Getting an Online Freelancing Gig @ Upwork (Updated)

In light of Upwork’s recent change on payment terms and my friend Jinjen’s request, I’ve updated and completed this post at last.


Rappler recently posted an interesting news piece: apparently, the Philippines is now the third highest earning country when it comes to online freelancing. This is as per Upwork, which is the freelancer’s equivalent of Kathniel in terms of star power, thanks to oDesk and Elance’s prior merge)

Kathniel
“Nese yeo ne eng lehet… neng werk.”

This comes as no surprise. Thanks to the rise of online freelancing, more and more Filipino workers are now turning to home-based jobs as a viable career option. Unlike traditional jobs, freelancing does not require college degrees or previous employment experience. And unlike call centers, you have considerably more freedom to choose and/or negotiate working hours (10 hours to sawa weekly, it’s up to you!) and you don’t have to leave the house to earn moolah for your cats’ highly exacting standards on proper cat food.

jiu_rf_photo_of_cats_eating_meaty_cat_food
Ampotah, sinabing Whiskas na Sisig flavor eh!

 

But how exactly does one land a job via Upwork? I’ve only had 3+ years of experience doing this gig, but I hope my guide (which will come in a form of monologue Q&A para cute) will be helpful in any way. It changed my life; I definitely hope it does the same for yours!

The Basics

Q: Syao, what is Upwork?
A: Upwork is a site where employers can list their available jobs so freelancers can bid for the ones they’re interested in.

Q: Is it for free?
A: Signing up is for free! Just create your account at Upwork.com. There are premium paid memberships, but basic free membership will suffice.

Q: Is it legit?
A: Yep! It’s been my bread and butter since 2010.

Q: Is the income really tax-free?
A: It shouldn’t be (here’s an Upworker’s guide on paying taxes as a freelancer), but because of the novelty of this industry, people can still get away with working under the BIR’s radar.

Q: What are the requirements?
A: A stable internet connection, a quiet place to work (especially those who are interested in voice support roles) and a desktop PC / laptop (I doubt you can stay productive that long on the same tablet you use for your COC).

Optional: working headset with mic, web cam (some interviewers like to conduct Skype interviews)

Q: What are the available jobs for newbies?
A: LOTS! Here are some: typing scanned business cards into Excel, writing blog comments, searching for someone’s email, formatting blog posts, transcribing audio files, managing a client’s emails and calendar, inputting products to a web form, contacting people via email or tweets, managing social media accounts, providing customer service via phone, email or chat, and many more!

Q: I’m not tech-savvy. Can I apply?
A: Technically you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. 95% of the tasks I see entail knowledge and confidence in navigating the Web. And you’re expected to function with minimum supervision, so unless you have a tech-savvy person living nearby that you can bug, I suggest you learn four important things first:

  1. E-mailing
  2. Googling stuff
  3. Using chat software like Skype
  4. Working with office productivity apps like Microsoft Office and Google Docs.

Q: I now have an account. What’s next?
A: Complete your profile, start taking Upwork tests, and then start finding and applying for jobs!

Q: What’s a good starting rate for newbies?
A: Upwork’s minimum hourly rate is $3/hr (Upwork fee not yet deducted). For admin workers without work feedback yet, that’s a reasonable and accessible rate. But once you get your first feedback, feel free to gradually increase your rate.

Q: How do workers get paid?
A: Payouts are every Wednesday (so mid-weeks are always exciting for us!). We usually register for a Paypal account or a Unionbank EON ATM to get our earnings. Please note that Upwork gets a certain % of your weekly payout, plus $1 withdrawal fee from Upwork to your preferred payment method.

To encourage long-term working relationships between clients and freelancers, Upwork implements the following policy:

Earned from Client Upwork Fee
$500 20% of earnings
$501 to $10,000 10% of earnings
$10,001 and above 5% of earnings

So if you earn $400 from your new gig, you won’t get the full $400. They’ll deduct 20% from $400, and you get $320 for that week’s payout. Once you’ve been working with the client long enough to earn above $500 worth of total earnings, the service fee will go down to 10%. Then when your total earnings with that client reach above $10K, the service fee will go down to a measly 5%.

And now, for the in-depth part…

Q: But Syao, I did all that but I still can’t get hired!
A: That wasn’t a question.

Q: Fine. What do I do to increase my chances of getting hired?
Thank you for that wonderful question. Well, based on my experience, I rely on two main hooks:

  • An impressive Upwork profile
  • A personalized cover letter

Now let me break my Q&A format to explain each.

First up, the Upwork profile.

I will be using my profile to provide clearer visual reference for the items I will discuss.

Screenshot_8

1) TITLE – do not underestimate the power of titles. This is a tl;dr of what you can do for the client. Remember, a client can get as much as 100 applications a day, and may not have time to size up your awesome cover letter. So get his/her attention as soon as you can by coming up with a clear title describing your possible role/s.

… Aaaaand this is how NOT to write a title.

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2) SKILLS – clients will sometimes search contractors by skill, so add as many skills as you can. Make sure that the skills you add are ones you can do legit!

3) OVERVIEW – this is equivalent to the timeless job interview question, “Tell me something about yourself”. I STRONGLY suggest you do not put a resume objective here (e.g. “To find a job where I can apply all my skills to help the company grow”). You’ll be wasting valuable space! (and time + attention of your prospective client!)

Instead, tell the world something special about you that not many people have. Won any writing contests back in HS? Became top agent of the quarter? Received 10 commendations per shift? Was promoted from janitor to VP in two weeks? PLEASE DO TELL! 🙂

achievement_unlocked_by_davi2205-d4phwor

Tip: Do NOT focus your overview on what’s in it FOR YOU. They’re a business, not a charity for jobseekers.

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4) WORK HISTORY AND FEEDBACK – Everyone starts tabula rasa on Upwork. But the great part is once you get your first 5-star feedback, it will become much, MUCH easier to find other jobs! You just need to find clients who you can impress enough to get them to try your work out, and I accomplished this through my cover letter. But more on that in my next post.

Screenshot_9

5) PORTFOLIO – upload screenshots of your previous related work (except those covered by NDAs, of course!) to help your clients understand better what you are capable of doing. If you’re a programmer, add screenshots of the apps you made. If you’re an admin person, screenshots of your non-sensitive docs, report samples (with details appropriately blacked out), PowerPoint presentations, etc. which you made should do.

6) CERTIFICATIONS – optional, but will boost your credibility. Offline certificates from TESDA or online ones like Brainbench can be added here.

7) TESTS – Some people may not deem this section essential, but I’ve had clients who mentioned my test scores as among the reasons they hired me. These Upwork tests are free, so take as many as you could! While the tests are timed, you can always Google stuff to help you get through the test items and score well.

Lastly, add a good headshot for your profile picture so your clients can better connect with you. It’s harder to trust an anonymous profile vs one which looks human. It doesn’t have to be professionally taken–just look warm and approachable, as you would if you were meeting someone in real life.

EXHIBIT A: Not a good idea for an Upwork profile photo
EXHIBIT A: Not a good idea for an Upwork profile photo

 

Tips for Writing an Upwork Cover Letter

  1. Never write a generic cover letter. Read the job description, and make sure the skills and experience you mention in the cover letter match the job you want. If not, choose to mention transferable skills instead.
  2. Integrate key words and phrases from the job description into the cover letter. So if the client is looking for someone who knows QuickBooks, be sure to mention somewhere in your letter that you have been a QuicKbooks rockstar for X years. It improves your suitability for the job, and sends a message to the client that you actually read and understood his/her requirements.
  3. Address the clients by their names. Don’t call them Ma’am or Sir. Clients usually sign their job invites with their names, or have their names on their job description or client information. You can also check previous freelancer feedback and find their names. This tip will attract their attention, for sure, and hint that this applicant is detail-oriented.
  4. Write professionally. Do Spelling and Grammar check. Don’t use SMS-style of writing, for the love of everything that’s good and holy.
  5. Sell yourself. Now’s not the time to be modest about what you can do. Fluff reasonably.
  6. Don’t submit cover letters taught to you back in school. You know, the one with dates and proper blocking, etc. Upwork is definitely more casual and laidback, so a note can do more wonders for your application.
  7. Mention your availability and equipment setup. Working remotely means being prone to outages, ISP problems, etc. Reassure your client that you’re on top of things by informing them about your usual time that you’re online, as well as describing your setup and your workaround for instances when either electricity or Internet access goes down.

And with that, here’s a general cover letter template I use for applying. I tweak them for every application based on the tips above.

Hi <Client’s Name>,

I would love to apply as a <job> and be part of your team!

As someone who <insert job ad-related experience>, I am confident that I am the PERFECT person for the role. Moreover, I <insert job ad-related success stories, or more details on my experience in this job>.

Some of the skills I can bring to the table include:
<insert bullet list of relevant job skills>

I am generally online from Xam-Xpm <client timezone, based on client’s location. If unsure, use U.S. Eastern time>. Currently, I have my own laptop and an Android mobile device that can serve as my hotspot via mobile data in the event that the power goes out.

It will be my pleasure to further discuss how I can add value to your team. I am available to chat on Google Hangouts or Skype (my handle is <username>).

Thank you for considering my application, and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Very best,
Sheila

Tips on Communicating with Clients

I’ve had clients from UK, US, and Australia (though majority are from the U.S.). I’ve worked with small business owners, CEOs of top companies, and corporate-structured orgs. While I can’t make a one-size-fits-all guide for communicating with ALL of them successfully, the tips below should apply in general.

  1. Be honest. If you have questions, ask. If you can’t do it despite a couple of attempts, then don’t waste the client’s time by sitting on it. Let the client know.
  2. Be resourceful. That said, at least try Googling things first before asking or giving up. That way, you can explain to your client that you exerted your best independent effort before contacting him/her.
  3. Be proactive. If you’ve completed a task ahead of time, ask if there’s anything else you can help with. During your free time, learn a skill related to your job so you can be more efficient on it (note: do not charge training time to your client, unless he/she says it’s okay.) Think of it as a career investment which will make your client trust you more.
  4. Meet your deadlines. If you can’t make it, fire off a quick e-mail and explain how much more time you will need so your client can make adjustments on his/her end as well.
  5. Don’t cheat your company’s time. Upwork has a screenshot/webcam tool to keep your productivity high, but even if your client doesn’t check your Work Diary, be mindful of the time you spend. Don’t use it to browse your Facebook account, or other non-work related activities. Your earnings will have to reflect your efficiency as a worker.
  6. Be passionate about your company / products. As a VA, I like to read about my client’s achievements, niche, network, etc. Eventually, I’ve started to understand the nature of my client’s work more, so when I ghost-write her articles or answer correspondences on her behalf, my output end up sounding more authentic. In effect, I’ve become a (passable) extension of my client, hence helping me to jell better with her virtual team.

Q: Can you help me find a job?
A: Unfortunately not. I barely have time to feed my cats.

Q: Can you refer me to your clients?
A: I have previously recruited friends from Facebook (with no agency cuts / commissions), but please note that my client has the final say on who to hire. If interested, follow me on Facebook and keep an eye out for (sporadic) job ads from me or my online freelancer friends.

Q: Can you critique my resume / cover letter?
A: Unfortunately not. My cats are demanding masters.

Parting Words

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive guide, and I’m not exactly the solar system’s best Upwork guru. Most of my tips above worked because of my work personality–so don’t bother suing me if it backfires. :))

But kidding aside, I hope this has been helpful. I believe that the future of work is freelancing. The freedom that this job affords me is wonderful, and I will be delighted to hear if this guide can help out more folks.

Got freelancing stories or tips of your own that you want to share? Let us know in the comments.

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