Upwork Sucks! #1 Freelance Site Is HORRIBLE
Author’s Note: the below article is written from the freelancer point of view rather than a business owner looking to hire freelancers. Whichever you are, hopefully my experience sheds light on both positive and negative aspects of online freelancing. Although my first year on Upwork left me feeling quite jaded, I still maintain an active profile where you are free to hire me for WordPress optimization work (until I get banned); better yet, check out LittleBizzy if lightning-fast WordPress hosting is your #1 objective.
Update 9/11/2015: Upwork.com has become so slow and buggy in recent weeks that today execs were forced to publicly admit they couldn’t figure out why, although they apparently blamed “abnormal traffic spikes” for the problems (which have been happening ever since the re-branding of Upwork Inc, according to many users). Naturally, they locked the forum thread so that nobody could post a reply… meanwhile, traffic to this blog post continues to surge as a result of overwhelming frustration.
Update 9/14/2015: You know its getting bad when freelancers are launching full-time Twitter accounts to expose all the problems with the Upwork website, from connection timeouts, to CloudFlare 522 errors, to a laundry list of feature bugs.
Update 9/21/2015: Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel continued to prove his unbelievable incompetence today when he emailed 10+ million freelancers, apologizing for website “slowness” during “September 7-10” (only) … despite the website still being inundated with programming bugs and poor performance, and despite these issues having existed for several months already (in fact, I now have Upwork leads emailing my company LittleBizzy because their “Slack-killer!” messaging system is down, yet again). I would actually feel sorry for Kasriel, except for the fact that he is a) dishonest and b) shows no loyalty to the top freelancers within the Upwork network…
Update 10/11/2015: Upwork has now removed the “5-star” rating system from freelancer profiles in favor of the so-called Job Success Score they announced earlier… I honestly think this might be a step in the right direction to combat clients taking freelancers “hostage” over stars, as it makes the feedback more low profile. Still, it really doesn’t matter when $2.84/hour is considered “Expert Level” work… outrageous.
Update 10/25/2015: Yesterday I received yet ANOTHER warning from Upwork, stating: “Job application cancelled for a policy violation” issued to me by the Filipino freelancers that make up Upwork’s “support” team for “submitting the same job application multiple times on Upwork” which I did not, of course, do. After responding to them, “Seriously, are you Filipino freelancers blind?” I was issued yet ANOTHER warning “Account flagged for Policy Violation” for “making discriminatory or offensive remarks, threats, profanity, or vulgarity”… but after sending them the link to this article and thanking them for providing yet even more ridiculous content for this saga, they suddenly closed out the “warning” tickets! It is beyond clear at this point that Upwork is 100% over… it is now nothing more than a clusterf*ck of third world countries, with the investors and executives behind Upwork completely uninterested in turning the ship around.
Freelancing is the future — or so they keep telling us. For years, experts have been saying that upwards of 40% of Americans will be employed as freelancers by 2020 (although the clarification between “full-time” vs “part-time” freelancers seems oft-ignored).
The massive force behind this trend is, of course, the internet, along with its “easier” ways of hiring, firing, communicating, organizing, and sending money to people.
Enter Upwork, the largest freelance marketplace in the world, a result of the recent merge and 2015 re-branding of oDesk + eLance, previously the first and second most popular freelancing websites, respectively. The company has raised over $74 million in funding since being founded in 2005 — which, despite being notable, actually pales in comparison to the funding that most modern startups receive.
Which is why, ultimately, Upwork’s recent re-branding and constant CEO shuffle (eLance CEO Fabio Rosati took over as oDesk-eLance CEO in December 2013, a strange occurrence when it comes to buyouts; then Stephane Kasriel was named as yet another new CEO in April 2015), is so illustrative. When top executives keep abandoning ship and desperate, overreaching re-branding campaigns take place (despite overwhelmingly negative feedback), there is clearly something bigger going on.
But, let’s back up for just a minute.
My First Six Months With Upwork
For several years, I totally avoided freelancing websites. Despite wandering the globe through most of my 20s and being in desperate need of income half the time, I survived mostly from my own web projects and the various long-term clients and local opportunities I came across. I had always been under the impression that freelance sites were more of a place to hire “cheap” help from India, etc. a la Four Hour Work Week, rather than a place where I could offer any value or pick up decent clients of my own. This was an entirely narrow-minded view, although not a wholly unfounded one.
After becoming something of an expert in website loading speed, I decided to join oDesk in the fall of 2014 just for kicks after being partially re-inspired by a webinar uploaded by Wyatt Jozwowski. I charged my first client literally $1 for several hours of optimization work just to get my foot in the door, and in return received an amazingly positive review from him that helped open the floodgates to more and more oDesk clients. The experience largely influenced the re-launch of my managed WordPress hosting company, LittleBizzy, in the spring of 2015, at which point I put together a quick case study of my first 6 months on Upwork called SEO is dead that focused on the growing importance of loading speed, SSL (HTTPS), mobile support, and good old fashioned common business sense when it comes to finding success on the internet.
The amount of time I invested into Upwork during those first 6 months was absolutely insane in light of the unremarkable net profit I pulled in, although I fully expected (and was willing) to make sacrifices to get my profile juiced up nicely. But even when charging $33/hour – far above the average on Upwork – and picking up several long-term clients along the way, the numbers truly didn’t add up when considering the overall time, expense, stress, scheduling, and annoyance that Upwork caused me.
“Despite the fact that freelancers need to go through hell and high water to gain the highest verification level on UpWork, the persistent unskilled newbies from the Third World countries came flooding in on this site. Hopefully it will sort out the problem with the unskilled workforce overpopulation and UpWork will remain a harbor of safe labor and respect for skill, not cheapness. … The demographics of UpWork’s population are rather tilted towards the different sides of the planet – the most classic scheme one would find on UpWork is some USA or UK employer hiring a European or Eastern European freelancer.” — Idan Cohen
Still, by developing various tricks I was able to increase my profits and leverage various income streams into my business. At the 6 month point, the only justification I had to continue was that I had several long-term clients who were counting on me and who trusted me to pretty much bill when and what I thought was best (but even still, I could have easily brought all those clients away from the Upwork system – their idea, not mine!). With the launch of LittleBizzy, I had further incentive to develop new relationships across the web with successful business owners, so I bit the bullet and buckled down.
My Second Six Months With Upwork
At this point, I was (and still am) the #1 ranked WordPress expert on Upwork out of more than 10 million freelancers around the world (probably not accurate, but hey, I will take it, and thank you very much…); I am also #2 ranked for “Upwork Readiness” in the world and also rank among the top in skill tests such as English Spelling, English Grammar, and Search Engine Optimization. This, along with the fact that I now had over 50+ positive reviews on my profile and was also marked “Top Rated” in the Upwork system, helped me begin generating automatic inquires from new clients which definitely helped me save time looking up new job postings and sending in proposals; after all, clients who WANT you are the easiest to convert into paying accounts!
I did, however, eventually run into some problems after several months. Firstly, despite my rather quick mastery of the Upwork system (which I can hopefully throw together into a CollegeTimes eBook soon), I did actually end up refunding 2 clients on small projects who suddenly had huge temper tantrums. Rather than getting a negative review(s) left on my Upwork profile, I decided to maintain my 5.00 star ranking and otherwise perfect record by simply refunding these two clients, no questions asked.
Secondly, I began to notice that I was slowing down drastically as far as connecting with new clients. This was probably due largely in part to being busy with the long-term clients I had already acquired earlier, however, since one of my goals was to keep meeting new people (as part of my multi-prong business strategy), it did hurt my ability to achieve those goals simultaneously. Billable hours are wonderful, but at a certain point the “freelancing” (and constant emailing, helping, etc, at all hours) was hurting my ability to scale my hosting business, let alone remain organized with the various revenue streams and even non-business parts of my life that I wished to focus on. But as this was somewhat related to freelancing in general, I can’t fully blame Upwork for such issues.
However, last week (and the main inspiration for publishing this blog post) I ran into my biggest Upwork drama yet: a whack-job (“feminist”) client from Canada with a huge ego and absolutely no understanding of web technology decided to “report” me to Upwork for “purposefully deleting her website” after calling me a “sick” and “evil” “terrorist” from America; she was surprised because “weren’t all terrorists supposed to be from the Middle East!?” This nightmare was the result of me breaking one of my own rules: immediately cut off any client who replies to emails with short-phrase answers or who generally seems clueless about what they need. Long story short, this charade turned into a 100+ email exchange between me, the client, and her Indian developer (“the best WordPress developer she’d seen in 17 years”) who had hacked her WordPress template so badly it resulted in over 800+ queries executing on every page load, which continually crashed her MySQL database. Despite me offering her several hours of free explanations/advice, and even giving her a temporary “free” hosting plan upgrade so that she could see that more RAM would be necessary to handle her hacked template, she went ahead and filed an “hourly dispute” against me on Upwork.
The dispute, which seeks a refund for the randomly chosen amount of “4 hours of work” was filed on 22 August, 2015 (9 days ago from time of writing). Since that time, I have had all of my earned funds “frozen” on Upwork (bank transfers have been totally disabled on my account), I was unable to apply to new jobs or bill my current clients for existing contracts (10+ month old contracts) until just a few days ago, and have not received a reply from the Upwork team in over 4 days in regard to the resolution of this dispute, despite their TOS promising 48-hour resolutions to all hourly disputes (and despite me wasting several hours of time preparing all the evidence their Mediation team had requested to prove this client was, in fact, lying). When I contacted Upwork “support” yesterday for an update, I found myself chatting with a teenage freelancer from the Philippines literally working out of his bedroom, answering my legal questions!
Update 9/1/2015: This morning, 10 days after the dispute was filed, I finally re-gained access to my account and funds. I received a brief apology, despite an earlier warning (below) that further complaints would get me “permanently banned” from Upwork:
Hi Jesse, We are pleased to inform that your account has now been resumed. Please be reminded to adhere to all Upwork policies going forward. You can read more about our policies here: https://www.upwork.com/info/terms/ … Please note that if you violate this policy or any other Upwork policy again, your account will be permanently suspended. Please feel free to contact our Support Team if you need assistance. Thank you. Regards, Eu M. Upwork Trust & Safety
In any case, despite tons of wasted time and constantly struggling to distinguish myself among an ocean of extremely ignorant, incompetent, and unbelievably “cheap” people on both the freelancer and client sides of Upwork, I did end up connecting with dozens of talented, professional, and inspiring people (who I hope to know for many years). As of today, I have not necessarily become anti-freelance sites, but have rather concluded that without a drastically new approach (or specializing the playing field), highly-skilled people will continue to shy away from dominant freelancing markets.
The Never-Ending PR Struggle of Upwork
In late 2012, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong posted on Quora (now famously) that hiring people from the likes of oDesk or eLance is a bad idea, because “end products” never turn out more than “merely okay” or usually “failure” – directly insulting the dozens of remote workers that the company employed at the time:
“You shouldn’t do this; it will probably result in failure. I have a friend who is a designer (so, closer to technology and implementation than a business person; about as close as you can be without being outright technical yourself), and he was hiring developers via eLance. Even with consultation from friends of his (e.g. me) who were real engineers, it was extremely difficult to find decent engineers who could do the things he needed, deliver reliably, and iterate according to ongoing testing/customer feedback. The end product was merely “okay” – kind of slow, with little glitches here and there. If you have total technical ignorance and no local (friend) resources to help you, hiring from eLance or oDesk is almost impossible to do correctly. I would recommend trying another route.” — Reddit CEO Yishan Wong
Just months later, Reddit raised another $50 million in venture funding and Wong decided to immediately force all remote workers to either move to San Francisco, or be fired (initially, Wong gave them less than a few weeks to decide).
Now, I’ve never been a fan of Reddit (a post for another day), but when the CEO of one of the web’s largest social platforms makes such controversial comments, people listen. And, while I understand the premise of Wong’s view (or other similar views), his opinion is simply wrong. There are a vast amount of seriously talented freelancers on websites like Upwork; the problem is NOT the freelancers, its the way that websites like Upwork function (or perhaps, the way that amateurs like Wong manage their remote team).
Eventually, Wong left Reddit (in late 2014) after disagreements over – you guessed it – office and staff expansion in San Francisco. But the biggest hilarity of all was when Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel tried to capitalize off the story to attract these cream-of-the-crop freelancers into the sh*tty world of Upwork. But there’s a reason why Upwork is so desperate for cheeky attention in the face of round after round of lackluster fundraising, and its something that even Redditors seem to understand.
An Inherently Flawed Business Model
Companies like Automattic (the owners of WordPress software) have used remote-work teams for several years with amazing success; the error that dumbasses like Yishan Wong often make is equating freelancing with Upwork, or Upwork with freelancing.
I have no shame in being a “freelancer” — that being said, I indeed felt like a bit of a loser “competing” with millions of Third World “freelancers” on Upwork with poor English skills, questionable ability, and hourly rates that make working at the LAX McDonald’s look like a dream job (unlike “freelance” attorneys or accountants, the vast world of web development has no mandatory “bar” to pass).
But Upwork wasn’t always like this; indeed, I can remember the early days of oDesk when they tried to market themselves to corporate teams and project management, before it all caved in and became IndiaDesk — the problem was that their digital marketing strategy chose to prioritize “biggest” over being the “best” or the “only.”
Here’s an (ongoing) list of negative things I encountered over this past year, which in total made Upwork a barely-worthwhile resource for me:
- Instability: I have no idea who is in control of the design and functionality of Upwork.com but the sudden, illogical changes in design and constant crashing of the site and messaging system rendered Upwork 100% useless around once a week or more… not to mention their Ubuntu client is non-functional
- Expensive: While I appreciate Upwork trying to simplify the fees process by charging a flat 10% commission fee on all work, this is truly a huge ripoff on long-term contracts especially when its so easy to take clients off the site and over to PayPal or otherwise… I never did this in an effort to remain loyal and abide by TOS, but at least 50% of my clients suggested dumping the Upwork payment system and hiring me directly… despite “experts” constantly quitting Upwork, a few months ago they had the nerve to send out a “survey” asking how freelancers felt about a whopping 18% commission charge as part of a planned fee re-structuring
- Rudeness: The spoiled, ego-maniac clients on Upwork who read Four Hour Work Week and think they are the next Zuckerberg expect things like “highly detailed” proposals or demand ridiculous turn-around time or 24/7 availability, but 90% of the time you will not get a client if you charge more than $2/hour… commonly, these “clients” will have sudden temper tantrums, so spending time writing “custom” proposal messages or delivering quality work is almost never worth the effort (Note: the majority of Upwork clients are not this bad, but it happened often enough to matter)
- “Cheap”-ness: Even when you do write “custom” proposals, most clients are too “cheap” or non-professional to consider your high quality fair-priced proposal, so they exchange several demanding messages with you (wasting further time) and then ultimately bail, usually making up an excuse so as to not appear “cheap” (or, they attempt to blackmail you on $20 gigs by demanding free SEO consulting “and if its good enough, I will consider changing my review of you to 5 stars”)
- No Support: Upwork tries to make a glorious statement about the quality of freelancing by hiring freelancers from their own site to… help manage their own site. This is not necessarily a bad idea, but when I’m being threatened with lawsuits and being called a “terrorist” by a whack-job client (after my cash has been frozen for 10 days), chatting with a teenager from the Philippines is not my idea of supporting the highly skilled freelancers who make or break the reputation of your community
- No Loyalty: By constantly focusing on growth, Upwork is stuck in a recurring Catch-22 where they approach their network like the TSA, assuming everyone is a scammer and bringing down efficiency standards for everyone because of it; naturally, people keep quitting the site and Upwork is forced to focus on growth again. If I was the CEO of Upwork, I would break my back to make sure my top rated freelancers were treated like effing kings, offer them dedicated support agents, and give them the benefit of the doubt any time a complaint or dispute was filed against them. What justification exactly do talented freelancers have in keeping long-term clients in a “Dante’s Inferno” billing system besides its kind-of useful time tracking app? (Thankfully, there are many other time tracking and time sheet solutions out there these days.)
Any half-decent MBA graduate should be able to explain what is going on behind the scenes of Upwork and its ever-shaky reputation among investors: Upwork is ultimately nothing more than an easily-replicated attempt to capitalize off a growing economic trend without adding any real value to the process of freelancing, or any real incentive for freelancers to stick around after acquiring a handful of client leads. In other words, Upwork is neither a necessary tool for people to begin freelancing, nor do they provide any reason for freelancers to retain Upwork as a “tool” of the trade after their client base grows up. At the end of the day, the only thing that websites like Upwork really provide is a wildly unpredictable stream of client “leads” to a wildly unpredictable market of freelancers – and a whole lot of guaranteed time wasting.
“If you want great clients who are willing to pay well for your time you need to specialize and solve real business problems. If you’re just ‘building WordPress themes’ then you are in competition with oDesk and you’ll continue to be in competition till you change your business model.” — Curtis Mchale
Upwork Is A Massive Conflict Of Interest
But that’s just the thing: Upwork’s investor-backed goals are not concerned with quality, they are concerned with concepts like “market penetration” and vanity metrics such as the following: “As of May 2014, Upwork reported $1B in annual billings, 10 million freelancers and 4 million clients worldwide.” Any good investor knows that cash flow means nothing apart from net income growth and sign-ups mean nothing without a strong retention rate: The typical Upwork client either grows quickly frustrated re: poor quality freelancers and wasted time shopping around, and the typical Upwork freelancer grows quickly frustrated re: poor quality clients and wasted time sending proposals. It is a constant, vicious cycle of poor quality, wasted time from doing menial tasks (the very thing that these users were trying to get away from doing), and perhaps, ocassionally connecting with a few good quality people in which case they quickly take their business relationship off of Upwork to save on costs and save on time (and annoyance).
The company’s desperate, cheeky PR moves don’t help. Earlier this year, Upwork was quick to make an inflated job offer to Nina Mufleh, the girl whose online resume aimed at AirBnB went viral around Silicon Valley and beyond. Are Upwork execs really that clueless when it comes to what their website needs to improve, or do they simply prefer the worthless soundbites they achieve with stupid PR stunts?
Upwork is, no doubt, the largest freelance marketplace — but like WalMart, it’s a marketplace for the cheap-ass ignorant wannabes of the world, or anyone else too lazy to walk across the street to Trader Joes — let alone cook dinner at home.