The word Upwork is like catnip. Mention it in your favorite copywriter support group and watch the comments stream in.
Everyone has an opinion.
Inevitably, there are some who view Upwork as an outright scam. And holy smokes, do they make their opinions known.
One problem, though. Calling Upwork a scam is like calling freelance writing a scam. How is making it on the Upwork platform any different than making it out in the wild world of freelance writing?
You decide to do it. You set objectives. You try, fail, figure it out, and refine. Mistakes happen in both worlds. Money is lost in both worlds. And bad clients? Hell yes, they happen in both worlds.
So, what gives?
Is Upwork a scam? No, but certain parts can seem like it
Here’s what I think is happening.
Freelance writers are having a go on platforms like Upwork, failing to make it out of the gates, and then quitting too soon. At the conclusion of this harrowing tale, they conflate obstacles to finding success on Upwork (trouble finding clients, failing to make any money) with the trappings of a scam.
But what endeavor in a freelancer’s life—on-platform or off-platform—clicked into place straightaway? Most freelance writers who’ve figured out how to make their keep on a recurring basis started small. They’ve dealt with shady clients, low paying jobs, and the slow hike up a mountain whose conditions favor experience, connections, and business savvy.
The experience on Upwork is no different. And though the following three areas might make the platform seem like a scam, they’re not terribly different from issues freelancers deal with every day.
The contract fee
Upwork takes a percentage of all work done on the platform. The fee starts at 20% and decreases as the total value of the contract size increases. Five percent, if I’m not mistaken, is as low as it gets.
Is Upwork pulling a fast one? Are they squeezing more blood out of already downtrodden and struggling freelancers?
Here’s why: the main reason I use Upwork is to have access to a constant pool of clients (or make it easy for them to find me). Once I land those clients, listings, communication, and even contract disputes are all completed in one gated space.
This I like. This I’m willing to pay a fee for.
But the fee is something I rarely think about, because here’s a little secret:
I factor the fee into my bids.
If I multiply the client’s stated budget by the Upwork fee and can’t stand the hideous number I see, I change it. I up my rate until the fee is absorbed into a number that better reflects the value of my professional time.
Charging what we’re worth as professionals …
Check out this doozy I received after submitting an Upwork proposal a while back:
To be honest, this happens a lot on the Upwork platform. I can see why this is one of the most common objections to using Upwork. It’s also something that most freelance copywriters have seen before.
The low-ball client. Bargain hunters. People who don’t quite understand the time and effort that goes into quality copywriting (or don’t care to).
Thing is, in the “real world” of freelancing, these are the clients that experienced freelancers refuse to work with (or refer to someone they really dislike).
This is why I always bid on Upwork projects based on my rates, no matter what the client lists as their project price. If they want to pay my rate, great—then we’ll be on the same page and I’ll be fairly compensated for all the “stuff” that goes into that website copy, that brochure, that weekly blog.
If not, I consider it a bullet dodged, politely decline, and move on.
The heavy onus on the freelancer
There is one complaint I rarely hear from the “Upwork is a scam” folks, but it’s the one that irks me most. It’s the way Upwork weighs client feedback, which is in many ways biased against the freelancer.
Let me explain.
On Upwork, freelancers have something called a Job Success Score (JSS). As freelancers complete jobs, this score changes based on metrics like client feedback, jobs completed vs. jobs abandoned, etc. The idea is to keep this number above 90%, earn more than $1,000, and earn Top Rated Status. A bad contract, a poor score—these can send a JSS off the rails.
And it takes a long time to climb back.
An example from my own adventures. I was a Top Rated freelancer with a 94% JSS Score when my score unexpectedly dipped below 90%. Business flagged and I had trouble winning clients.
My eyelid started twitching.
On face value, my profile was in order. No bad feedback. Nothing I could point to that created the spike. When I followed up with Upwork support, they threw their hands up. What I later found out is that clients can hide feedback from freelancers. The client can smile to your face and leave bad feedback under the veil of anonymity.
And it’s usually the freelancer that suffers.
Yes, you can dispute bad jobs. If the dispute is valid, Upwork will review it and, in some cases, make things right. But they won’t adjust profile ratings, and they’ll do little to help freelancers recover from a dip in their JSS. The client, unless Upwork is it’s only source of freelance work, are none the worse for wear. They can just dip out and find their freelance work elsewhere.
There’s no shortage of it.
This was probably the closest I got to turning in my card and joining the others howling scam on LinkedIn and Facebook. Instead, I got back on my chestnut and slowly rebuilt my score.
I did the very same thing I would do to recover from a bad client experience out in non-Upworklandia.
Just one iron in the fire
The fees, low paying jobs, and bias against the freelancer—if these are the core elements of a scam, then the entire ecosystem I depend on to make money as a freelancer writer is a scam. Hopefully, my explanation and strategies provide a little more context to the Upwork conversation. If not, that’s okay, too: I will continue using and profiting from the Upwork platform, either way.
It’s just one iron in the fire.