I started off my Freelancer journey on Upwork in the summer of 2017. Within a little under 1 year, I was able to gain Top Rated status, and my hourly has gone up from $25 to $80 / hr steadily. I was able to work few hours and have a comparable income for me to live comfortably where I am (China), and I am building out an agency on Upwork and achieved Top Rated status within 10 months. Here is how we did it.
Have a Clear and Precise Profile Page
The first thing I worked on is to try to stand out in the searches. I rarely approach different projects, but instead, I leverage the power of the search functionality of Upwork and let my clients discover me and my Agency. The template we use for our profile page consists of:
- Title of Who you are, and what you are an expert of.
- One short paragraph about yourself (years of experience, especially the years of experience of one skill that you are really good at, which I will touch on in the next section).
- List of skills/services we provide. Make sure your best skills appear at the top of your list, so they still show at your profile page without any extra click.
Make sure your profile page is precise without expanding
Have a Focus on your Expert Skill and Be Very Good at it to Talk A LOT about it
I started off myself as a NodeJS / Java Developer on Upwork and was trying to sift through the job posts and bid against other Freelancers. Even though I was willing to start off lower in my hourly and try to get my portfolio filled up on Upwork, I think I really need to advertise one specific skill of mine and really try to be an expert at it. For my years of experience, it was Elasticsearch.
I wasn’t sure if I would get a lot of requests at first, but to my surprise, after putting in Elasticsearch in my skills and having Elasticsearch Expert in my title, I started getting invites specifically on Elasticsearch projects, in addition to the jobs I was bidding for. This essentially doubled or even tripled the chances for me to land jobs on the platform because, on the invite-based proposals, you are able to talk almost immediately after sending in a cover letter. You will have a way bigger chance standing out because the client is already interested in you at the first place.
Write a Tailored Cover Letter for Each Job
This is also the part where we can back ourselves up from what is on our profile. I don’t have a stock template for the cover letters because we will always want to show that we have read through the problem statement, did the research, and that we are ready to tackle the problem as soon as we start exchanging more information with the client. Provide detailed feedback on how the problem can be solved, what kind of information you will need to be able to provide a better estimation of the total time/cost needed for the job. Sometimes you also need to give suggestions based on your expertise to the problem. Maybe the tool client is thinking isn’t suitable for the job, or just simply too complicated to use whereas there is another simpler solution we can try first. You want to show that you are capable of doing what the client asks for and more.
Be Patient and Listen to your Clients
Once you peaked the clients’ interests with your cover letter, be sure to ask for any information that you think was missing from the job description and go from there. If it is a full project, be sure to also probe for any budget concerns, timeline concerns, and also any plans for going live. Talk to the client in a voice call if you can, and you should. Since you don’t see your client and want to make sure he is comfortable working with you. You will be surprised after just 30 minutes to 1 hour of the voice call, how much the project scope could change from the initial description. Be sure to address your concerns and give feedback after listening, and take note of anything that you are not familiar with so you can follow up afterward.
Single-Price vs Hourly
We have everything we need to give a quote of the project to our client, and now we are staring at the proposal screen, and trying to figure out how to structure the contract. I think the vast majority of us prefers having a single-price deal so you can earn more. But for me, that really depends on the project requirements. When clients started off with very vague requirements (and some even constantly changing), or parts of the project needs research on both sides to be able to come up the best solution for, I would prefer setting up an hourly contract with the client and be upfront about why.
I have been in situations where clients just kept asking for more small fixes and features afterward, and it almost made the project not worth the original price if you look at the total hours spent on it. The main benefits I see on setting up hourly projects are
- I feel much more comfortable setting up deliverables/demos for the client because I know we can always make updates to it based on the requirements (as long as I am upfront about the estimated hours spent and sticking to it)
- I have a more predictable income stream. This could be key as a freelancer, and very important to me as the leader of my team and managing the financials of my team.
Set Very Clear Expectations to Your Clients
This is I think by far the most important thing I have learned for the past year working, and I definitely like to think that I learned this the hard way. There are projects we didn’t get to finish at the first half of 2018, it was because I wasn’t able to estimate the project well (constantly changing requirements, the difficulty of tasks, etc), and didn’t tell my client about it. The hours went out of control, and the timeline for the project was seriously delayed.
In the end, I had to partially refund one project, cut one project short and delivered only half of what they asked, and spent extra 6 months on another project trying to wrap things up and seriously delayed the plans for the business teams of the client. I was very glad that in the end, the clients were okay about it, so we got to keep the perfect track record on Upwork, but in retrospect, if I had just told my clients earlier about the trouble I was at, the solutions I was trying, the reason behind the solutions, and how much longer it will take to finish, I think it would have been much better.
After those rough few months, I was way more careful listening to my clients, drafting up a project plan, and sticking to it. When things didn’t go as smoothly, I immediately told them about the problem I was facing, and what I was doing instead, and how much of an impact it had to the project timeline. Things were much better, and I was able to hit my timelines very well at the 2nd half of the year and earned our Top Rate statuses as a whole team. It was truly satisfying.
I look forward to our 2019 because we have a few good clients we have been working with and we are continuing to help them build the technology to grow their business. And I definitely hope we can help more startups moving forward.