Finding professional freelance gigs online can seem like a lost cause.
Some professionals are making 6 figures freelancing.
Even more unbelievably some are making 6 figures on UpWork.
I decided to see if I could make real money on the platform for myself.
In this step by step guide I will walk you through how I went from making a few hundred dollars to $7,645 in less than 2 months (and I just broke $10k!) – on UpWork!
Don’t care about my story? Jump to the guide
My story & why I tried UpWork
I’m a professional WordPress & marketing consultant based in New York City.
I had used UpWork (when it was Elance) successfully as a client for a few projects.
Despite hearing that UpWork was a terrible place for U.S. based freelancers, I kept coming across high earnings profiles of western freelancers demonstrating otherwise.
In early 2017 I had some local client projects fall through and was waiting for some other leads to sign on the dotted line. I had more time than money.
I figured, why not take a few hours a week to experiment with new ways to find clients. After a little more research, one channel I chose was UpWork.
The first month, I set up my portfolio, wrote up a nice profile, and sent 30 pitches. I won a job and made a little over $1,000 working a few hours a week.
Then I got busier with regular client (not UpWork) projects but kept sending out pitches to quality job postings tracking them all in my CRM.
Over the next 10 months I sent a total of 109 pitches, was interviewed 20 times, and closed 3 new jobs.
That made me an additional $2,000 but nothing to write brag about. I got 2 positive reviews and one so-so review.
I also stayed active politely declining job invites, flagging inappropriate offers.
That was it.
Until December 2017.
What Changed? The UpWork Activity Algorithm
Before You Begin
1. Be really good at what you do
Be good at what you do.
The way UpWork scores freelancers is hidden to avoid manipulation. One thing to tank you from the beginning is starting with bad reviews from unhappy clients.
In their user guide UpWork warns you that a success rate below 50% means you may fail to find work at all.
The success rate is arbitrary and mine is 40% (I still get lots of work invites – more on that later) but it’s not worth the risk.
Before I joined UpWork, I had a had an existing portfolio, years of experience, professional certifications, and great online presence (Google ‘Victor Ramirez WordPress’).
If you’re not ready, do some work offline where you can mess up and not be punished for it.
2. Know how to sell what you do
If you can’t confidently explain what you do there is no reason for anyone to hire you.
Many of the clients on UpWork are new to working with people online themselves.
You need to know how to communicate your services & value. This means knowing what language & keywords they use when looking to hire someone like you. It also means knowing how to communicate professionally via chat & video.
Your clients will thank you for it – literally & financially.
3. Know your minimum rate for what you do
You cannot compete against people charging $5 an hour and you won’t have to.
Here’s the deal:
Smart clients are willing to pay a premium for quality freelancers communicating in their own language.
To calculate your hourly rate use this simple formula below.
[ (Desired Salary + Costs) / 1,250 ] + 15 %
Here is how I determined my rate:
[ ($80,000 + $10,000) / 1,250 ] + 15 % = $82 / hour
Let’s break it down:
The salary is what you need to live comfortably in your geographic area. For example, I live in New York City and need $80,000 to live alone in a decent area.
The costs are you annual business costs such as laptop, software, etc
1,250 is assuming you work 25 hours a week for 50 weeks. There are 52 weeks in a year. You do plan to take at least a 2 week vacation, right?
25 hours is client billed work. That doesn’t mean you get to sit around the other 15 hours. You’ll spend that time training or pitching new work.
The final 15% is the average fee UpWork charges for using their platform.
I’ll tell you how to get your fee down to 5% like me later.
4. Know your competitors rates & why you charge more
Like I said before, you cannot compete against people charging $5 an hour and you don’t have to.
If you’re in the United States, you’ve got it made. One of UpWork’s latest features is a button that says, “U.S. Only” when clients look for freelancers.
Your services should be priced in comparison to freelancers with a similar skillset in your geographic location.
To do your research, you will need an UpWork client account. If you have clients outside of UpWork, you should have one. If you don’t, create one.
Log into the UpWork dashboard as a client and search for the person you want to be.
In my case, I would search for “WordPress Developer,” “WordPress Marketing,” “Landing Page Designer,” or something similar and they are located in the United States.
During my initial research I could see that the low end was $25 and the high end was $160. My $82 an hour calculated rate from before means I am somewhere in between.
How do you increase your rates?
When you begin getting great reviews & feedback you will be in demand. Then you can raise your rates.
You can also raise your rates by knowing how to position your work as the perfect solution to their problems.
Later on, I’ll show some actual conversations where I did just that.
5. Have realistic expectations & don’t rely on UpWork
There is a saying – never build on borrowed land.
UpWork has no obligation to keep you or your clients happy. They are a private company and can change their terms of service whenever they like.
With that in mind, use UpWork to get regular work and grow as a freelancer. But also be finding regular work during those prescribed 15 hours as I mentioned above.
Tips for a High Performing Profile
I am not going to dive down into the nitty gritty of setting up your profile and how to send a pitch step by step.
There are better guides for that.
Additionally, you should have this stuff already if you’re great at what you do.
I’m going to walk you through the tips & tricks I believe are making the difference that get me 1 awesome job invite a week over the last 8 weeks.
1. Know Your Profile Keywords
You profile needs to be niched to a specific job.
This does not mean you can’t offer other services once you win the client. There is the work that you sell and the work that you do. [INSERT NEWFANGLED LINK]
Focus on the work that you sell really well.
Pick the keywords for that job & all related keywords. For me that job is landing page design & development for WordPress, Hubspot, Marketo, etc.
Everything else I discuss on my profile is to reinforce that I’m the right guy for the job.
2. Fill Out Everything!
Have a complete profile. Do not leave a single field blank. It may seem redundant but every section is the ability to add keywords to your profile.
If you visit my profile, I worked my target keywords into my portfolio, employment history, education, and other experiences.
3. Use Great Copy in the Right Places
If you haven’t studied copywriting that’s okay.
Learn from this:
The goal of the headline is to get you to read the first line of the paragraph. The goal of the first line of the paragraph is to get you to read the rest of the paragraph and so on…
What does that mean?
Your job title & the first sentence of your profile should be something you would click searching for the person you want to be.
Look at my profile headline. I clearly state my skills & differentiate myself.
4. Have a Great Portfolio
These do not have to be detailed case studies but they should be recent, relevant to your desired jobs, and have related keywords.
Also be sure to add image captions! Every caption is an opportunity to sell your services to prospective clients.
It’s also an opportunity to add a keyword to have your profile found in search.
5. The Real Test is Availability & Response Time
I do not think tests matter at all which is why I didn’t give them their own section. They matter so little that in client mode you do not see it as a priority search filter.
What does matter is your availability & response time.
From a psychological standpoint I think you should only set your availability to less than 30 hours a week.
If you’re available all the time you must not be doing well at all. If you’re not available you won’t get any work at all.
If you’re available as needed you probably are too busy to help out if your client loves what you do.
Less than 30 hours a week says, “I’m busy but I can make time for you as needed.”
Right next to your availability is a metric called, “response time.”
As I said before about the algorithm, UpWork rewards you for being available and responsive. Even if your responses are only rejecting terrible invitations to interview.
Finding & Pitching Jobs
Dealing with Invitations
Negotiating the Job
Learn from My Mistakes
1. Do not work for less than your calculated rate
To get my first job, I accepted work for way less than my calculated rate of $82 an hour. It was an experiment. I didn’t care. I did some quick website updates for $35 an hour.
That was a terrible idea.
There is no way to hide your previous work on the UpWork platform. That meant every client that viewed my profile saw that I worked for $35 an hour.
Every single job I was invited to after the first job was shocked that I was asking for more than twice that.
It took me a lot more conversations to finally find a great client who read my pitch & understood the value of my services.
After 2 successful jobs together and his great reviews, my UpWork game was finally back on track.
2. Have an ending to every project
As a freelancer, having a clear ending to every project is just good advice for getting paid. When the work is complete it is done and you can walk away.
An end goal for every project on UpWork is even more important.
UpWork’s primary success metric for freelancers is their job score. Unfortunately, the algorithm that determines this number is hidden. It drives most freelancers on the platform insane.
The only way to keep this score high is to have regular reviews from clients that hire you and re-hire you again.
The problem is that if a client gives you regular work every week without ending a job you get no reviews. That causes your job success score to plummet.
My score is at a pathetic 40%.
I still get hired based on other trust signals on my account. But, I’m in the process of getting clients to work with me on a project by project basis and leave regular feedback.
3. Do not form an agency – until you have enough happy clients
UpWork has accounts for agencies, as well.
When I started my UpWork experiment I was interested in the idea of finding a small set of clients to service via the UpWork agency program.
Back to my 40% success rating.
Your agency has a success rating too.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that as the agency manager my agency’s success score would override my personal score. All my great personal feedback wouldn’t help my agency.
I should have waited.
Before you form an agency make sure you are busy and in demand. If you’re doing great work, your clients will be more than happy to let you offload some minor tasks to other freelancers via your agency.
It’s Your Turn
Really helpful information – especially about setting up an agency. I use Upwork to fill in these days, and your tips will definitely help!
Looking forward to the updated article
This is GOLD. I appreciate you sharing all your thoughts and experiments on this blog post. I was about to give up on working on Upwork and just get a local job. I can’t wait for the updated article.
Victor M Ramirez, a big thank you for this post on Upwork. One of my biggest challenges is finding clients as I live in a remote location. Anyway, I followed your advice to the letter and in less than a week secured my first job!
Victor, a friend of mine just finished school for software development and I mentioned to him your success on UpWork. He got his first gig there today and it was a success. I’m sharing this post with him now and I’m sure he’ll benefit from all your tips.
That means so much to me Cami that you found this article valuable enough to share! Thanks
Would love to know how to get the upwork fee from 20 % down to 5%!!
Hey, Christie. Once you earn $500 with a client the fees go down to 10%. After $10,000 the fees go down to 5% for the lifetime of that client. It incentivizes long-term relationships.
Thanks! I hadn’t considered how important response time was. These points are going to help me out considerably. It was worth the time to read!
How do you avoid scams on/through Upwork? One day in 2011, I came across Elance and, after completing my profile, submitted some proposals for medical and insurance transcription (I have more than 30 years’ experience as a legal secretary in the field of insurance defense, as well as being certified in medical terminology and have concurrently worked performing medical transcription). In fact, I am the top producer of transcripts for the company I have been working with for several years. After spending about seven hours on all the projects combined (each was a separate “employer”), my work was rejected as not up to quality and I never got paid for any of the work. Fast-forward to last week, my roommate just had the same thing happen to her with the two “employers” she spent more than 30 hours working on their assignments. And these “companies” are now not searchable on Upwork. Given my experience, I don’t know how Upwork is allowed to be in business.
For new clients I only do hourly work with a clear start and end.
I also try to limit to 10 hours total for the 1st 2 weeks to avoid non-payment.
I also clearly scope the goal. 5-10 hours for wireframing the page. If they’re not happy after first 10 hours I part ways but still get paid.
Thank you for writing this…great content! Just FYI, it looks like the person this site (https://www.reginaldchan.net/upwork-freelancing-guide/) stole almost your entire article and added a few things in.
Boo. That’s the internet for you. Glad you enjoyed it.
Victor, thank you for the great article 🙂
I loved your point about knowing your keywords and selecting a very specific niche to work on.
When I started on Upwork, I selected a very specific niche – chrome extensions.
There were thousands of web developers, hundreds of chrome extension developers, so I intentionally misspelled the keywords in my profile – I became a chrome extensions developer ( with an s ) 🙂
That allowed me to land my first client, who was searching for that exact term 🙂
Very cool. Love hearing stories like this!
This is really good. I saw you at WordCamp Phoenix and I really enjoyed your talk, which brought me here. This is great advice.
Thanks, Dan! I really hope they release those videos. That was a fun talk.