I wanted to write about this for a long time, since it’s been a hot topic for over a year and became even more provocative after Upwork went public in October 2018.
I have been hearing stories from clients and friends on how they’ve been struggling to make good money through Upwork. For those of you who don’t know what Upwork is (though I doubt that you don’t, coz then you wouldn’t be reading this piece), it’s a platform to bring freelancers and startup clients together. For clients, it’s a place to hire remote workers until they establish a sustainable stream of income for their business that can make it affordable for them to hire full time in-house employees. For freelancers, it’s considered to be a great place to look for small projects, short-term contracts, part-time work or work-from-home opportunities, by presenting their skills and pitching on the job postings that show up in the newsfeed.
But wait, did I just say it’s “a great place” for freelancers? Well yes, that’s what it is supposed to be, except that the vast majority of Upwork users have been feeling otherwise.
I just want to pause here and mention that I myself am not on Upwork. I did make an attempt to create an account there upon hearing all the buzz about it in early 2018. Sadly, Upwork rejected my profile and didn’t give me access to any functioning account. So that was pretty much the end of my own Upwork story.
But since I am part of the freelancing world, the topic about Upwork comes up very often in many of my discussions with friends and colleagues, and even with clients I get in touch with for freelance projects. It turns out that many freelancers (or at least many from my country, Malaysia) are getting fed up with Upwork and quitting it. They would rather suffer for few months trying to build their own client base by conducting random Internet search and cold calling or emailing stuff than stick to this one platform called Upwork to have all their eggs in one basket.
Let’s see what’s been bothering them. Why is it so bad that they are all leaving Upwork one by one?
Quality of Clients
More than 90% of the clients on Upwork are new business owners whose business operations have not started yet. They come to Upwork to build the basic things like marketing materials that are required to start running a company, such as a website, social media presence, copywriting material, traffic to their site etc. Since they have not started getting revenue from their business yet, they are very stingy in payments for the work they take from freelancers. This drops the hope of many freelancers who join Upwork in an attempt to land their ideal clients.
Benek Lisefski, a UX/UI designer from Aukland, wrote about Upwork, saying, “Your ideal clients don’t live there.”
Most of these clients are just looking for anyone who would offer to do the work at the cheapest price. They don’t seem to go through the portfolios and past work history to reasonably decide who can do the job better. This is why many freelancers on Upwork get no or very few responses on the hundreds of proposals they send out on different job postings.
Rachel Munford, a Scottish freelance writer, shared about Upwork, “95% of the time I heard nothing from projects I sent a proposal to.”
This is a real problem, especially for those who create a profile on Upwork after getting years of experience in their field of expertise. As a creative professional, a programmer or any person who works on a project basis, they have to sell themselves short on Upwork to beat the price competition, and end up not getting paid what their work is actually worth.
As Maria Milojković mentioned, “Choose entry or intermediate level for writing, and you will often be paid $0.001 per word or even less.”
It is getting more and more common for freelancers on Upwork to receive automated responses when they contact Upwork support with any problem they’re facing on the platform. I’m not sure if Upwork support staff is a group of virtual assistants, their own in-house employees, or merely a bunch of bots. They often tend to send the same response to a variety of queries, which is too frustrating for the person on the other end of the line whose income is at stake.
Gabriel Iosa, a writer and freelancer who used Upwork in the past, wrote, “All of my emails regarding real, unexplainable situations were answered with a copy-pasted response.”
Usability of Contracts
People constantly complain that they did not get paid for the work they delivered to some client on Upwork. Even though the Escrow system is in place, there is really nothing binding the Upwork clients to fund the next milestone after the previous one has been completed.
So if clients are not happy with somebody’s work, they cut off the contract halfway and move on to another freelancer who would give them a similar or cheaper quote. The ‘contract’ set up on Upwork for each ongoing project is non-binding, which makes it pretty useless, especially if the client has not funded the full project payment in Escrow from the start.
Many clients back off or end the contract before all the discussed scope of work has been completed at the negotiated price. This leaves the freelancers in dismay, as they must have allotted their time for working on the project, expecting to earn a certain amount of money from it.
The Dreaded Dead End
This problem started about two years ago, and has now gotten even worse. Upwork users say that they got banned from Upwork for no given reason whatsoever. Their account got closed and they received an email to notify them about it, without any logical explanation of what actually went wrong.
Ryuno, an ex-user of Upwork, wrote in October 2017, “I woke up this morning to an unexpected e-mail subject from the freelancing site: Your Upwork account has been suspended.”
When these people contact Upwork support, they either get no reply, or a delayed response that doesn’t mention any explanation for the ban. What’s worse is that they are not even allowed to open up a new Upwork account. According to Upwork’s policy, one individual can only have one Upwork account in their lifetime, which means if that’s gone, it’s really gone for good!
Mihajlo Milenovic, a featured writer in Noteworthy – The Journal Blog, once wrote, “Seems Upwork can ban you just for not looking your best in the morning.”
There are people who really rely on Upwork for all their income, and suffer from a huge loss when this happens to them. They lose contact with any clients they have worked for through the platform and are left with payments stuck in Escrow that cannot be withdrawn. The confusion as to why Upwork did that to them is another cause of despair.
After all the negative comments, I am actually grateful to Upwork for not approving my profile last year, or else I would’ve been caught up dealing with these issues as well. I do know that there are people who’ve been able to make good amount of money on Upwork, especially those who joined it before 2016 or those who came from Elance. Hence I’m not saying that you can’t make any money on Upwork. It’s completely possible, and there are certainly some people who are making a living on the platform. But for the vast majority of freelancers out there, the experience with Upwork seems very bad.
According to Michael Shreeve, “If You’re On Upwork, You’re Not Really Freelancing.”