The ultimate guide to NOT working on Elance, oDesk, Upwork and Fiverr

Are freelancer exchanges viable when your goal is mutually beneficial partnerships with clients willing to pay a fair amount per project?

When it comes to finding and winning clients as a freelancer, there isn’t much I haven’t tried; I graduated the school of hard knocks with several scars and the odd badge of merit. So when it comes to giving advice to freelancers who were maybe where I was 8 years ago, I speak from a position of experience.

The type of hair-pull-face-palm-head-in-sand experience you can only get from a good few years trying (failing and winning) to get something to work.

My stance on Elance (and freelancer exchanges as a whole) has been largely unchallenged to date, not least because it’s a topic I don’t talk about very often. One of the key differentiators I live by is my point blank refusal to get embroiled in the small stuff and be a part of the over-cooked (or worse still reheated) ideas and opinions you’ll get from a lot of freelancer advice sites. You can find plenty of places to get ’10 weird tips’ on the font size you should use in your proposals or which keywords to choose for your oDesk profile.

Freelancelift isn’t one of those places.

As always, this should not be taken as elitist, inflammatory or ignorant. Quite the opposite, I have experienced the ups and downs (and downs, and more downs) of freelancing so I believe I have a duty to tell you everything I know if I believe there is a better way. In doing so I give you the opportunity to NOT make the same mistakes I did.

Here’s an excerpt from my book; in this chapter we’re talking about building attention and interest in you and your freelance service, it pretty much sums up my take:

We live in a noisy world.  Whether it’s the irresistibly tactile Facebook notification icon or the audible blip of your email client, everybody wants a piece of your attention.

The same is true for your prospective client.  Their time is limited and ability to pay attention severely exhausted. This is compounded by the fact that there have never been so many easy ways to seek answers for the pains and problems they have (that your service would ultimately remedy).

This makes for a cloudy online environment and your dream client has developed self-preserving defences, which guard against advertising, information overload and general interruptions.

Most freelancers see this ‘noise’ as a barrier, “how the hell is anybody going to find me among this herd?”  More often than not, this pushes them into channels like Elance or oDesk.  “Well this should be more productive, people are actually looking for freelancers on here, right?”

This is flawed logic.  We feel some comfort in the fact that potential clients are being attracted to this honeypot every day.  We sense that at least we have a chance of making a sale here without actually understanding what type of sale we might make and more importantly, to whom.

You’re voluntarily blending yourself into the herd, and in doing so procrastinating, putting out fires short term while holding off doing the longer term activities that will land you your dream client down the line.  By treading water in freelancer exchanges you’re willfully attracting bad apples.

My first time around as a freelancer I played the same mind games with myself, “hey this guy has earned like $900k this past 12 months on Elance I must be able to at least get a slice of that?”

What I neglected to inform my naive former self was that this was in fact a 60-person web development house based in India whose average project fee was $200.

Do you really want to take on 20 projects a month just to meet your financial goals?

I thought not.

So how do we multiply our exposure, build attention and look at this cloudy online environment as a help rather than hindrance?

Excerpt from ‘Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer’
Phase II – Multiply your exposure & build your platform

I am acutely aware however that this is my own personal opinion, based on my own personal experiences and I’m always happy to be challenged, or air another point of view. So I was delighted to receive a really awesome email yesterday from Carol Hampshire, top 5 among 200,000 graphic designers on Elance, currently doing great and generating over $10k a month in revenue.

I could have replied politely, then quietly swept this ‘inconvenient opposite experience’ gently under the rug. But I didn’t, here it is:

From: Carol Hampshire
Subject: I’m a top bracket freelancer on Elance!

Hi Liam,

I have just watched your video (5 reasons top bracket freelancers aren’t on Elance) and although I do agree with the points you made, it looks like I am one of the exceptions.

I am a top bracket freelancer on Elance (in the design & multimedia category) and attract similar top bracket clients, therefore eliminating the bad apples and all that goes with the normal exchange sites.

I am able to pick and chose which projects I want to work on, projects that bring me creative license and fulfillment as well as high financial reward.

My income in November last year on Elance was in excess of $11,000.00 – not bad going for an “Elance” freelancer.

In fact many of my clients would tell me I am by far the most expensive, but they still award the project to me.

So I must be doing something very right and have a good strategy in place for this success.

The rewards from being on Elance have been wonderful, I own two properties in South Africa and relocated to a wonderful beautiful seaside holiday town. So yeah – living the dream and all that…

I have been able to successfully explain the value of the service a client would get working with me in a proposal and I can back this up with hundreds of testimonials on Elance.

I am ready to double my income in the coming months with even more innovative strategies that might not include Elance in my future, but its been a fantastic platform for my business.

Did I have to work my ass off and take on some shady clients on Elance to get to this position- YES!!

But having said that, this is a normal process for every designer to go through before they have finally reached a top bracket and learn valuable lessons the hard way.

Its a pity that you do not have the strategies to create an empowering video showing your tribe how to succeed on exchange sites instead of knocking a potential way for them to thrive professionally, creatively & financially as I have done.

All the best from South Africa!



You can probably imagine me receiving this email and cracking a smile, it really was a slam dunk of an email correspondence… I’m so happy to have smart freelancers, from all over the world consuming the ideas I’m putting out and feeling comfortable enough to question what they’re being told.

Question everything

So I was inspired, to at least give a fair debate as to the potential benefits of Elance and oDesk and work a little harder to assert my ultimate opinion that freelancer exchanges are not the right place for you if you’re looking to make the breakthrough into top bracket ($5-$10k+ per project) freelancing.

So let’s start with the positives. Here is where Elance, oDesk and the like can bring benefit to your freelance business:

  • Low barrier to entry
    One of the key drawbacks in my opinion has always been the ‘great normalizer’ effect of an identical profile page for every freelancer. But what this also provides new freelancers is a low barrier to entry, which doesn’t require the build of a web presence of their own.
  • Genuine access to revenue opportunities
    It is beyond question that there are hundreds of jobs awarded to freelancers every single day. The combined potential of all of this ‘ready to spend’ revenue is huge. Far more than one person could ever wish to receive.
  • Some great client opportunities.
    I use Elance, a lot of my peers in the entrepreneurship space use Elance, I even use Fiverr sometimes and if someone does a great job for me then there is the opportunity for that to continue outside of the confines of a freelancer exchange.

For a new freelancer, these benefits are really attractive. From there is a whole abundance of drawbacks, but I’m not going to highlight those directly. To do so would take me into the realm of the freelancer advice I push back so strongly against.

Instead, I want to argue my point in a different way… giving you the big picture reasoning behind choosing to (and advising other growing freelancers to) cut freelancer exchanges out of my growth strategy entirely.

How great clients are born

My philosophy on freelancing is that ultimately, great clients should come to you. You should have built enough exposure and be doing enough great work to ensure you’re never without new client opportunities.

Here is the eventual flow I teach freelancers to achieve:

1) Define a specialist client market & reflect that in a website of your own
2) Put in the work to be known in this space and demand attention
3) Spark non-sales relationships with no brainer ways to get in touch
4) Transition to a more commercial conversation
5) Put together great proposals which look awesome and justify value well
6) Make the initial sale then build a longer-term, mutually beneficial partnership to reduce reliance on continually winning new business.

Having a client acquisition flow like this is the key to developing project fees of $5k, $10k and more.

Here is where freelancer exchanges work against this methodology:

We’re all ‘identicalancers’

On freelancer exchanges there isn’t a whole lot of room to develop a central presence which is tailored to your style and message. Instead, we’re offered an identical profile to everybody else and are strictly forbidden from providing links to external locations which may do a better job of giving the client a picture of us as a person, not just a faceless service provider.

No control over client market

I strongly advocate developing a vision for a dream client. In doing so, I’m proposing finding a smaller sub-set of an audience to double down on. The benefits to this approach are numerous, it’s much easier to become visible, demand attention and make the sale with a smaller pool of prospective clients.

This is impossible to achieve on freelancer exchanges, the platforms are configured to encourage a mass market environment.

A lack of ‘discovery’ opportunities

One of the key traits of the effortlessly successful freelancer is their ability to really immerse themselves in the client’s vision. To work diligently and develop a collaborative solution with this end goal in mind.

This is more difficult on freelancer platforms, as the prospective client tends to be prodded into developing quite a rigid brief. Moreover, the bidding process is heavily focused on quoting a price, up front or as early as possible. This leaves little room deep discussions around vision and the ultimate client goals.

A restrictive platform

It’s vital to their future revenue opportunities that platforms like Elance, oDesk and Fiverr keep all dialogue inside of channels they can monitor. This means that relationships cannot be taken outside of the system, for fear of losing the project commission.

Of course, these rules are often circumvented but the platform is policed vigorously with these guiding principles and the deterrent of a closed account can make life uncomfortable when aiming to speak freely, providing external links for review, recommending dialogue over email or looping a client into your project management system.

Inability to start a non-sales relationship

An important element, when developing a long-term, commercially viable partnership is an informal start to the relationship. I advocate developing a website which speaks to a prospective client worldview and maps out the beneficial outcome before offering a no-brainer opportunity to start an informal, non-sales relationship.

This might take the shape of a short book, cheat sheet or sample service that the prospect would engage with prior to making full contact. This type of interaction and prospect nurturing is impossible on platforms only set up to manage time & resources.

No opportunity to demonstrate flair with a proposal

One of the game changers at Tone (the agency I now head up, built from freelancer roots) has been our decision to develop highly impactful proposal and pitch materials. It has seen our success rate almost double, and from speaking to clients it’s one of the influential reasons we were chosen.

It is possible to attach documentation to support your bid on platforms like Elance, but it isn’t the norm. Moreover, this is a time-consuming process and when you’re proposal 14 of 85 it becomes harder to justify the time investment.

So for most, settling for a simple text based proposal often becomes the status quo, reducing the ability to show flair in your approach and separate yourself from others.

A project mentality (rather than a partnership one)

Finally, freelancer exchanges are fundamentally built to serve a ‘labourer’ mentality. A project is outlined, a bid is placed, a project is complete, job done.

This goes against my general recommendations, which are to put in the work early in a relationship to build trust, develop a longer-term plan and work together collaboratively long-term.

In Summary

In summary then, it’s prudent to point out here that I have no real vendetta against freelancer platforms. They do the job of ‘introducing work to workers’ well. The types of people I teach though want to be more than ‘workers’ or ‘laborers’.

They have a fire of ambition, strive to exercise creative flexibility and create professional freedom.

I feel that freelancer platforms are not calibrated to deal with the growing service provider looking to build a platform in a space and benefit from long-term relationships.

So my advice is to use freelancer exchanges as a stepping stone, a thoroughfare. As soon as you can, build your own voice, demand your own attention and own your own future.

I’m building a small, unique army of service providers and together we’re knocking down big goals, on a monthly basis in Freelancelift Pro. It’d be great for you to become one of them.


I’d love to hear your comments, do you rely on freelancer exchanges? Or have you recently outgrown platforms like this? Looking forward to hearing from you.

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  • Allison

    Hi Liam

    Interesting post. I sit in 2 camps currently. I use on a regular basis and am the top rated freelance PA over on that site. I get a lot of enquiries and have made a lot of long term clients (where I have been able to effectively upsell to) so from this end it has created a stream of people who come to me, rather than me spending a large amount of time on bidding for projects. However I do agree with you in some respects because I use this site primarily to plug gaps in other projects and for the more faceless, corporate projects. The majority of my work comes from my specialism in working for music industry professionals – something which is almost impossible to demonstrate effectively on a site such as elance. I suspect there also wouldn’t be many of my target clients using platforms like that who would be willing to pay my fees.

    So although I agree getting into bidding wars and sending numerous pitches may be counter productive, I still think there is a place for these sites, if used correctly. I certainly wouldn’t want to reply on them for all of my income!



    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Hey Allison, thanks for commenting. Yeah you hit the right points here. I don’t discount these platforms entirely we just need to keep them at arms length and consider them a contribution to our success not the cause :)

      That is to say, widening our reach outside of platforms we don’t control is a much more effective way to build a standalone business, but while the flow of people is there (like you have) and in the instances where you can make it to the top levels on those platforms (like you and Carol both have), use them to their fullest and leverage the income for preparing for a business life on the next level :)

      Thanks again


  • Jon P Farmer

    I have been trying to work with PeoplePerHour for a while now, but I am at the position now of letting this go. The photography work being placed on there tends to be low-end in the majority and at worst is “work for free but you will get loads of exposure”, reinforcing my rather cynical view that they should change the name to PencePerHour.

    So you have inspired me, and helped me to refine my view on the use of Freelancer Exchanges in my strategy going forward.

    I thank you for that.

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      “PencePerHour” :)

      In all seriousness, happy you’re moving into territory where you aren’t solely reliant on freelancer exchanges. As the post content suggests, it’s not that I’m entirely against these platforms, I just feel we can do better when it comes to long term mutually beneficial client relationships.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • LocalSolo Freelance

    We like your style Liam, spot on.

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Love you too!

  • Ashley

    I’m definitely advocate for using freelance exchanges as a directory. I maintain complete profiles on Elance and Upwork (now, one in the same, really) and link out to my personal website from them. I’ve been lucky enough to have clients find me on the exchanges but contact me via my website to request work for me. This has led to thousands in income. I no longer apply for any jobs on exchanges, but they do have value in least offering another way for clients to find you.

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Hey Ashley – sure, I’d agree with that. Using them as a signpost is actually fairly useful (albeit against the general terms of use for most platforms!) both in terms of additional visibility and in terms bypassing the bit I dislike the most about freelancer exchanges…. anonymity and a ‘herd’ approach.

      When a client contacts you directly it opens the door for building a relationship the right way…. away from freelancer exchanges. :)

    • Paul Sirous

      This is a good idea, but I’m 99% sure that some exchanges (at least upwork) do some job to avoid you doing this. Generally saying they lower frequency of your profile being show up in search results when you’re less active. So not making any activity on their site (by activity here I mean bidding on projects) will result to less clients finding your profile themselves.

      • Ashley

        True – I’ve stopped searching and applying for jobs but do get offers to apply often enough. Sometimes I will apply to those, I wonder if that’s what keeps me visible?

        It’s interesting, because it was never really my intention to start using sites this way. I’m a web developer, so I used my personal website as a portfolio piece on my profiles and I’m assuming that’s how people are locating me. I’ve gotten a lot of jobs this way, though.

  • Lilieth V. Harris

    An interesting perspective presented by this article regarding freelance exchanges. I must admit that I have been contending with this issue for a while….yes food for thought! Certainly I will be revisiting the issue.

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Great. Don’t drop everything at once, understand that it’ll be a longer-term play to build a presence outside of these platforms. Just one that’s much more viable.

  • ZBass

    Having used Upwork, my reasoning for abandoning it was much simpler. It went:

    Wait, if I was my ideal client, how would I find a copywriter? I guess I’d ask my contacts, not use Upwork. Shit, I guess I better network!

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Great way to put it, and exactly right. Sure, there is some ‘information gathering’ a client will do… but guess what happens when they find their way to Upwork for [insert your skill here]? They are presented with a list of 500 freelancers that could help them.

      They’d much prefer to find 3 that could really really help them. So that’s what they often do.

  • Nela Dunato

    Some of my friends have had a blast working on oDesk/UpWork, but I’ve closed all my accounts a while ago and will never go back.
    When fellow freelancers ask me why I did it, this is my reasoning:

    – Freelance marketplaces encourage comparison shopping
    – You have to go with the marketplace’s process, instead of creating your own that serves you and your clients better (often clients are wrong about what they actually need, but you can’t do anything about that)
    – The agreement you’re signing on a marketplace is typically a “work for hire” (it was for Elance/UpWork at least) and that’s pretty bad
    – Most of the clientele that gathers there are looking for the cheapest solution (some rates they propose are insulting)
    – You’re spending most of the time writing proposals, and don’t get an answer to 99% of them
    – Having a profile on UpWork was diminishing my “high end” brand and sending the wrong message to my ideal clients, should they look me up on other sites
    – The “invitations” I was getting were low quality and not in my zone of genius

    I’ve done a few projects there and got great reviews, but I’ve made so much more money working directly with clients.
    I warn my design students that they don’t buy into the marketplace culture. You won’t learn how to deal with clients properly on such a site. It’s not like working in the “real world” at all.

    I would rather suggest building your own platform by producing valuable content and gathering a community around your work. It’s much more rewarding than browsing through a huge list of terrible project inquiries day in and day out.

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Thanks for sharing Nela; it’s a great way to put it… in fact you probably have done a better job than me of laying out why it isn’t a good fit long term.

      So if in doubt readers; just get a summary from this comment :)

  • Jonathan Path

    I totally agree. Thanks for your post with a lot of value!

  • Emil Heidkamp

    We get about 20% of our clients through Upwork, and they have for the most part been great clients, though we:

    1. Only approach people who have a history of paying market rate for our services (no one whose average hourly rate indicates they’re accustomed to bottom-dollar offshore contractors)

    2. Only approach people tho say they are looking for “expert” contractors $$$

    3. Basically approach them by saying “Look, we are a serious consulting firm and it sounds like you have a substantive project here. Check out our website, and let’s schedule a Skype call to talk about your organization’s needs.” If they don’t respond positively to that and begin an authentic, candid conversation, forget ’em.

  • John Mike

    Never work on Upwork because after working too many years they can suspend your account and you have no place to work.

    Some of their worst explanation about suspend account:
    1.You have voilate policy-They never indicate which Policy we have voilated
    2.You have applied more Job in 90 days and so we have suspended your account because marketplace have no demand such skills-They never tell that they have no more Project or client in that skills while in same skills i have hired before 1 year in 20 Jobs then how kasriel mother Posted those Job.

    • Mr. Friendly

      That’s it. I broke the Policy and still (after a year) I don’t know what I did wrong. But I know what I did right – after few days I started my own small business with a few friends!! So actually Upwork changed my life for the better! :)

  • alx

    The big question is: how do you, as a freelancer, then find clients if not by using freelance markets?

    I haven’t found the direct, step by step answer to it on your blog, Liam. Will you make a video or article?

  • alx

    The main question is: where I, as a freelancer, should look for customers then if not freelance markets?

    I haven’t found the answer to this question on this blog, Liam. Will you make a video or article?

  • Achieve Online

    My goal this year was to read at least 1 business or marketing related book a month. I started off great for the first few months but fell off in May and now June. This has inspired me to get back on track. I would also suggest adding this one to your list

  • disqus_rsv9rnByXa

    well how do you actually do what you are saying? there aren’t any specific steps…

    • Ach Hadda

      Well you have to join his course to get the steps

    • Linda perry

      I am agreed with you because, upwork and fiverr are of the best solution for self-employed people.

  • R. V. Datmir

    So now we come to the major question…Where does one go to find one’s ideal client? Say one offers Virtual Assistant services. Where does one begin to drum up business. I lost my Upwork account information, and so I am permanently locked out.

  • Grendel M. Marsh

    Had an upwork accoount, had a fiverr account, one never got me any work, the other got me people wanting to pay $5 for large projects. trying to work out how to get clients without these platforms, any tips?

  • Maximus Du Bois

    I’ve been an upworker for 4+ years, and while I’m top rated, it’s not always an easy or comfortable experience. However, there are people that work much harder than me on there and get paid much less. It takes a considerable amount of effort and determination to find clients who offer a fair pay in exchange for the work they want done.

    Upwork management just keep getting greedier, first doubling taxes and today they’ve announced they’re going to charge freelancers to apply for jobs. To be frank; f*** that. The benefits of working on there have been tremendous in terms of the freedom and flexibility, but what I’m quickly learning is that we don’t need parasitic platforms like Upwork to thrive. This is an immensely inspiring read that’s prodding me to take action towards more freedom and independence.

  • Virginia

    After I completed my course on web development, I joined Upwork and Freelancer to try and get in some practice. I was quick to get clients on Upwork and after talking with three potential clients my account unexpectedly got suspended! It was the worst feeling ever. Freelancer was no better, people bid for as low as $5 an hour which is outrageous considering how much work goes into creating a website. I honestly think it’s just better to deal with clients one on one and after you’ve picked out your ideal client it gets better as you go.

  • Data Juggler

    I looked at Up Work and they wanted to take a huge percentage off of any new client I get, and they tried to justify this by it it goes down the longer you do work for the client.

    I am so frustrated with all job sites being recruiter / employer focused I am going to build a job / gig site where 1% is all you have to pay.

    Anyone have any good ideas for a name?

    • Abinadab Agbo

      No need for that.
      We already have enough platforms, and you won’t make any profit by taking only 1%.
      As was stressed by Liam and as I made clear in this blog post
      the solution for clients and freelancers is not working through yet another intermediary (aka exchange/freelancer platform), but setting themselves up to work directly with each other.

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