huge amount of sense to limit what you go for.

Maybe make a long list and then, before you actually hit the apply button, make sure that that’s something that (a) you want to do, and (b) that the person that you’re applying for is reputable, and, of course, (c) that you’ve got a fairly good chance of getting it.

BEN: Well, I think that’s the thing. I think it’s the reason Upwork introduced having to pay for connect. It was hugely controversial at the time. I wrote an article about it back then. Again, I’ll put that in the show notes.

What I was finding, because I’ve not only worked as a freelancer on Upwork, I’ve recruited on Upwork many, many times over the years…What you used to get before they were charging for connects was just boilerplate, copy and pasted applications from completely irrelevant applicants.

So I think by charging for connects… obviously Upwork is making a bunch more money out of it, and I’m sure if you add it up, it’s an awful lot of money… but at the same time it does improve the quality of the platform overall.

From a client’s point of view, they’re not going to get as many of those boilerplate applications if people actually have to pay to send them out. So it makes you more mindful of what you’re applying for, and it just generally raises the quality of the platform. And that, in turn, should mean that Upwork attracts more of these household name companies.

I’ve written an article about a deal Upwork did last year with a company that recruits freelancers for lots of big names. So they signed a contract with this company last year and I think that followed shortly on from them starting to charge for connects.

I’m very much of the mind that I don’t have a problem in investing in my own career, and I think a lot of these one star reviews are from people who are just unwilling to invest in themselves.

ALEX: People who spent a lot of money on stamps and didn’t get anyone writing back to them!

Yeah. I think that’s a really, really interesting point, actually because I know this from working with large companies.

The example of companies not having toll free numbers for customer services is something that causes a huge amount of complaints, or it certainly did when people switched. But actually, what you find is that you get – a very sad element of that is – sometimes you just get lonely people phoning up to have a chat with someone. Actually if it costs a little bit of money then it does cut that kind of thing out.

I suppose there is that quality control element to it. But, as you say, I suspect their main motivation was making a bit of extra money!

BEN: Yeah, of course. And I mean, it is easy to see how much more money they are making from it as well. But then the better Upwork is as a platform…

I think what Upwork could do, what they could improve on, is using some of that extra money to protect the freelancers a little better.

There’s going to be a lot of show notes for this podcast… but I have a couple of articles about Upwork scams and how to avoid them.

It is disappointing that scams still do run on Upwork.

ALEX: Tell us a little bit about that. Give us an example… rather than forcing everyone to read all these articles you’ve written!

BEN: Well, sure. So there was one which my wife actually came across.

It was a fairly generic writing gig. They said they were looking for a number of freelancers. The rate they quoted looked, not outrageous, but it looked very good – a very solid, decent rate. And you ended up having a Skype interview, a sort of instant message interview, with this client.

It would look like you’d been successful. And then they said, “Right, we’re sending you some information, a contract…” And they sent a ZIP file through your Skype. Basically, inside this ZIP file was just a key logger. So basically they were sending viruses…

ALEX: Wow!

BEN: All it really was was an identity theft kind of scam. They were using the prospect of people thinking that they had got some paid work as a way to hook people in.

Now what disappoints me is…I think, if you gave me half-an-hour on Upwork, scanning through job listings, I’m 99% confident I could find someone running exactly that same scam now.

ALEX: Wow.

BEN: I think so. I’m not going to just leave the podcast silent for half-an-hour while I try and prove I’m right!

These scams do happen and I do hear about them through our HomeWorkingClub Facebook group. I’ve had someone recently say, “I’ve come across this” and it’s like, “No, don’t go near that!”

I think it is a bit of a shame that Upwork aren’t working more proactively to keep the scammers off the platform. I do think that’s something that they can improve on.

ALEX: I think this is something we hear across, you know, things like eBay and various other companies, where they’re providing a marketplace. There is that kind of point of view…I think many companies are getting better at it…but there always used to be that case of like, “all we’re doing is connecting you guys. If you’re not looking after yourself then that’s not really our fault…

….You could walk down the street and get scammed. You could answer your door and get scammed. It’s not really our fault.”

Work from home jobs scams

There is some sympathy for that to a certain extent, because there is a service there. But, as you say, if you’re paying for that service, as a freelancer, then you would expect a little bit of protection and a little bit of that money to go towards helping you out.

BEN: I think so.

These scammers are preying on the beginners. The hardest thing about Upwork is getting your first two or three jobs because Upwork works on a feedback system, so you get up to five star feedback from each of the clients you do work for.

You mentioned eBay – it’s just like eBay. You will find when you sell your first few items on eBay, before you’ve got established feedback, you’re just not going to get as much for those items. It is exactly the same for selling your freelance services as a newcomer to Upwork.

When you’re in the early days, you’re desperate for those first few jobs. So, the scammy job adverts are tailored just so you think, “Oh, I’ve looked through 15 pages of potential gigs, and I finally found this one that looks like a good fit.” Well, essentially, you’ve just been fished in.

I think, after having been on there for years, you can see these things a lot further off. I’m not saying you become completely immune from the scams. You’ve still got to be careful.

But, I would say there are perhaps things that I would look at and think, “I’m not going near that one.” Where as a beginner you would be more easily sucked in. You’ve just got to be very diligent and very careful.

ALEX: I think that’s a really good point.

Actually, I think we dwell on the negatives a little bit too much, considering that our general conclusion is that Upwork IS worth it.

But I think, just to recap, it’s a really, really useful point… do your own due diligence on the people that you’re looking to apply for jobs with. Have a little look around. Make sure that you look at plenty of jobs before you start applying for them.

So, presumably it’s free to browse? You can look at as many as you like?

BEN: Yeah.

ALEX: So absolutely spend a bit of time doing it. Then, when you actually apply for those jobs, spend a lot of time on your application. Make sure that you’re there because it is a competitive market and that will help you succeed.

BEN: Yeah.

ALEX: What if you’re unsure about something, is there any support with Upwork? Or would you recommend going to the HomeWorkingClub Facebook group?

BEN: Well, I mean, the HomeWorkingClub private Facebook group. You’re more than welcome to send an application to join that, and it’s completely free. I’m more than happy for anyone to copy and paste a job and say, “What does this sound like?”

There’s not only me who responds, but other more experienced freelancers will respond too. So, yes, always happy to help people navigate these things in the early days.

I think, just learn the search facilities and just learn what every different bit does and what every different bit means.

I’ll see a job, for example, and I think “Right, well, I can see that that company’s already spent $50,000, more than $50,000, on freelancers.” There’s feedback on the clients as well, so you can see what people they’ve worked with have said.

You can see what they have paid people in the past, so you can tell whether they’re a client that pays a decent amount of money or a client that only wants to pay $2-3 an hour.

So just make sure that all of the stars are in alignment for the things that you do apply for and you won’t go far wrong.

ALEX: So, all of that aside.

Upwork: it’s global, everybody’s on there. There’s loads and loads of work on there from sort of small companies to large multinationals. There’s pretty much anything anybody can want for any level and within reason. Anything you can find for the work you’re looking for.

But, as in any walk of life…take care!

BEN: Yeah, absolutely. I think so. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to Upwork. I mean, I’m fortunate enough that most of my own freelance work comes from repeat clients I’ve been working for for ages.

But both my wife and I reached a point towards the end of last year where we were just like, you know, we could do with a little bit of extra work. And, I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, but…

I went onto Upwork one night, and I probably looked at 100 jobs. Again, ones that I’d search for quite specifically. I probably looked at about 100 opportunities, I applied for five, and I got three. I mean, that’s a good hit rate.

I think one statistic that I’ve seen before is that when you first start on Upwork you need to apply for about 40 before you get your first one.

ALEX: Is that Upwork saying that because they want the 15 cents a time?!

BEN: No, this was before they started to charge actually.

I don’t know whether that’s a bit too pessimistic, but do expect to have to refine your formula before you start getting almost everything that you apply for. Obviously, the closer the job is to what you can do and what you’ve got experience in…

Clients want a freelancer that is going to do exactly the work they want doing with minimal aggravation. And if you provide that for them, you will find clients on there.

There are people doing extremely well on Upwork. Six figures a year extremely well!

So I really, really wouldn’t dismiss it based on… people saying “Why you should never use Upwork, ever,” or who give you the one star reviews. I think it’s an awful shame that you’re then turning away an unlimited tap of new opportunities.

ALEX: Yes, I think that’s a brilliant way to wrap it up actually. Is there anything else specifically from Upwork? I mean, one tip I’ve also picked up from this is: don’t go on Upwork if Ben’s looking for work because he’s going to snaffle it all!

But, apart from avoiding competing with you, is there anything else that you want to say…

BEN: Well, one thing I should raise is that I did publish a big Upwork review. My wife actually wrote it. About 5000 words of Upwork review, which is on the site and I’ll put it in the show notes.

What I did find afterwards is quite a few people got in touch with me to say, “well, I’ve applied for Upwork and I didn’t get in.” They said they were oversubscribed, and I think it was specifically around them being oversubscribed with writers.

Sometimes it happens that you can be perfectly credible and have a perfectly decent resume, but Upwork basically hasn’t got room for new freelancers.

Now there’s two things I would say about that: The first is, when you do set up your Upwork profile, try to make yourself as unique as possible. So, if you’re a writer with healthcare experience or finance industry experience make sure that that’s highlighted. Make sure you’re giving them a reason why you’re an attractive person to be on there.

But also there are plenty of alternatives to Upwork. You’ve got PeoplePerHour; You’ve got Freelancer; You’ve got Hubstaff Talent, which is a much smaller one, but getting bigger. So, once again, in the show notes I’ve got a huge list of alternatives to Upwork.

Most of these platforms work in a very similar way. And all the tips I’ve given are still valid.

Don’t despair if you don’t get into Upwork. Don’t think you can’t give it another go further down the line when you’ve got a few more things in your portfolio, and stuff like that. You could just apply the same tips to PeoplePerHour or to Freelancer.com.

ALEX: So they’re very similar in that sense. As you said, the comparison with eBay, that it is a marketplace and you’ve got to watch out for exactly the same things.

Does Upwork suffer more from scams because it’s larger than any of the others?

BEN: I think that’s it. I think it’s just emerged as the biggest. I haven’t got a statistic to give you…

ALEX: That is most unlike you!

BEN: I know, I’m sorry… but I can say with an almost total degree of certainty that Upwork is the biggest and it’s just… that’s why the scammers go there. So yeah, it is a question of scale. There’s more decent work and there’s more scams.

Upwork would be the number one platform I would try to get on, just because there are more opportunities there… and I would say that both for me, my wife, and for a lot of people we know.

There are people that I first met via Upwork a decade ago that I still do work for now. So it’s not about that first $50 job that you get. It’s about what every one of those client relationships could turn into in the future.

ALEX: And obviously you want to maintain those client relationships so your fees get smaller.

BEN: Yeah!

ALEX: Good stuff.

In summary, we looked at Upwork’s mixed reputation. I wouldn’t want you to feel too negative about it, but it is important that we look at these things. Particularly, as Ben said, if you Google Upwork then you will see some fairly negative stuff.

We looked at some pros and cons and tips for using it well.

Just to recap: do your work, do your research. Make sure that you’ve got your CV in order. Make sure you’ve got your resume in order and that you look like somebody that people want to employ. And proceed with caution.

BEN: Yeah.

ALEX: Good stuff. Well, thank you very much, Ben.

BEN: Thank you!

ALEX: And I would say to you listening at home, or in the car, or wherever you are… if you give us a like and subscribe, share the podcast, or even, if you feel like it, write a review… it really does help other people find the podcast. And, of course, if it’s a positive review, it makes us feel warm and fluffy.

BEN: Oh, absolutely, it does. Yes.

ALEX: Thank you. Bye-bye.

BEN: Thanks very much.

IS Upwork worth it? What do YOU think? Let us know in the comments. 

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