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What is UpWork? Your guide to the biggest freelancing platform
If you’re interested in joining the gig economy and making money online, you may find yourself asking: what is Upwork?
Upwork is a freelancing site — a place for freelancers to advertise their skills and find work. It is one of the primary ways for freelancers to find clients, and more importantly, get paid. Upwork is among the biggest sites of its kind, making it the obvious starting point for many professionals. However, just because Upwork is the biggest, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best. Nor is it all that welcoming to newcomers.
Knowledge is your ally then. Here, we will take an in-depth look at Upwork: what it’s good for, what it’s not that great at, who should use it, and how to get started.
What is Upwork? The basics explained
Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) is the largest and perhaps best-known freelancing website around today, with over four million businesses on the platform. Its sheer size is one of the major draws that keep people coming back.
Upwork also boasts a highly comprehensive list of features. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, depending on your point of view and personal preferences.
Getting started with Upwork
So, what is Upwork like to work with? The best way to find out is to jump in and give it a try! To get started, you need to set up an account and detail your skills, background, qualifications, languages, and portfolio. The portfolio can include images of the work you’ve completed. You’ll need to verify your ID too.
Like LinkedIn, Upwork allows you to add a wide range of skills to your profile. You can also take online tests to verify these abilities. For example, if you are a programmer who claims to know Java, you can take a basic Java test as “proof.” You can also choose an hourly rate, although this will be negotiable.
Finding and completing work
Once everything is up and running, you can either wait for the clients to bite (the “build it and they will come approach”) or you can search for available work. Use the “submit a proposal” option to put yourself forward.
A proposal will cost you a set number of “Connects” (ranging from one to six). You have a limited number of these per month, though they are refunded if the project gets canceled. You don’t lose any Connects if the client contacts you either.
The Work Diary tool counts keystrokes and takes screenshots while you are working.
This process is helped by powerful filtering tools that show local jobs, recommended jobs, and “best matches.” You can also browse by category, or add your own advanced filters.
What is Upwork Work Diary?
If a client agrees to work with you, you’ll need to discuss your rate and timeframe. If you decide to go with the hourly rate, you may be asked to use the “Work Diary.” This tool counts keystrokes and takes screenshots (six times an hour) while you are working. The aim is to provide evidence of the time you spent on the project. Alternatively, you might agree to a fixed-price gig, in which case your work will be based on “milestones.”
Other features include built-in collaboration tools, messaging, scheduling for meetings, file transfer, a mobile app, and more.
Measures are taken to prevent emailing outside of the platform (which could otherwise be used to circumvent the fees). Built-in payment processing is convenient for many freelancers and also means you don’t get charged PayPal fees (although PayPal is optionally supported). Enterprise membership will grant you consolidated invoicing and billing too.
Finding the fee structure for freelancers is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Freelancers should expect to be charged 20% for the first $500 earned from each client, 10% for the subsequent $9,500, and 5% for anything above that amount.
As Upwork puts it:
“If you agree to a $1,000 price for a job with a new client, you’ll be billed 20% on the first $500 and 10% on the remaining $500.”
In other words: you will be charged $150 for a $1,000 job. That’s not insignificant! If you sign an hourly contract valued at $50 per hour, and you work for 400 hours, you will earn $20,000 minus $1,550.
Freelancers can also opt to upgrade to Plus membership at $14.99/month. This plan allows for more monthly Connects (80 rather than 10) and ensures that your profile is never hidden due to activity. You also get more comprehensive reports and functionality, as well as a custom URL, and the ability to view competitor bids. Serious freelancers should consider this option to ensure they are as competitive as possible.
For businesses, Upwork membership is completely free, but a 3% processing charge is added to transactions.
Clients can choose between Basic, Plus, or Enterprise membership. Basic membership is free. Plus membership costs $49.99/month. Enterprise memberships are considered on a case-by-case basis, and businesses are invited to get in touch to find out more. This is on top of the 3% processing charge.
Is Upwork worth it for freelancers?
Given these high fees, is Upwork worth the cost to freelancers? This is a personal question that each freelancer must answer for themselves. For me personally, the answer is no.
The fee structure clearly favors long-term contracts. If you work smaller jobs for multiple clients, there is a chance you will be paying a 20% commission on every single job. That’s on top of the optional Plus membership and the 3% processing fee that your clients will be paying (a consideration, as competition not found on Upwork will therefore cost the customer less).
This is restrictive for anyone choosing to enter the gig economy in order to gain more freedom and flexibility in how they work and who they work for. Even if you are happy working long-term contracts, the best-case scenario is that you give away 5-10% of your annual salary. Just think about what else you could spend that on!
Pros and cons
The biggest benefit of Upwork is, of course, the expansive range of clients. This is such a widely-used platform that you will find a broad range of businesses and jobs.
That said, Upwork is also a rather crowded market. It can be difficult to stand out – especially in the early days. I’ve known friends who spend months on the platform without landing a single gig.
More concerning is the amount of control that a freelancer is required to relinquish when using Upwork. The Work Diary is a perfect example of this. It means effectively being “watched” as you are working.
This won’t be an issue for everyone. Yet, as someone who likes to work sporadically throughout the day, and who likes to feel free to check Facebook every now and then, I find the Work Diary to be unpleasantly restrictive. It also removes any incentive to work more quickly. In short: if you are going to be tied to your desk, you may as well seek traditional employment! That’s my two cents anyway (two cents minus a 20% fee).
More concerning is the amount of control that a freelancer is required to relinquish when using Upwork.
Of course, there is no requirement to actually use the Work Diary. However, seeing as it is there and your competition will be using the tool, it will be much harder to make a case against it.
Why I don’t use Upwork
Similarly, freelancers may feel pressured to take numerous tests to demonstrate expertise on their profile. This can be a very time-consuming process. You can therefore expect to sink a lot of hours into simply managing Upwork before you necessarily see any returns.
Combine this with the rather-high fees and limited “Connect” system, and it seems apparent that Upwork is a tool that benefits the client more than the freelancer. Unfortunately, the large size means that many freelancers feel they have no option but to go this route.
Upwork vs the competition
So, what is Upwork best for?
Compared with other freelancing platforms, it’s common to find longer-term jobs and contracts. Upwork has been described as recruiting management software, after all. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Upwork is a great place to start. Conversely, if you are interested in more creative types of work, then you may do better. Fiverr is a great option for creatives.
Ask yourself whether the restrictions and fees are things you feel comfortable with. If not, another freelancing site may be more to your liking. We have a comparison of the top 9 freelance sites for finding paid work online that you should check out.
For example, PeoplePerHour is a lesser-known Upwork competitor with considerably lower fees. Toptal, meanwhile, is a site that aims to recruit only the most talented and highly decorated professionals – allowing you to charge much more if you are accepted.
PeoplePerHour is a lesser-known Upwork competitor with considerably lower fees.
Then there are sites like Rent a Coder for specific types of professionals (programmers in this case).
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with being listed on multiple different freelancing sites. You can keep a profile on Upwork, while also looking elsewhere.
Consider, too, that there are many other ways for freelancers to find clients. I strongly recommend creating your own website (and performing SEO), having a social media presence, and reaching out directly to brands you would like to worth with. This way, you maintain control over your own business. That is ultimately one of the biggest reasons to become a freelancer in the first place!
What is Upwork to you? Do you rely on it for gigs, or do you maintain an Upwork profile there just in case? Let us know in the comments down below!