The Truth About Upwork from a Top-Rated Freelancer

If every wannabe freelancer posting screengrabs of low-pay Upwork jobs spent that time the right way, they’d be rich.

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Upwork is nothing if not a conversation starter. Ask freelancers about their experiences with Upwork and my guess is you’ll hear some variation of the following:

“I tried it but I couldn’t find any quality work.”

“It’s fine for freelancers just starting out. Experienced freelancers, beware.”

“It’s a big shitty race to the bottom—stay away.”

Or, my favorite:

“Upwork is a scam.”

As a freelance content writer who’s completed 280+ contracts on Upwork, here’s my take.

Upwork might not suit you, but it isn’t a scam for freelancers

Look, to say Upwork is scam—or to categorically write it off as a waste of time—is like doing the same for freelancing altogether. In the end, the two are fundamentally the same. Upwork is one of many available channels through which freelancers can find work. And making it on the Upwork platform is a lot like making off the platform.

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. Some people quit before they reach value. There are no-good-very-bad clients, hagglers, and knuckleheads. You name it, I’ve come across it. To me, the real Upwork scam is the strange perception that the platform has engendered.

For some reason, some people think they can quickly establish themselves in a given channel and begin winning top-quality clientele—on Upwork, or elsewhere. Any experienced freelancer can tell you this is rarely the case.

But I get it—finding freelance clients can be difficult

Here’s what I think is happening:

Freelancers have a go on Upwork, fail to make it out of the gates, and then quit. At the conclusion of this harrowing tale, they conflate the obstacles they faced with the trappings of a scam, or a waste of a time. WHICH IS FINE. But why proceed to go tell the rest of the world that avoiding Upwork is a best practice?

If I followed that advice, I’d be out $100k+. I wouldn’t have the recurring clientele that I continue to work with (and bill!) every month. So maybe—just, maybe—the more balanced take is: as with anything in the freelance life, it takes time, persistence, and a willingness to learn to establish oneself on Upwork.

And just like any other lead pipeline for freelancers, Upwork is not without its flaws.

Yes, there’s 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 is as low as it gets. Is Upwork pulling a fast one? Are they squeezing more blood out of already downtrodden and struggling freelancers?

Yes, but I don’t really care.

The main reason I use Upwork is to gain access to clients I wouldn’t otherwise find (or to make it easy for them to find me). Once I land those clients, the contracts, communication, and even contract disputes are all handled 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 rate.

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 increase my rate until the fee is absorbed into a number that better reflects the value of my professional time. In other words: I charge what I’m worth as a writing professional, just as I do elsewhere.

And yes, there are low-ball clients

Check out this doozy I received after submitting an Upwork proposal a while back:

A screenshot of a low-ball I received for a writing project on Upwork. The client thinks I've bid too high for two paragraphs of writing, which "will take a good writer 30 minutes to do."

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 freelancers have seen before. A client who balks at your price, or criticizes it. Bargain hunters. People who don’t quite understand the time and effort that goes into quality work (or don’t care to).

In the “real world” of freelancing, these are the clients that experienced freelancers refuse to work with. 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, blog post, or case study.

If not, I consider it a bullet dodged, politely decline, and move on.

There’s also a heavy onus on the freelancer

If you take exception with the way Upwork weighs client feedback, I feel you. On Upwork, freelancers have something called a Job Success Score (JSS). As you 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%, as it appears prominently on your profile. 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 Upwork 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 its only source of freelance work, are none the worse for wear. They can just dip out and find their freelance work elsewhere.

This was probably the closest I got to turning in my card and joining the others howling scam on LinkedIn and Twitter. 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.

In the end, Upwork is just another 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. And you should too, if that’s your prerogative. For me, Upwork was my foot in the door. It was how I found my first paying gigs, really. Now, it’s something much more evolved.

Beyond Upwork, my business pipeline has expanded to include referrals, leads from social media, and organic website inquiries. Upwork is just one iron in the fire. As with any source of freelance work, it took me time to build the fire and get the iron hot.

7 Comments. Leave new

  • […] from Upwork, 52% of which are […]

  • Thanks so much for this post, Martin! I just started using Upwork in late Feb and surprised myself by the number of jobs/contracts I was able to earn – I’d never tried freelance writing in earnest before. It’s been a STEEP learning curve, but almost all of my clients have been wonderful and most have hired me for repeat work right away.

    My first client, however, was an issue, but even he left a fairly positive public review (over 4 stars). Lo and behold, my first Job Success Score comes out this week and it’s…69%! What!! Cue: panic mode. I had even contacted Upwork about this difficult client (while the review period was still open) as he’d made a number of really inappropriate comments (among other offenses)…and they did nothing. The irony is that you have to be Top Rated in order to request any feedback removal…even if the client is a full-on creep, LOL

    Being new, I also didn’t realize contracts with no money earned were a ding against you (I had one of those – didn’t get off the ground, but was a very positive interaction). Thanks for the reminder that you can recover from a low JSS (and to have other irons in the fire)! I’m definitely learning quickly how to choose the right contracts/clients!

    • I’m glad to hear you’ve had such early success on Upwork. Sounds like you’ll make Top Rated soon, at which point you can remove the creep from your profile. One possible explanation for the drop in your JSS: clients can leave PRIVATE feedback on each contract, too, which doesn’t always square with what they leave publicly (and which also influences your JSS). The same thing happened to me in the past and this was the explanation. You can definitely recover your JSS—just keep completing contracts with positive feedback. One thing you can do is ask a regular client to use new contracts for each new assignment (instead of milestones), as a means to accumulate five-star reviews. With regard to contracts with no money/no feedback earned, I think this influences JSS less now, though I don’t know for sure.

      Thanks for reading this post and taking the time to leave a comment. Let’s add each other on the Upwork networking feature—maybe I can refer some Upwork invitations that I receive but can’t fit in.

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