They take a cut, but offer little in return. What’s the catch?
Once upon a time
Freelancer, Upwork, Fiverr, and the like are the big cheeses in this ever-booming global industry of people who are trying to do honest work for honest pay. Since the wake of the internet it became apparent that the world now had a brand new, global playing field within which to strike deals and earn meals. So it comes as no surprise that the monopolizing spirit of consolidation swept the internet by storm and brought the formation of aggregate sites, that serve to bring freelancers and clients together, at a reasonable fee.
And how far we’ve come
Today, most of the giants have further consolidated: Elance and Odesk are now Upwork, redditors from various subs are flocking to “/r/forhire”, and it’s getting ever harder to find work if you go out of your way to avoid these monopolies. Granted, some are more innocent than others – Reddit is free.., but overall, you have to dance to the public tune, if you want the public to take you seriously. And that brings us to…
When in Rome
…do as the Romans do. Or in this case, get on Upwork, set up a profile and send out as many project bids as you can, until something sticks. They say that it’s a time tested formula, but really it’s just the consequence of having an oversaturated platform. It is mathematically impossible for all “proper” freelancers to find work on Upwork simultaneously, and that is simply because potential clients are few and far in between.
So it’s a competition?
Yes, and it’s cutthroat. You are trying to push other freelancers out while you wedge yourself in and hope to develop a working relationship with a client or two that will sustain you long enough so that you can find more work down the line. And there’s nothing wrong with competing, obviously, but when you’re the newcomer, it really doesn’t matter how talented or diligent you are – all that matters is who came first.
The freelancers that came before you have legacy, that’s why they get all the best jobs. To get any of the best jobs, you need a legacy. To get a legacy, you need jobs. To get jobs you need a legacy… and well, you get it. It’s a never ending circle that these platforms are very aware of, and if you consult with them on the issue they’ll tell you to accept minor contracts here and there – really, wherever you find them, in hopes of building your portfolio high enough to contend with the top contenders.
But it’s not that simple.
The devolution of Freelance Platforms
When these platforms were first conceived they were lucrative for everyone because word of mouth functions just as well among clients as it does among freelancers. There was never a set ratio of clients to freelancers, especially in the formative years. People simply flocked to these platforms to give them a shot. More often than not, these were people that had nothing to lose. After all, the platforms are free, even the ones that charge a percentage fee. So at that point, they were flames to the proverbial moth and making a killing. Clients got work done and freelancers got paid.
However, with gradual consolidation and exponential growth, the platforms hit an inevitable wall. In the virtual world, there are always going to be more workers than clients, per capita. This is a basic human law, derived from the fact that clients have to pay money, whereas freelancers aim to receive it. The funnel narrows in one direction.
This is how we arrived to current-year, confused and alone, grasping at any job thrown our way.
Is it hopeless?
Well I’m sure I built it up to sound like it is, but no, it’s not. It’s just mind numbingly difficult. You see, when you understand just how saturated the market is and how stacked the rules are (against your favor), you realize that the only way to make these platforms work for you is to bend their rules as far as they’ll go. They say you need to color within the lines when it comes to your portfolio, but the lines may very well include some eccentric descriptors.
Why be a “Freelance Content Writer” when you can be a “Literary Wizard and Marketing Spinmaster”? And the next time your bid makes it on the stack between 150 other freelancers, it’s sure to stick out. Now, I’m not saying it’ll land you the job – you still have to cover your bases and actually have something to show for your work. But in a sea of Jacks and Jills, you want to be a Nathaniel. Any amount of deviation from the norm, pushes you closer to a unique status.
It has been said before that freelance platforms actually serve to undermine individuality, as they lump all freelancers into a template. So you need to work twice as hard to be unique. Outside of these platforms, you would hunt for work with a personalized portfolio website, with samples of your work, pictures of your dogs and stories of your successes. Cram as much of that originality as you can into your Upwork or Freelancer profile and hope that it sticks.
After all, once you actually get a real client, your concern isn’t that you find another one, rather, it is that you keep the first one loyal and satisfied, for as long as possible. That’s how you win at freelancing, not by throwing bid-darts all over the place and hoping something sticks, but by building yourself up as a trustworthy, memorable individual, in an ever-growing environment of generic worker bees.