Whether you’re looking for ways to diversify your income as a digital nomad, or just looking to make a little extra money as a freelancer, you’ve no doubt heard of Upwork. And one of your next questions was probably, “Is Upwork really worth it?”
It’s a good question, but the answer isn’t so simple.
I’ve been a successful, part-time freelance specialist on Upwork for about 18 months, and I’ve also used it to hire freelancers at my day job. (No, I’m not a digital nomad myself … yet. Still trying to convince the farm boy I married.) So I know what it’s like to start from scratch as a freelancer, and I know what it’s like to sort through proposals as a client.
Phillip and Bridgette asked me for an Upwork review on behalf of all the wanderers, and out of sheer envy of your bravery, I agreed. Let’s chat.
Short answer? Yes.
But before you start shopping for sailboats, let me add a lot of conditions to that, “Yes.”
The truth is, Upwork is worth it if you are willing to put in the work and if you are making long-term plans. It’s not the easiest income stream to get started, and it’s not going to provide a large income right away. That said, if you do it well, it can be worth it.
If you’re catching up, Upwork is a digital platform where companies and freelancers meet to get work done. As a freelancer, you set up a profile and start searching for jobs.
Businesses set up their own accounts and post job listings. When freelancers apply, the hiring client reviews proposals and profiles, hires, and pays for work all through Upwork’s platform.
There are other, similar, freelancer platforms out there on the web, but Upwork is generally considered to be the best.
Let’s talk numbers, and you can determine for yourself if you think Upwork is worth it for you. There are three stops on the Upwork journey where money comes into play, and we have to weigh them all.
“Connects” are essentially Upwork’s in-app currency and you spend them every time you submit a proposal to apply for a job.
Most proposals will cost you two, four, or six Connects, each. The bigger the price tag on the job, the more Connects it costs you to apply.
Connects cost $0.15 each and are sold in bundles.
That sounds mostly annoying, but Upwork set it up this way to discourage freelancers from spamming every job posting they can find with cut-and-paste proposals. It’s better for everyone when freelancers thoughtfully apply to the jobs they are qualified for, and Connects (as much as they may make you want to burn the place to the ground at first) make that happen.
An important exception to the rule is that freelancers do not need to use Connects if they are invited to submit a proposal. When a client posts a job offer on Upwork, they can also browse and filter relevant freelancer profiles. If a client likes your profile and invites you to apply for their job, you don’t spend any Connects on that proposal.
Exhibit A: I currently have more than enough freelance work to keep me busy and I haven’t used Connects (or shopped for jobs) in a year. My profile is thorough and I have a 100% job success rating, so I get a lot of invites.
There’s no minimum or maximum, and you are free to negotiate with clients as much or as little as you want.
Some people assume that a platform like Upwork is a “race to the bottom”—where freelancers are constantly trying to under-bid the competition. But that hasn’t been my experience at all. I’ve lost some jobs because my prices were too high, but you know what? Those aren’t the clients I want anyway. There are some businesses on Upwork looking for the cheapest work, but there are plenty who are looking for (and are willing to pay for) expertise.
Upwork doesn’t charge businesses for their profiles or job postings, but Upwork’s gotta get paid. That means service fees for freelancers.
Upwork uses a sliding scale for service fees, based on how much you’ve earned per client:
Did your sailboat just scale down a little bit?
If you’re new to freelancing, or new to freelancer platforms, a 20% commission feels like a stab in the back. I get it. I’ve had late-night ranting sessions about it too. You finally land a contract, and Upwork takes $20 for every $100 on the price tag?!
After you’ve calmed down, though, (read: after you’ve shopped around) you realize that’s actually pretty standard. And honestly, Upwork does deserve to get paid at least a little.
Listen, I’m not saying I’m completely on-board with a 20% service fee, but there are some distinct benefits to consider as you weigh your options.
It still doesn’t make me love the service fees. The first time I landed a four-figure contract and then saw what I actually got paid, I vowed off Upwork forever (which obviously didn’t stick). But there’s a price to doing business.
Clever girl. I thought about this for a minute too, but no. You cannot connect with a client on Upwork and then establish a working relationship via email to avoid Upwork’s service fees. It’s a direct violation of Upwork’s terms of service and will get your account suspended.
There are two exceptions:
If you’re new to freelancing and/or exploring different options for income, you’re feeling the pressure of making the right call here, and I completely understand. In my case, I wasn’t travelling the world with my family, but I had a very ambitious goal to pay off a five-figure debt in one year. And I only had a few hours each evening to make it happen. No time to waste.
Eighteen months later I can say that yes, Upwork is worth it—even for beginners—if:
With all that said, still gird your loins for a frustrating first few months. It’s hard to get started when you have no ratings and no reviews. I’m pretty sure there were a couple months when I actually lost money buying Connects and not landing any contracts.
Upwork has all kinds of articles and webinars that will help you do well on their platform. Here are a few tips I’ve learned on my own as well:
🤷♀️ How’s your business going? If you need a little extra income, Upwork can be a great way to get it. It’s a little frustrating to be an experienced professional starting with zero stars and “no” success, but it can be quickly overcome. Explain your expertise and share your portfolio in proposals, so clients know you have more experience than what’s showing on Upwork.
Just remember that it’s not a platform for meeting clients and then working with them via email.
Anyone can set up a freelancer profile for free. You do need to wait for your profile to be approved, however, and with the influx of freelancers over the past year, it is harder to get in than it used to be. Upwork is trying to maintain a delicate balance of supply and demand, in order to keep everyone on the platform happy.
The best way to get your freelancer profile approved on Upwork is to prove your unique value:
Once your profile is set up and submitted, you’ll hear from Upwork within 24 hours.
Once your profile is approved, you can start searching for work.
Upwork’s “Find Work” tool is actually pretty nice. You can sort by some preset filters on the left, and Upwork’s algorithm even pulls together “Best Matches” based on your profile and what the employer has specified.
The categories you selected are also immediate filter options that open up a bunch more. You can really specify which jobs you want to see based on a number of details.
Once you look over a job, you can 👎 it, to hide it forever. Or you can “heart” it to save it in a list of favorites.
When you find one you like, again, complete a thoughtful, detailed proposal. Read the whole job posting and address each piece in your message. Address the client by name. Be a human.
And if you’re new to Upwork, acknowledge that elephant. “I know I don’t have any stats to show here on Upwork, because I’m new to the platform, but …” Share your off-Upwork experience, portfolio, etc.
Finally, communicate quickly. Download the app for your phone and turn on notifications, so you can reply to a message right away. You don’t need to dive into a detailed reply if you’re out sailboat-shopping with the fam, but if a client responds to your proposal, take a minute to thumb-tap something back, like, “Thanks for getting back to me! I’m away from my desk right now, but I’ll get those details over to you in/by ___.”
As a hiring client, half the battle with freelancers is good communication. And, spoiler: that client responded to a bunch of proposals at the same time. They are not waiting for you. The best way to stay on their radar is to communicate quickly.
Remember paper paychecks in your mailbox every two weeks? (Or am I really dating myself?) Thank goodness those days are gone. Another great feature of Upwork is that there are several ways to get paid: direct deposit, PayPal, wire transfer, or—newish feature—Instant Pay (to your bank account).
I think so.
Did I think Upwork was worth it the first two or three months I was on it? Not at all. I almost quit a couple of times, and answered Upwork’s request for feedback with a very definite opinion.
But I did the work, and within a year—working only a few evenings each week and some Saturdays—paid off our five-figure debt. Freelancers who put in full-time hours could (and do) pull in a full-time salary, from anywhere in the world … with WiFi.