My first few months on Upwork (Elance) were a disaster. I wasted a lot of time bidding on dead-end or low-payout jobs, working with horrible clients and making much less than I wanted (read: needed).
About a year later, I was doing well enough to leave Upwork forever and get all my clients through repeat business, referrals and my own website… charging what I wanted and clients seeking me out.
I’m not special or overly smart. I just figured out how Upwork works and changed some simple things about my approach and it made all the difference.
Anybody can do this. If you’re struggling on Upwork or would simply like more from your effort, then study this page closely. I’m going to share what I learned.
Step #1: De-Mystify Upwork
Upwork seems to confuse a lot of freelancers. They think it’s this overtly complex system with convoluted goals and impossible for newbies to break into.
Upwork’s goals are simple: connect the best clients with the best freelancers (for their project)… profit.
Trust is the most important currency on Upwork and every feature, algorithm and best practice is designed to increase the trust potential clients have in a) the freelancer they hire and b) as a result Upwork itself.
They want to be the go-to network for hiring the best freelancers.
So, the two most important things for you to focus on with Upwork is:
- Building your credibility
- Being relevant
You build your credibility by having a killer portfolio, looking professional in your photo, communicating fully and clearly in your bios and descriptions, taking relevant tests, having a long, successful job history, getting 5-star ratings, good client testimonials, etc.
There’s no trick or gimmick to get around this. You have to put in the work, wow your clients and do a good job.
So, does every other freelance developer on Upwork. And frankly, most clients don’t even know what those languages really are or what they mean.
The words you use are critical. You should be saying things like…
“I specialize in building membership sites.”
“I’m a user-friendly forms expert”.
“I build the best e-commerce sites on the web.”
Those phrases are specific to the end result a client is after… and clients actually understand what they mean.
Once you get this about Upwork, you can start to see how you need to rework your profile and your entire strategy to maximize your opportunity to get hired. But, we’ll get more specific…
Step #2: Research and Craft Your Brand
Now that you know how Upwork operates, it should be obvious that the first thing you need to do is hone your pitch to attract and convince your most ideal clients.
That is, you need to know:
- What end result can I give my clients?
- Who wants that end result the most?
- What do they need to see to believe I can do it for them?
This takes research and a little bit of soul-searching. First you need to uncover your niche. Your niche is that perfect space in the market where you can do what you do best and others will pay you handsomely to do it for them.
You uncover that niche by accurately answering these questions:
- What do I love to do?
- That I’m great (or willing to work to be great) at?
- That others will pay me for?
If you’re honest with those questions, you will get a much clearer picture of the value you have to offer and exactly what you should be doing.
From there, you need to research your ideal client. Who are they? What is their life like? What are their hopes and dreams? What’s their ideal scenario? Where to they hang out online?
Everything you can uncover about them to know them intimately…. better than they know themselves.
So, you can accurately implement the last part which is to craft a brand that naturally appeals to your most ideal clients and messaging you know speaks to them and will convince them you are the man/woman for their job.
Step #3: Build Your Profile
Now armed with an attractive brand and loads of intel on your ideal clients, building your profile is a cinch.
- You know how to get their attention.
- You know exactly what your ideal clients want to hear.
- You know exactly what matters to them.
- You know exaclty how to speak to them.
- You know exactly what portfolio items will appeal to them.
- You know exactly what testimonials will influence them.
- You know exactly what tests they’ll check for.
The keys here are simple:
- Fill out your entire profile in fine detail
- Make your entire profile relevant to the specific niche you’re targeting
You’d be surprised how many freelancers who contact me asking what’s wrong with their profile… and when I check it’s only half or three-quarters filled out.
Look at that from the client’s perspective. If you’ll half-ass your own profile what makes me think you won’t half-ass my project?
Also, be relevant. Everything on your profile should speak to the specific niche you’re targeting. If you’re a forms-builder… then the only items in your portfolio should be forms you’ve built.
Nothing less. Nothing more.
Step #4: Win Job Bids
A great profile will help you to show up in the search results when clients search for freelancers related to their project. And, you’ll get invites to bid on jobs as a result.
Also (especially at first) you’ll want to search for jobs pro-actively and bid on the ones relevant to what you do.
To win the bid, you need to do these things (in this order):
- Verify it’s a real job (unfortunately, there’s a lot of riff-raff)
- Get the attention of the job poster
- Get them to trust you
- Get them to decide for themselves you’re their best bet
- Get them to act now using scarcity
- Blow them away and make them never want to hire anyone else and say all kinds of great things about you
Before I get into the details of this… know this… the way you succeed on Upwork (or anywhere else) is through repeat business and referrals. So, 100x more important than the other 5… #6 is above is where 99.9% of your focus should be.
Everything else is pointless unless you’re doing #6.
That said, clients do need to go through a fairly standard emotional process in order to hire you.
First, you need their attention. The key phrase here is: “stick out in a good way”. I’ve found the most fail-safe way to do that is to simply be overly helpful.
In my job bids… instead of telling them all the reasons I’m awesome and why they should hire me, I would just try and help them a little bit.
Give them info, point out anything I saw could be a problem with their bid (in a nice way), answer questions and so forth.
Yes… some clients would take advantage of me. But, the overwhelming majority ended up hiring me and I know I got more work than I would have had I not taken this approach.
This also happens to be how you get them to trust you and convince them you’re the best option as a freelancer. And, it’s simple. Just be helpful.
You have to think about clients beyond the one job they’re posting right this second. Don’t worry about getting that one job. Worry about winning the client over and establishing a relationship with them.
Then, you get all their jobs. I’d gladly give up the one job they’re posting right now for the 10 they’ll need help with down the road.
Take that mindset and it gets easy.
In order to get them to act now… simply “always be walking away”. Always seem like you have one foot toward the door. The more you seem like you don’t care if you get the job… the more they’ll want you to take it.
It sounds backwards I know… but it’s true.
Of course, don’t overtly say you don’t want it or offend them… just don’t be overly eager. Of course, the best way to do that is to simply have a lots of work already so you’re genuinely not concerned if you get that one job or not… but you’ll get there.
Step #5: Make Your Clients Happy
I’ve mentioned this several times now. It’s that important. But, how?
Here’s the un-sexy dead simple way to ensure your clients are always happy:
- Do what you say you’re going to
- Talk to them
Brilliant stuff there, eh?
You’d be surprised how many freelancers (especially web developers) don’t do a great job of either one of these.
Here’s the secret to knocking these out of the park:
- Build things you’re really great at
- Have a step-by-step plan for how you build stuff
- Have a day-by-day schedule for how you’ll talk to the client
That is… pick a niche and ONLY build things related to that niche. So, if you identified your niche as “form-building”… don’t take on membership site projects.
If you do that, you’ll be building really similar things project after project. You’ll get really good at doing it AND you’ll be able to create a…
Delivery schedule. You’ll know exactly how long it takes you to build the project and what you’ll have done on what days. Write that down and give it to your clients when they hire you.
Then, since you know the key points in your delivery… you’ll know the key points at which you need to communicate with the client. So you can build a…
Communication schedule. Write down exactly what days you’re going to communicate with your client about key points in the delivery. Give that to your clients AND actually communicate with them on those days.
Trust me… you do this and your clients will LOVE you.
Step #6: Get Traffic to Your Profile
This is my secret weapon. I have an emal list of over 24,000 subscribers, a YouTube channel that gets ~100,000 video views a month and has over 20,000 subscribers and a website that gets roughly 20,000+ visitors/month.
Any time I choose I can point all the traffic to my profile in order to get freelance work. And, it has nothing to do with Upwork’s “algorithms”.
I’ve worked hard to build that audience.
Point is… don’t rely on Upwork to bring you all your freelance work! Get out in your market and build your own audience and then leverage that audience to win on Upwork.
After a few months on Upwork, most of the work I got came from my own website… and I’d simply tell those people to hire me over on Upwork.
Those jobs still count toward my job history. Those 5-star ratings still counted. Those testimonials still showed on my profile. And, the more of all those I got… the better I ranked on Upwork.
So, bust your butt outside of Upwork to build an audience that then helps rank better inside Upwork.
Post YouTube videos, answer questions on Quora or StackOverflow, write articles on your blog, etc.
It’s the simplest way to outflank the Upwork algorithms that do reward higher rated freelancers. Just become a high rated freelancer without them.
Don’t have a blog yet? Yikes! You need to fix that first! But, don’t worry… click here to take my free tutorial on how to start a blog in 15 minutes or less and let’s get that fixed right now.
Step #7: Your Exit Strategy
All of this culminates with your exit from the wild world of Upwork. Look, Upwork is great and all but you’ll be miserable if you try to only get jobs from Upwork the rest of your career.
The competitive nature of freelance sites dictates that you’ll make less doing more.
Ultimately, you want to get off of Upwork and get all your clients through your own website.
You do this in two ways:
- Transfer clients from Upwork to working with you directly
- Get enough clients directly you don’t need Upwork
I know Upwork has terms that say you can’t encourage clients you acquired on their site to work with you directly. But I also know that clients don’t care what Upwork wants and usually move to working with you directly anyway.
Also, if you’re following step #6 like you should… eventually, you’ll get enough clients through your own website that you won’t need Upwork. That’s what happened to me. It took about a year but after that I never looked back.
Moving Forward From Here…
There’s a lot in those seven steps… no doubt. So, where do you start? Here’s the first three things I recommend you do:
- Know yourself (what you love to do, what you’re great at)
- Know your client (what they want, how to find them)
- Start a blog (it takes time to get going so get started now)
If you do just those three things, you’ll be way ahead of 99% of freelancers out there and well on your way to a full-time income on (and off) Upwork.