Getting Started (and Succeeding) on Upwork

About 10 years ago, I started writing html/css for friends of mine, and slowly started branching out to getting paid gigs from contacts I had made during my time as a PowerSeller on eBay. It was pretty exciting to me to be able to do something that I loved for pay, without investing in inventory anymore! When I realized I could code full time, I knew I had to do something more than rely on sporadic paid contracts. That’s when I signed up for E-lance and oDesk (since then, merged and now called Upwork). Although I haven’t done any contract work in the last couple of years, I still have an Upwork profile.

My first project was for a fairly simple html/css site, for a design & development company in the UK. I was paid $15/hr for that project, and a number of projects that followed after that one from the same client. Granted, it was 10 years ago – but for two reasons I was okay with this pretty low hourly rate:

  • I was inexperienced!
  • I was new to Upwork and had no feedback
    (Coming from the eBay community, I recognized the impact social credibility has on consumer trust.)

After about 6 months, I increased my hourly rate to about $20. I continued reassessing my skill level every few months, increasing my rate as I grew as a developer. During that time, some of the contracts I had established went away as happy customers, while others stuck around for years. One of them eventually hired me as a full time software engineer – B-Stock Solutions, a fully funded, established Silicon Valley PaaS company.

My advice to people starting out on Upwork:

You will probably be paid less than what you think you are worth in the beginning – learn to be okay with this.

What you are earning when you start out as a contractor is both money and experience. While I do not suggest doing work for free in exchange for experience (unless it’s for a cause you believe in personally), I do suggest that there is a tremendous amount of value in gaining experience. It is an investment into your future – if you continue to grow as you work. Which leads to my next point

Apply for jobs that are slightly outside your comfort zone.

This sounds a little sketch, I know, but stick with me for a minute.
I started out basically knowing how to build html tables…yes, I was fairly clueless about web dev…but I knew wanted to learn. I knew I was excited to learn. I knew I would put in the time and energy to learn. And I knew I needed the opportunity to learn. You can only build so many to-do lists with node before you hit a plateau. You need to build real projects. By apply for jobs that are slightly out of your comfort zone, you commit to learning because you are under pressure of performing for a client, which dominoes into your reputation and reliability as it will be reflected in your feedback score – thus affecting any future potential. If you don’t thrive under pressure, maybe don’t follow this advice, but it definitely worked for me.

Remember that taking a job and getting it done doesn’t necessarily mean you are being paid the entire time you are working. Upwork has a desktop timer that you’re required to keep running as you work. This is what tracks your time, and the time you will be paid. I would often turn it off when I got stuck on something I would not have, had I been fully qualified for that task. I probably turned it off too much – but my integrity was more important to me than a few bucks. And again, that was an investment in my future self

(Thank you, past self for spending that time – it paid off!)

Spend time writing job applications – canned or generic applications end up in the trash.

Depending on how many contracts I had in, I would spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours every night searching for and writing proposals and highlighting what skills I had that would benefit the employer. Check your spelling. Check your grammar. Be detail oriented, because how you present yourself here is most important to getting the opportunity to do the job. Remember first impressions are important, and all you have are your words. Choose them carefully and skillfully!

Canned/generic applications end up in the trash – Now I am on the other side of the virtual table, hiring contractors from Upwork. Working for a successful company, I get a lot of applicants when I open up a position. I have to figure out a way to sift through the 100+ applications sitting in my inbox. Those that use generic proposals make my job easier because they go right to the trash.

Create and maintain a professional portfolio.

Spend time on this. Put projects you’ve worked on in your portfolio (if not under NDA). Summarize what your strengths are. Describe how you contributed to those projects you worked on as part of a team. If you don’t have assets you can share directly on your Upwork profile, link to your github in your profile. Add a professional looking headshot. You don’t need to get one done in a studio, just put on some nice clothes and fix your hair. Oh, and please don’t put up the pic your friend took of you drunk at the beach, or one where I can not not-notice your cleavage. Seriously though.

Provide great customer service!

This is not always easy. Some people are hard to please. I had several clients that were just plain difficult. In those cases, shoot for parting ways amicably – ultimately your feedback score will be carried with you for the long haul, so do what you can to get out of a bad situation in a way that harms no one, including yourself.

In my first few years as a contractor, I would make myself available almost 24/7. I was not on-call, but made it a priority to take care of my clients’ needs. If I got an email on Saturday morning at 7am with an emergency, chances are I’d have it resolved in a couple of hours – at the very least, I’d respond and say this is what I can do, and what you can expect. Transparency is important. Honesty, reliability, trust.

Stick with it.

It’s not always fun, and it is definitely not always easy. You will have long, stressful nights/weeks/contracts. It can also be extremely rewarding, if you put the work into building your satisfied client list, many of whom will keep coming back to you for more projects, or refer you to others they know that need work done. Keep at it, and keep growing!