Getting Started on Upwork – Freelancing from Home

I have had several conversations recently with people who wanted to know how to get started doing freelance work. This is a little different to what I usually post about but I hope it’s useful if you want to access the global market as a freelancer.

My story

When I first decided I was going to offer my proofreading services to the big wide world, I went to the trouble of setting up a website and creating pages and pages of content which I hoped would attract the kinds of people who were willing to pay for my services.

This isn’t a bad strategy in itself, as long as you have the SEO expertise and marketing budget to get some exposure. Which I didn’t. So for months I kept adding content to no avail.

Then, one day, I had an enquiry from a customer. An actual, real live customer. A Russian guy who had developed a new matrix for calculating the most efficient way for engineers to repair and carry out maintenance on certain types of machinery. Just as riveting as it sounds.

He had written a paper about this matrix and wanted to get it published in a journal, but since he had relied mainly on Mr Google for his translation into English, his writing had been rejected. He needed a native English proofreader to fix it for him.

In the excitement of having a complete stranger who was willing to pay for my services, I didn’t think very carefully about how long it would take for me to interpret these pages of garbled scientific English and rearrange them into something more intelligible. The result was that I spent days agonising over the work in return for a rather small payment. But, it was a start.

Fortunately, soon after this I came across Upwork, an online freelancing platform. Here I was able to secure more jobs, gain experience, and become more confident setting rates I was happy with. I still have several long-term clients I work with via Upwork, and if work falls flat for a while I have it as a back-up to source more jobs.

So, here I’m going to share my experience with Upwork and offer my advice for anyone who wants to get clients on Upwork as a freelancer.

What is Upwork?

Upwork is like an employment agency without any middle men. Well, the middle men are there, and they take a cut of your payment, but they are invisible in the process.

Clients post jobs on the platform in a whole range of categories – from accounting to IT to architecture to translation. If it’s something you can do remotely, it’s probably covered. There are over 3,500 listed skills to choose from.

Freelancers set up profiles to showcase their skills, and with any luck you find a match. Over $1 billion of transactions take place on the site each year, so there is a lot of matching going on. Each job application requires a certain number of ‘connects’ (credits) – typically two. With a free membership you get 60 connects each month. You can upgrade to a paid membership to receive more connects and other benefits.

All work payments are handled by Upwork in a system which aims to protect both parties. The client pays up-front for the agreed project or milestone but the funds aren’t released to the freelancer until the delivered work has been approved. Any disputes are handled by Upwork (fortunately I don’t have any experience of this).

What I love about Upwork

The flexibility

A freelancing platform which allows you to pick and choose projects is great if, like me, you have to manage your workload around looking after your family and running a household. You only have to take on as much as you can manage, and you can take a break at any time.

There is a whole range of job types on the site. One might be a one-off project that takes half an hour, while the next might end up as long-term regular work. You can apply for the ones that suit you and ignore the ones that don’t.

The time tracker

With some jobs you will agree a fixed price with the client but with others you can charge an hourly rate. Upwork provides a desktop app you can use to track the time you spend on each project. This isn’t mandatory for fixed-price jobs but for most hourly jobs it is. I find this time tracker really useful because it keeps me so focused on the work I’m doing.

Upwork time tracker screenshot
Upwork’s time tracker shows your activity level in 10-minute blocks

The data recorded on the time tracker is very detailed. It captures a screenshot at random during every 10-minute period you work so the client can see exactly what you are working on. It also records your activity level based on the number of keyboard strokes and mouse movements every minute. So if you’re idle for five minutes but leave your time tracker on, the client can see this (if they analyse the reports in that much detail).

Knowing that my every move is being recorded in this way is a great motivator for me! If you leave your time tracker on by mistake (or it takes a screenshot just as you’re emailing your mum) you can delete blocks of time in 10-minute intervals before your timesheet is sent to the client.

Upwork freelance time tracker
The client can view your activity minute by minute

The payment methods

Some platforms like this only pay out via PayPal but Upwork offers five different payment methods. This means that you can get paid to any bank account in any country, although see my note below about fees.

The work levels

This is something that Upwork brought in relatively recently but I think it’s a great feature. All listed jobs show whether the client is looking for an entry-level ($), intermediate ($$), or expert ($$$) freelancer. This means freelancers who are just getting started on Upwork don’t waste their time applying for jobs with clients who want someone highly rated, and vice versa.

It also makes clients think about how much they are willing to pay; many see Upwork as a place to find cheap labour – which it may be – but they can’t expect to hire experienced, top-quality freelancers if they only want to pay the lowest rates.

The bits I don’t like so much

The fees

When I first joined there was a 10% flat fee applied to all the payments you received. They have since changed this to a tiered system, so the more work you do for one particular client, the lower the fee.

Amount Billed to Client Upwork Service Fee
Up to $500 20%
$501 – $10,000 10%
$10,001 and above 5%

This is great if you can secure ongoing work with one client, but it’s a big chunk to take out of your fee if you’re doing lots of one-off projects below the $500 mark.

Once you can afford to pick and choose the jobs you accept, you may want to stick to longer-term projects that will at least get you into the 10% bracket. If you’re lucky, they’ll keep going for long enough to get your fee down to 5%.

Delays in payments

After your work is approved, the payment moves to ‘pending’ status. It stays there for five days as a security period, apparently intended to allow time for processing of the payment from the client and resolution of any disputes. Once the money is released you can withdraw it immediately or set up an automatic weekly/fortnightly/monthly/quarterly payment schedule. Along with this, you can set a minimum amount to be paid out to help minimise fees. So, for example, I could set it to pay me every two weeks provided my balance has reached $500.

Realistically, you’ll be waiting at least a week after completing a job to receive your payment.

Payment processing fees

If you have a US bank account, withdrawals are free. With PayPal and Payoneer there is a $2 processing fee – no big deal.

If you withdraw funds to a local bank account in your local currency the fee is just $0.99 BUT the exchange rates are horrendous, as I learned the hard way. I actually emailed Upwork to complain about this because I recently lost about 5% of my payment due to the exchange rate applied. Their response was an annoying “our bank sets the exchange rates, blah blah blah”. Much as I had expected, but I told them they should put pressure on their bank to be more competitive.

The alternative for me was to set up a USD bank account locally. My bank offers a much more competitive exchange rate to transfer money from my USD account to my local currency account. BUT then the Upwork fee jumps to $30 for a wire transfer.

If you’re in a similar situation to me, you’ll need to think carefully about which method is best for you and plan your payments so you lose as little as possible. It sucks, given that you’ve already lost between 5% and 20% to Upwork fees, but it’s just the way it works.

Getting started on Upwork

Your first step will be to create a profile as a freelancer on Upwork. You can then browse available jobs that match your skills.

As you complete jobs, clients leave feedback for you consisting of a star rating (1-5 stars) and optional comments. You get to do the same for clients. This feedback is visible on your profile for other potential clients to view.

Your biggest obstacle when you first start out is that you’re in competition with other freelancers who already have an established reputation with feedback from other clients. The feedback system works in your favour once you have completed some work, but when you’re just getting started on Upwork it can be a real struggle to get a client to choose you.

My advice for overcoming this is to sell yourself on price at first. This might mean doing work for well below your ideal rates, but it won’t be forever. If you can successfully complete just a few small jobs and get five-star feedback, you’ll be in a much stronger position to increase your rates on future bids.

Also stick to clients searching for entry-level ($) freelancers until you have earned yourself a good reputation. You’ll be wasting your time – and connects – if you apply for expert ($$$) jobs when you have no work history or feedback.

Making your profile stand out

Until you start earning some feedback, there are two things that will convince a client to work with you: your profile and your cover letter. It’s worth taking the time to make both of these as strong as possible.

Here are some pointers for completing your Upwork profile:

Add a photo and as much information as possible

The system will tell you what percentage of the way you are to making your profile complete. Incomplete profiles won’t show up as high in the search results for clients. Having a photo adds a personal touch and goes some way to showing you are who you say you are.

Do some relevant tests

Upwork has almost 300 tests you can take in areas relevant to your skills. If you’re lacking in experience, these are a good way to demonstrate you have the skills for the job. Your results will show which percentile you fall into compared to other Upwork freelancers for that particular skill. These tests take 15-20 minutes each to complete, so you will have to invest some time in them.

Getting started on Upwork
Upwork tests let you prove your expertise when you are new to the platform

If you don’t get a great score, you can hide it from your profile and re-take it after a certain period of time.

Provide examples and case studies

Link to any relevant work you have previously done outside of Upwork, provided you have the client’s permission. This shows prospective clients that you have experience even though you’re new to Upwork. You can also attach files to your profile, and I recommend including a couple of case studies of your past work. These should contain a summary of the project and a testimonial from the client.

Be specific about your skills and how you add value

Given the size of the platform, you can afford to be specific about the type of work you do. Mention the precise areas you have experience in, since anything you write in your profile will be used by the search engine to match you to suitable jobs. In my view, it’s better to be a really great match for just a few jobs than an okay match for lots of jobs.

Refine your profile as you gain experience

Don’t just create a profile and then forget about it. As you complete different jobs your range of experience will grow, and you should update your profile to reflect this. You may also find there are certain services you no longer wish to offer for whatever reason. Make sure your profile is a current reflection of your skills, expertise and availability.

Applying for jobs

When it comes to applying for a job, you submit a cover letter which the client can view along with your profile. They may ask you to answer specific questions as part of this. You also have the option to attach files to your application.

Determining your suitability

Remember that every job you apply for depletes your connects balance, so you want to be fairly selective. Before applying, you should check:

  • Expertise rating: Remember to apply for a job that matches your skill and experience level. Even if you have a ton of experience outside of Upwork, if you’re new to the platform you’ll probably need to start with some entry-level jobs.
  • Budget: Clients don’t always include this, and sometimes it’s not clear what amount of work the proposed budget covers. Where they have stated a rate, make sure you’re happy with it. If not, leave the job to someone who is willing to work for less. The exception, as I mentioned above, is when you’re just starting out on Upwork. It’s worth offering lower rates to secure your first few jobs while you build up some feedback on your profile.
  • Availability requirements: This is fairly self-explanatory, but if a client needs someone for 20 hours a week and you’re only available for 10, it’s not the job for you.
    If they need a report by Tuesday but you can’t work on it until Wednesday, don’t bother.
    Also consider your time zone. Sometimes clients will specify that they want a freelancer in a particular time zone. Again, if you don’t meet this requirement, there isn’t much point in applying.

Submitting a proposal

If you seem like a good match for the job, it’s time to write your cover letter. Avoid copying and pasting standard text as it will probably be obvious you have done this.

In your first sentence or two, include something specific to the job which shows you have read the description and are sending a personalised application.

Sometimes clients even include an instruction in the job description to show you have read it, for instance “Start your cover letter with the word ‘banana’”.

Here are some other things to consider:

Briefly introduce yourself

Don’t include all the information that’s in your profile, but repeat some of it. Because my profile shows I’m in Indonesia, I always begin by explaining that I’m from the UK but live in Indonesia – especially as the jobs I apply for usually require a native speaker.

Admit that you’re new

If you don’t have a great Upwork rating yet, don’t gloss over this fact but instead draw attention to other work you have done by providing links, case studies, etc. You might write something like:

“Although I’m new to Upwork, I have … years’ experience in … . You can view some examples of my work at … / I have attached two case studies with examples of my work.”

If possible, point out ways in which your past work is similar to the job you’re applying for.

Show what makes you different

If there are things that make you a perfect match for the job, be sure to highlight them. Perhaps you have worked on a similar project in the past. It might be that you are in the same time zone as the client, or you speak the same language as them. Even if the job has nothing to do with your language skills, the fact that you can communicate clearly with them will be a big bonus.

Don’t assume that the client will scour your profile to find these details – they may have 50 or more applications to sift through. Sell yourself in your cover letter, even if it means stating the obvious.

Look for ways you can add value

Could you add skills beyond what the client has requested in the job posting? It’s worth mentioning these as they may open up opportunities in the future.

If appropriate, provide some feedback based on the information provided. For example, if the client has linked to their website, you could comment on the design or copy (if relevant to the job).

If you would do something differently to the way they have proposed it in the job description, say so. This is just another way to highlight how your expertise can help them. And if they are stuck on their way of doing things, they might not be the kind of client you want to work with, anyway.

Also state your availability and give an idea of how quickly you could complete the work, and how you would go about it. Showing that you have put this much thought into it is another way to make yourself stand out from other candidates.

Receiving invitations

Clients can browse freelancers just as freelancers can browse for jobs. If they find one they like the look of, they can send them an invitation to apply for a particular job. More often than not I find that these aren’t suitable – either because they aren’t a good match for my skills or because the proposed rate is too low. But occasionally a good one comes along. If you decline the interview you are asked to select a reason from a list. As far as I’m aware, there is no penalty for declining these as long as you do it within 24 hours of receiving the invitation.

You can also view a client’s feedback from past freelancers. It’s a good idea to check this and steer clear of any who seem to be particularly difficult to work with.

Getting Top Rated

The holy grail of Upwork is Top Rated status, which comes with a number of benefits. Most notably, you get a badge on your profile which shows clients you are one of the best. You will also receive more invitations to submit proposals for jobs.

There are various criteria you must meet in order to achieve this status, including:

  • 100% complete profile
  • A job success score of 90% or higher (this comes from completing jobs you accept and receiving good feedback) maintained for at least 13 out of the last 16 weeks
  • Earnings of at least $1,000 in the past 12 months
  • Activity on the platform in the last 90 days

If you’re actively searching for jobs and completing work to a high standard, you should find you reach this status within a few months. Read more here about how to achieve Top Rated status as a freelancer on Upwork.

Keep an open mind

I hope by now you’re feeling more confident about getting started on Upwork and finding your first paying clients.

My final tip is to stay open-minded about the kinds of jobs you take on. There may be projects on there that you can do even though they don’t fall into your preferred field of work. For example, one job I did involved making voice recordings to improve a search engine’s voice search function. The only requirement was that I had a British accent. It wasn’t the most fulfilling job but it added to my Upwork experience.

So you might be surprised at the things people are willing to pay you for.

If you have success on Upwork after reading this post, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll try to help.

Happy freelancing!

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