Update: Elance has now merged with Odesk to form Upwork. The platform is more or less the same, and operates in the same manner. The advice below is still applicable. Good luck!
Surprisingly, the world of freelancing had eluded me until recently. It was by complete accident that I stumbled across a website called Elance – a kind of eBay for freelancers. Fuelled by enthusiasm and a rapidly declining bank account I dove in headfirst and was astonished at the earning potential of the online freelance market.
Below I’ll detail how I went from an empty Elance profile to making over $4,000 in my first month working as a writer online, all without an ounce of freelance writing experience.
What is freelancing?
Freelancing is similar to contract work. It’s basically marketing yourself as an individual, offering your skills to businesses to do a task. You have no boss, no office hours and no public holidays. You work for yourself and it’s up to you to find work and pitch yourself to clients.
Elance is an online marketplace for freelancers. It’s a place where both freelancers can find work and businesses can find freelancers to work for them.
As a traveller freelancing is an ideal income source. If you have any desire to travel long term and get out of the office you need to start building a freelance income. You can work anywhere, anytime with just a laptop and wifi. This is where sustainable long term travel starts!
How I started
As soon as I surfed on into Elance I signed up and created a profile. I used to be an accountant, so naturally I starting browsing the jobs in the Finance section. Most were bookkeeping jobs and the type of crap I hated that caused me to quit my job in the first place. Not only that, every job seemed to have hundreds of bids from Indian freelancers offering to do the job for $2 an hour. $2 an hour! I wouldn’t even sit through Gossip Girl episodes for $2 an hour! (I wonder if Blair Waldorf has received my fanmail yet…)
So there I was, so easily uninspired and seconds away from clicking the big red X in the top right hand corner when I caught sight of the “Writing and Translation” category. I vaguely remembered someone telling me about people making a decent wage working as a writer online and decided to check the listings out.
I had no idea what I was doing, but a lot of the jobs seemed interesting and I knew I could do a decent job. I turned to my best friend (his name is Google) for a bit of advice. Pretty much all my searches about becoming a freelance writer on Elance came back with the same message:
“Indians and Filipinos are highly skilled, more dedicated, and spend 18 hours a day on this site bidding for literally every single job that comes up. What’s more, they offer to do this work for $1 an hour. You simply cannot compete. Forget about it.”
One thing about me is I’m super stubborn. When someone tells me I can’t do something it really annoys me, and no matter how stupid it is I’ll generally do everything I can to prove you wrong. What!? You said I can’t eat a whole bag of french fries through my nose?! That’s it. McDonalds, now. You’re driving.
Bidding for jobs
So with my stubbornness in hand I started bidding. Unfortunately for me what Google had told me was true. Every single job was being swamped with lowball bids from India and the Philippines. Truth is, I did want to give up at that moment, willing to accept the fact that they were all probably smarter, more hard working and more experienced than I was, not to mention they were much, much cheaper than me too. Nonetheless, I soldiered on, bidding for about 15 jobs and getting awarded exactly zero of them.
After thinking about this for a while, I realised that the most likely reason people weren’t interested in hiring me was because I had no feedback. I also looked like a hamster in my profile photo. But without at least one feedback, there was no way that they could tell whether I was a rockstar writer or a complete illiterate idiot. On every job that I bid for, the writer who ultimately won the job had at least a couple of jobs completed and at least 4/5 star feedback.
So I asked myself, what do businesses do when they’re trying to build up customers? They give stuff away for free!
The next 3 jobs I bid for, I decided not to write my usual “I have an accounting degree and I’m a very hard worker and I love a challenge and I won’t let you down and please hold on while I think of something even more boring to tell you”. Instead, I decided to do part of the job for free as my proposal.
My first job
The job posting looked like this:
I had no idea what a ‘creative brief’ or ‘SEO’ was. I still don’t.
But that didn’t matter to me because since accounting is my expertise, I knew I could kill this job. However, if I just wrote my typical “I work really hard” proposal I would just look like another amateur writer with no experience, probably even a homeless one bidding from a stolen laptop. Therefore I decided to actually write a blog post for one of the requested topics as my proposal instead. That way he would know that I could write a blog post in good English and also would not be left wondering whether I really knew anything about accounting. Here’s what my proposal looked like:
I also bid quite a high price. I bid $250, which amounts to $25 for a 250 word blog post. For a new freelance writer that’s a very high rate. Most writers when starting out work for around $3-$5 for a 500 word article. Why did I do this? Simple – to stand out. Buying psychology 101 – high prices give a perception of high quality. Also, I’m from New Zealand where the minimum wage is $13.75 an hour. If I’m supposedly a qualified accountant willing to write for $3 an hour in a country where any other job would earn me 5x that, then the client will probably conclude that something is off, i.e. that I’m a moron.
To my surprise, the whole thing worked perfectly. Within a couple of days I was awarded the job and it’s embarrassing how proud I was. I really couldn’t wait to get started. I was now officially a freelance writer, and had a client to prove it!
Lesson: Bidding high helps you stand out, and tells the client you’re not some desperate wannabe (even though you are). On this job I could see that the majority of the bidders were only bidding $3-$5 per post, and many were from India and Pakistan meaning they probably weren’t native English speakers. The highest bid on the job was around $300, so I bid just under that, making me stand out but not making me look extravagantly expensive.
After 10 days I had completed the job, been paid $250 and received my first feedback:
I also need to stress that you must get a 5 star feedback. A 3 star feedback is probably worse than having no feedback at all. So how do you do this?
Firstly, strive to be the best freelancer your client has ever worked with. Submit work before the deadline. Write 700 words when you only needed 500. Make it clear that you will rewrite and edit your piece until they are 100% satisfied. Put effort into your writing and make your articles the best your client has ever read. In other words, exceed every expectation.
Then, make it clear you need a 5 star feedback.
I’m glad you liked the final article. If, for any reason, there’s still a part of it you’re not quite 100% happy with, please let me know and I’ll rewrite it until it’s exactly what you’re after.
If there’s no further work to be done, I’d really appreciate it if you could leave a 5 star feedback for me on Elance. This would be so helpful in me securing further work and continuing to write. If you feel any aspect of my work wasn’t to 5 star standard, please don’t hesitate to let me know and I’ll do everything I can to fix that.”
Remember, finding good writers on Elance is a complete headache for most editors. Well established freelance writers earn up to $500 an article, so for $20+ they don’t tend to expect too much. If you’ve been blowing their socks off with your professionalism and commitment to quality throughout the project, they really should have no problem leaving you the 5 star feedback you’ve asked for.
The ball starts rolling
After that everything became exponentially easier. With my first 5 start feedback behind my name I landed my next job a couple of days later. Here’s what the job posting looked like:
While I can’t see the other proposals, I can see who the other bidders are. There were 13 bidders for the job, which I have listed below:
As you can see, of the 13 bidders 4 are from Pakistan, 7 are from India, 1 is from the Philippines, and 1 is from New Zealand (me). Assuming the job poster was looking for a native English speaker, he can choose either me or…me.
Lesson: Don’t get disheartened by a large number of people low bidding on jobs. While many of them may be great workers, Elance is renowned for having a large number of English second language speakers submitting poor quality writing that can’t be used. For this reason many job postings explicitly ask for native English speakers only. In this case I was the only native English speaker that bid, and eventually I was awarded the job. Funnily enough, almost every other bidder was also a Chartered Accountant and some had CFA’s/MBA’s, making them far more qualified than I was (probably way smarter, too). They also were cheaper than me – my bid of $550 was far higher than the average bid of $180, which reinforces my earlier point of bidding high and not selling yourself short.
Trying a different niche
After completing this job and getting another 5 stars, I decided to see if I could land a job outside of accounting and finance. I did this for fun more than anything else, and to get some experience in a different niche. Pretty much all my proposals went along the lines of:
“My background is in financial writing but I can apply my skills to a variety of topics….I work hard blah blah…I’ll be happy to write the first article at no charge as a trial to see if it suits your audience.”
After submitting around 10 bids for travel articles, food articles, fitness articles, sports articles and pretty much any job that got listed, the one I got a hit on was a collection of articles for a mens lifestyle blog (hooray). 10 articles at $11 each. Granted, a significant paycut from my previous gigs, but was a job nonetheless and I actually had a lot of fun doing it.
Because the article was outside my niche I had to put a bit more effort in to ensure a 5 star feedback. I read through the clients blog and a lot of similar blogs to get a feel for the right writing style, I made sure the writing was delivered way before the deadline, and of course I offered to rewrite it as many times as he needed. Out of the 10 articles, only 1 needed to be rewritten, and he seemed very impressed with the work:
Lesson – You can land jobs outside your niche – you’ll probably get paid less and need to offer a freebie for the first few, but it’s worth it for the extra experience and feedback. Research well and strive to submit the highest quality work that your client has ever seen. Soon you’ll have a good amount of experience in different niches and be able to command higher prices.
My first “big” client
The next job I landed ended up paying me quite a bit more than the others. It was for writing Chartered Accountancy teaching notes, which is:
- A crap job that nobody wants to do
- Requires a very specific skillset
Those are two ingredients for a high paying gig. Here’s what the posting looked like:
In my proposal you’ll see that I made sure to address every requirement listed in his posting. What you can’t see in the screenshot is that the job budget was up to $5,000, so I knew he was willing to pay good coin for the right candidate.
I spent most of the evening researching and putting together the sample notes requested in the posting, as I knew that would most likely be the deciding factor. I wanted to submit something exceptional. The client emailed the next day saying how my proposal and sample notes had really stood out from the rest, and awarded me the job. The first job was a trial, which involved writing a single chapter of notes for $230. I did everything I could to make it the first set of interesting accounting notes in the history of mankind (I failed, it’s not possible), and he later offered me a full 10 chapters, for which I negotiated a price of $2,900.
Lesson – Don’t be afraid to spend time on your proposals – it’s like preparing for a job interview. I’ve found that the clients who ask for specific samples in their listings are generally the ones that require writers with a very specific expertise, and if you can deliver on this the payday can be pretty good.
Earnings for the first month:
Job 1: $250
Job 2: $550
Job 3: $110
Job 4: $230
Job 5: $2,900
Total : $4,040 USD worth of work awarded in just over a month.
Disclaimer: While I managed to “win” all these jobs within a month, it actually took around 2 months for me to complete everything. This is because those were the deadlines I negotiated. I did this because:
- I was travelling at the time
- I’m lazy
I was probably working around 10-15 hours a week. Had I been working on them full time this could have been easily completed in around a month.
I was earning around $25-$30 an hour on average, which is not far from what I was earning when working full time as an accountant. The interesting thing is, this is considered peanuts for a writer! Many established writers earn closer to $100 an hour, some substantially more. While I’m a long way from those rates, the potential itself is exciting.
Things to remember when starting out on Elance:
Bid for jobs within your expertise (particularly for writing). This will be your best shot for producing quality writing and building up your feedback. If you’re a personal trainer bid on fitness articles; if you’re a banker bid on financial articles; if you’re a nurse bid on health articles etc. You don’t necessarily need to be a professional – you could bid on parenting articles, travel articles; I’ve even seen several jobs for gamers to write articles and reviews on Playstation games, so there really is something for everyone.
Take whatever jobs you can get at the start. You get 40 bids on Elance when you start out – you should use all of them. With my first 40 bids I got awarded 3 jobs, and then I paid the $10 fee for another set of 40. If you’re serious about building an income, you’ll need to put a decent amount of effort into marketing yourself and bidding for work. Once you get some decent feedback you will be able to be more selective with the work you accept.
Don’t limit yourself to writing – Writing can get boring, so it’s nice to have something else to work on to give yourself a break. For web developers, programmers and IT nerds in general, the freelance world is a goldmine for you. I’ve flirted with the idea of finding accounting work but I can’t bring myself to do it just yet. Still gives me nightmares. Another great moneymaker is translation – if you speak multiple languages there are people that will pay big money for accurate translation work.
Write for free – I’m a big advocate of writing articles for free and including them in your proposal, at least when you’re starting out. If anything, it’s a great way to practice your writing and if you don’t get the job you can still add the piece to your portfolio. For example, if the poster requires 10 articles on the benefits of green tea, research and write an article on the topic. Even if you don’t win the job, convert the file to pdf and add it to your portfolio as “Green tea article written for established health magazine”. Win win!
Look at other successful writers. See how their profiles are laid out and what they include in their portfolio. Look through their resume, their photo and the profile layout in general. Use this as a model for your own profile.
So anyway, that’s how I started out in freelancing and I was pretty satisfied with my results. What’s been great about it is that I’ve developed a new stream of income that I can earn while travelling, which is always the goal for me. I’m sure there are many different strategies that people use to freelance and if you’re willing to share I’d love to hear them! Also, I’d be keen to hear how the above strategies of mine work out for you if you decide to use them. I’ll probably write another post on the topic in a few months, hopefully with a new and improved approach to share with you all. Hopefully this post has showed you that it really is possible to make money on Elance; maybe not millions, but enough to make it worth giving a try.
My challenge to you:
Set up a free account at Elance (Upwork) and spend some time creating your profile. Then, start bidding like crazy on any writing jobs you think you can do a decent job of. It might be writing about parenting, about working out, about dieting, about insurance, about cars, about computers; anything! At the very least you should use all of the 40 bidding credits that you start out with. With some effort and a little bit of luck, you should be able to land at least one job.
Then, do an unbelievable job. Exceed every one of your client’s expectations. Let them know that you’re committed to quality and will produce exactly what they need in order to get a 5 star feedback.
Finish the job, get paid, request a 5 star feedback and blow the payment on something to reward yourself.
Congrats! You’ve just built yourself another income stream 😉