Upwork the fascist approach to managing freelancers

Let me set the tone for this post by saying I was selling on Elance nearly since it’s beginning. Combined, over 10-years of working with the Elance/Upwork business as both freelancer and buyer. Truth be told, I had less success as a buyer than as a seller. Rarely finding the quality of talent that I’d hoped for despite paying far more than the average offshore rates. In fact I no longer think of Upwork as even worth the time to post a job. Because I can predict who and what is going to bid – an arms length stream of “dear sir and madams, we are the best options for your solution” messages from India. If I want to teach ESL students from India and Pakistan how to do coding, I think I’d want to charge them or at least trade language and coding skills for free work. Not pay and hope my project will somehow come together. Anyway this is not meant to be a rant about the buying side, but to focus on how Upwork’s policies have become ever more draconian, and dare I say even fascist.

Let’s talk for a moment about the blatant censorship within Upwork’s Community section. A sort of propaganda platform where only pro-Upwork messages are allowed. It may sound outrageous if you’re not familiar with Upwork, that they would even try to silence dissent about their policies and business methods. Yet I’m not kidding you when I say even mild criticisms of policies or the platform result in both the messages being removed, and even warnings against the poster. I left a range of different messages in the Upwork community relating to such policies as their “forced 1-way video recording” that their using to verify freelancer identities. And even the tamest “suggestion” that the policies were invasive or unfair, or poorly executed, was immediately removed by the ever-diligent Upwork gestapo patrolling their community forums.

What’s left in those community forums are threads like “Upwork’s fees are actually quite fair”. And this kind of blatant slap on the back post is followed by a dozen or so replies chiming in “yes it’s so fair, their not raping the freelancers at all with the 20% fees”! And the thing that is so comical about this blatant censorship, is I just imagine that in reality for every positive post their is likely 20 freelancers posting “are you kidding, why would you defend this disgusting greed pig of a company”? And all those posts are removed.

Upwork is like the bureau of bad decision-making at some totalitarian regime. A legion of minions roaming around spewing out legalese try to contain the ever-growing sentiment of unrest among the population. Yet the bottom-line is, by all accounts Upwork is:

  1. Not as good as Elance. I think this is a fair and relatively mild critique. Simply put Elance as a website was stable, if a bit outdated in terms of design. Yet in years of working on Elance, I cannot recall ever seeing an error page. I saw at least 1,000 error pages in less than 6-months of working on Upwork. That is not a exaggeration for dramatic effect, I literally would see errors ever few page loads for months and when you’re working on projects and bids and logging in 10+ times per day, you can quickly reach that number.
  2. Higher costs, less value. Part of the “value” of a marketplace like Elance or it’s competitors Freelancer.com for instance, is that they provide a fast way to hire and reliable way to sell. And overall I’d say there is no going back to older, more costly, slower traditional hiring methods. Freelancer market sites, and other styles of sites for contractors and buyers to meet are going to continue! And hopefully vastly improve. But what we have right now is a “market leader” that is winning more because of trends than because of quality. Upwork being a merge of oDesk and Elance, concerned many freelancers including myself given that oDesk was always more of a junkpile of lower quality jobs, and attracted a mass of lower-priced and lower-quality sellers. Today Upwork is a mixta of these platforms, but with a lot more of the oDesk approach in that mix. Average job quality and budgets are so low that it is now much costlier for a freelancer to place 10 bids. The time cost makes one wonder, would it be efficient to just knock on doors like a 1950’s vacuum cleaner salesman? How much worse can it be than declining a stream of “can you build me a website for $25?” projects?
  3. An arrogant corporation with no sense of community. The very idea of Upwork using words like “community” is laughable. It’s a bit like North Korea’s dictators talking about the warmth of their community. Upwork has chosen a long time ago to make it’s voice, the voice of a lawyer vehemently defending a vicious sex predator. Smug, arrogant, condescending, that’s the corporate tone from Upwork in all it’s messaging. And while this tone could be more easily tolerated if it was paired with sensible and fair policies, the rampantly anti-freelancer policies Upwork continues to implement have destroyed any sense of community that might have been there. All that’s left is a small circle of defenders who are choosing to promote Upwork and hold a positive view of it against the revolt. Yet the revolt continues. And rather than promote a community sense by addressing concerns, Upwork just focuses on censoring freelancers, silencing critics anywhere it can and using corporatist language to defend it’s blatant money grab at the expense of it’s customers.

With any rant of this kind I suppose I should stop to defend the view that opinions might be formed from a limited experience or that I caused my own misuse of the platform. First off my agency and myself personally have the highest possible rating on Upwork under the new rating system. We were being frequently invited (mainly to junk jobs because that’s 99% of what Upwork has listed) to many different projects on the platform. Previously on Elance, my rating was usually in the 4.7 – 5.0 range. As far as bidding success, I’ve actually helped multiple freelancers and people working with me to learn how to win jobs using effective proposal writing. Over my career I would say I’ve won in the range of 5% of all jobs bid on, despite bidding at $30 – $40 per hour which is often the highest bid and well above averages of $10 – $15 per hour. I’d say while anybody can improve their skills and approach in business, I’m a veteran at all aspects of selling via freelancer markets. From identifying good clients and projects, to making compelling carefully thought-out proposals. When it comes to Upwork, I feel confident in saying it’s them, not me!! And you should too, if you’re having some of the same misgivings about Upwork, be confident if you previously had good experiences with Elance, you’re not alone at all in feeling this way.

I’m going to put it on record now that it’s our goal to close our Upwork account. Let me clarify that statement. One of Upwork’s corporatist tricks to inflate it’s numbers and keep shareholders excited about their sinking ship, is that they make it difficult and nearly impossible to close freelancer accounts. Their stated policy sounds reasonable, you just need to have all contracts closed says one of their help guides. The truth is you must also individually go through and withdraw any previous proposals that were never declined or otherwise answered. Thanks for using my time Upwork, where can I send you the invoice? What Upwork’s stated policies obviously never say is, that when you go to cancel it just won’t work because their website is a piece of garbage floating in a toxic sea. Nonetheless we are determined to never buy or sell with the platform again, and if possible force Upwork to close our account. We’ll be returning to Freelancer.com and other trying other platforms.

Will the future bring a shift to these type of markets? I hope so. I feel like the idea of a freelancer marketplace is so much better than the current implementation. I would especially like to see a marketplace that has minimum standards for the jobs posted. It may lead to a much smaller pool of jobs, but that’s okay. Weeding out junk jobs, unqualified buyers and other problematic posts should really be part of the service that the marketplace offers. I want real opportunities that are worth the opportunity cost of placing bids, not the illusion of a large number of jobs that Upwork provides.

Let me finally state for any new freelancers that might be evaluating Upwork and freelancer sites in general, that yes if you are successful on these platforms you can find clients there. It does “work” in that sense. It is not however, a replacement for good inbound or referral based marketing. If you’re planning to make 100K per year through Upwork where you might pay in the range of 15% once you add up the commissions and monthly fees, think about what you could do with $15,000 or a portion of that to boost your profile on social media, professional sites, to build up your own site, to provide incentives to buyers with discounts or paid referrals. Think about the full spectrum of marketing and don’t get into the habit of relying on Upwork or anybody else to do it all for you. After all while it’s never happened to me, some freelancers have had their accounts suddenly blocked for weeks and months while working on the site through no wrongdoing. Imagine if you’re travelling, expecting a payment, and suddenly a heartless corporation like Upwork freezes your account? It will hurt less if you’ve still got your own clients outside the platform that you can invoice. So at the very least keep your options open.

Freelancer Site Research

Preamble Slash Rant About Upwork

What is the state of freelancer websites today in early 2016? That’s what I wondered today after a visit to Upwork raised another question – why is Upwork the buggiest major site on the web today? Now in fairness and in terms of full disclosure we built a freelancer website over the past couple of years (FWW, freelancerworldwide.com). Still I’m not exactly biased against Upwork, having worked years on Elance before the merger and choosing that platform over Guru.com, oDesk and Freelancer.com. I’m starting however to question whether it might have been better to diversify, the focus on a single site leaves us vulnerable to mergers, outages and anything else Upwork might do. It’s been fairly well reported already by freelancers and buyers, that Upwork is down almost as much as it’s up lately. Over the past 3-months, logging in several times a day, I’ve personally seen at least 3 different errors every single day. Yes, every single day!! It’s quite common to be navigating through the site, and finding yourself suddenly on an error page. Issues have range from pages just suddenly loading error messages, to weird stuff like no contracts listed in a bid form. Or projects just suddenly not on a list where it was a moment ago. These issues usually disappear after awhile. Still it’s been quite disruptive to our freelancers who are tracking time, frequently not able to run their trackers. And if you’re in the habit of setting aside some time to reply to messages, make bids, well you better adapt to the Upwork schedule of being down randomly throughout the day.

The Freelancer Site Landscape, Lots of Options and More Specialization

Stepping back from Upwork I wondered if this unstable shipwreck is the world’s leading freelancer marketplace site then what else is out there? How are Guru, Freelancer.com and others faring? What are the trends? The first revelation was that there are more freelancer sites than I ever realized, this article ranks the top 75 freelancer sites. According to their list, Guru has dropped to 6th behind “PeoplePerHour” which until today I’ve never seen or heard of. Meanwhile Envato Studio they have ranked 3rd. Right behind them at 4th they have 99Designs.com. Two specialized sites for designs, creative in the top 4. Interesting! Is this a trend I wonder, to have more sites dedicated to specific types of work instead of the big generic freelancer parties at Upwork/Freelancer.com/Guru? At least I thought this until I peeked further into Envato Studio and realized they did have some other categories including programming and development at https://studio.envato.com/explore/websites-programming.

What are Freelancer Sites Really Providing Anyway?

The most basic concept of a freelancer site is quite simple. It’s like a dating site for companies, meet cute and do a tango. Except here we expect one side to pay for everything, so it’s more like SeekingArrangement. The idea is it’s a meeting place, freelancers go because there is work for them, clients go to get jobs done without having to do their own recruiting. It’s a win-win, but we do have to step back and ask sometimes who wins the most? Without any real data to back this up I’d say there is a fairly low level of satisfaction among clients of freelancer sites. I’d rank myself as a mildly satisfied buyer at Upwork. I’ve found some great contractors that are now part of a long-term team. Some are like employees. I do wonder sometimes though for the amount of bad freelancers I’ve met along the way, is it worth it? Could we have gotten the team we have now through some more traditional recruiting effort?

For the freelancers the question is often is it worth the commission. And usually the answer is yes. Because 90% of something is better than 100% of nothing or a lot less. Yes we do have to wonder, what do we really get for that cost. And could we be more effective in selling directly to buyers if we saved the time pouring through hundreds of project listings on freelancer sites.

My Biggest Freelancer Site Pet Peeves

  1. Buyers are still terrible at planning websites and related projects. It unfortunately but so many jobs on freelancer sites have almost no planning or clarity. It’s hard to them seriously, let alone make a useful bid. It’s time consuming to skip past these kind of jobs. Sure would be nice to have a freelancer site that was “serious jobs only” where there was some analysis of the project plans to see if they met a professional standard. Despite the obvious cost of manual review and the upset it might cause to some buyers, I think that kind of dedication to quality project planning would make a site stand out. Freelancers would feel they are using their time more efficiently.
  2. India, Pakistan and other countries are bombarding freelancer sites with ESL students. No matter how we setup our jobs with English requirements for fluency or stating clearly “don’t bid on our job if you don’t speak clear, fluent English” most bidders on Upwork would not have working levels of English. And sometimes the bidders are good enough at hiding this with template bid text or by having an English speaker place the bids that you really don’t find out until you award the job. And then it becomes quickly apparent that all communication is hopeless. And then you’re left with what, lost time, maybe some lost payment if it’s an hourly job, and the joy of explaining to somebody (who is really not entirely to blame in the situation) who doesn’t understand you very well that you must fire them because you need communication to get things done.
  3. Rating systems on most freelancer sites seem a bit sketchy. Though far be it from me to say exactly what a good rating system would be, because perhaps it’s not easy to balance the needs of buyers and sellers. The perception on many sites is if you’re not perfectly rated as a freelancer you won’t be able to compete. Upwork is quite sophisticated now in it’s ways of rating, but what is lost is any ability for freelancers to predict or understand their own ratings. It’s not clear exactly how the total is calculated. Other sites are much more simplistic with just basic star ratings. In some cases one bad rating can really ruin a freelancers hopes for competing, and this can put a lot of power in the hands of buyers allowing them to manipulate freelancers under the threat of a bad review.

Highlights (and Lowlights) from Touring Freelancer Sites

task-army-no-bidding-madnessTaskArmy claims a “no bid war” strategy. I find that interesting. It’s true that the competitive nature of freelancer sites has driven down costs and become some would say a race to the bottom. Though personally I think quality freelancers can rise above that by sticking to their price points and focusing on delivery. Yet what do you do when even the quality providers are fiercely price competitive?



envato-studio-devEnvato Studio which seems really tailored to design work does have categories like programming and development, but the listings and format do not seem to make any sense. It’s not clear what exactly the developers are offering, is it time or doing this same/similar job they mention? Are the filtering, is it relevant here? Seems like a failure to adapt the platform to fit something other than design.



The challenge and privilege of being a developer

I’ve often been a reluctant developer in recent years. There was no hesitation for me to get started building websites back in 2002 when I discovered coding for the first time. I was eager to learn coding, website development was a new frontier. And it was the first real career for me, because up until then I’d been going back and forth between various low-end sales jobs. That was the main type of job available to somebody with no high school diploma, no skills, no experience. I struggled for several years to make a minimal income, often working in commission sales jobs where my take home pay was about $4/hour. And you might be thinking that’s not bad for 1950. But this was the 90’s and in Canada at the time where the minimum wage at the time was about $7.

I recall Christmas day when I was 17 years old. I was living in Edmonton at the time and I had $4 cash and not a penny in the bank. I used that money to buy a Subway sandwich, came up short on the bill and had to ask the shop keeper to if he’d accept a check. He waved me away and I left feeling about 6-inches tall instead of 6-feet. Fast forward a few years and I’m learning how to write code after a friend told me about his work building sites for the local city. For me learning to code was an opportunity to get out of poverty. It was a way to have a skill in a field that promised a lot for those willing to learn fast and work long. I’d say “work hard”, but I think that for people not in the industry they might not really understand what working hard means in technology. For many of us  it’s more about “working long”, the investment of hours, long hours, patiently honing skills, practice and constant learning, that’s what leads to being competence and eventually mastery.

Many times the difficulties I’ve faced in building up this business have made me think of quitting. Long before I started GoldHat Group I had another firm called CustomNet Dev, which built completely custom sites before there was much use of CMS’s. I eventually closed that business down, and spent over a year out of the tech industry, working in a warehouse. A simple job, a regular wage, a lot less stress. It was a good break. What brought me back? A renewed passion for technology itself. Discovery of MVC frameworks, Drupal and CMS’s. An interest in SEO. And just marvelling at how the internet was growing. Wanting to be a part of this thing that is reshaping the world in so many ways. Part of what can sometimes make our work seem small and insignificant in this field is the vastness of the landscape. If you could build a dozen websites in 1-day, you would still be producing an incredibly tiny fraction of the sites launched that day. And many of the other sites would be bigger, bolder. I remember working for 3-months on a video site around the same time YouTube launched. I think I got paid a little more than YouTube’s original developer for the project at first. But while that site went on to become a household name, mine lasted about a year then died and now doesn’t exist at all. It’s thing like that can make you wonder what is the point of the work? It’s sometimes not as clear with digital work what the point is, there isn’t a house or a bridge or something physical and solid we can point to that showcases what we’ve created.

Every career has it’s various strong and weak points. Sometimes I want to be involved in something more physical, like sports or construction. Yet when I really look at the opportunities in those fields, I find their often not as attractive as technology. And even from a business perspective, many of the best opportunities are either directly in technology or have technology at their core. One of the principles I believe in and am trying to remind myself, is to be thankful for what you have while you strive for something you want. I don’t see myself being in development forever, but it’s a privilege to lead projects and work with dedicated people in a challenging field. It’s certainly made me stronger, because I think before I started in technology I would have been relatively quick to quit if I faced a problem. But years of having to face technical problems have caused me to feel there is always a way through or around anything. You can’t always fix it, today I’m writing this on a laptop running Linux Ubuntu and for some reason the wireless adapter doesn’t work. And yes I’ve tried each of the 57 things most commonly reported as the source of that problem. That’s the thing though with technology there is always another way. I wired this machine up to the router and I just accept this one isn’t for travel. Maybe someday I’ll fix it, but I have others so it’s not a big issue. Learning to accept that some things aren’t work fixing it part of the journey for me.

What is I think is one of the most exciting aspects of being a developer today is being able to share the opportunity with other people. Those who like me, started out with little resources, nothing but their own desire for a better life. Technology can be that answer that the hungry kid is looking for no matter what country he or she is in. People can join the technology field with very minimal barriers. If you’re passionate about learning, you can self-educate or take very affordable short courses to create your initial skills. And people in the technology field really don’t care at all what your formal education background is, because if you have a masters degree in something, even if it’s in computer science… well frankly that’s a lot of years you could have been doing real projects you dummy! Our money is usually on the smart route, people who want to be owners of their own destiny. Those who want to start off working for others, but eventually captain their own ship. Those with entrepreneurial spirit and the willingness to work hard to get there no matter what problems they face.

Do you know somebody who needs a career change, is it you? Consider technology, or a business with a technical edge.




SolarERP is GoldHat’s concept for an ERP that is simple to understand and easy to use. Sure ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software is by very nature “big”. There is no getting around that, because it’s an integrate of multiple applications that work together to run most or all of a business. And the fact is businesses need a lot of applications to get things done. Including the ability to make custom application suited to their specific business. Yet that should not stop businesses from all sizes from considering the ERP approach, in place of singular applications.

In a day where there is an app for everything, the big question is “do your apps work together”. And sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes no. Definitely API’s and cross-integrations of apps can help bridge data and functionality together. But is it seamless? Hardly. And can we all afford the costs of big ERP’s like SAP? Would they even scale to a smaller size entity? Not likely.

Our goal with SolarERP is an app that gives businesses global control over their application data. The focus being keep your data internal and secure. Give yourself the insights that come from being able to look at data across divisions of your business. Don’t allow these gaps that come up when your ecommerce software never speaks directly to accounting software. Or your contact manager can’t receive notes from social media. We want to create something like a matrix of information about a business, all interconnected and ever-growing. What is a business today? In part it’s a collection of it’s information, data and more data, and metadata about data. If everything you do and are is digital, why not harness the optimal benefit from using technology? Which would seem to be automation of processes, decision-making, even artificial intelligence.

The leading enterprises of tomorrow won’t just have killer apps, or market disruptive strategies, they will be leaders in data management. The notable difference between similar companies in a market will be how efficiently they handle their data and the processes that rely on it. This will affect everything consumers receive in value from the company. The very basis of the companies purpose and existence will hinge on it effectively collecting, storing, analyzing data.

Consumers expectations of what companies will do in terms of data management will increase as well. Recently I had the experience of filling out a paper form at a 4-star hotel in Prague. And I was a weary traveler that day and it bothered me to have to print using a pen all the information the hotel already received from Booking.com. Literally nothing new was added, they simply used my time and energy to do something they could certainly have achieved with a check-in process that better organized data. It doesn’t have to be really big changes, it’s often the details that matter. Simplifying processes, making transactions faster and easier for customers, it’s all about utilizing data effectively and planning ahead.

SolarERP is probably 2-3 years away from a beta launch at this point as we work on some of the foundation technologies we need to make it work. Here is a small glimpse of what we’ve started to build so far:

  • XML/Interface editor that allows editing XML directly or switching to a traditional application interface (web form). All web form data is saved as XML, so you can switch back and forth from XML-to-Interface and vica versa. This allows semi-technical people to quickly edit XML configuration files, or records, while still having access to an interface where it helps such as uploading images
  • XML document storage system with traditional database indexing. We’ve opted to go nosql, or nodb for the most part. But in one area where it helps, indexing/search, we’ll use a database. What’s nice is all files in XML can be version-controlled with GIT, meaning SolarERP can run anywhere that the GIT repository can be closed. The optional database indexing adds a MySQL database but we don’t need to worry about it’s status the way we do today with most systems. That’s because anything going into the database is from parsing the XML documents. The database can therefore be regenerated and updated at any time, alleviate the problems that can happen when a database is corrupted or out of date.

We're Ditching Adsense from all Our Sites

Why are we saying bye-bye to adsense? Ditching Adsense is a simple decision really, we never make any money from it. Don’t really have much more to say about it other than I knew a guy once who made 10K/month from Adsense. That was off of 22-million visitors per year on a site that needed multiple developers, a team of 8 content creators and a dedicated server. In other words off Adsense alone, the site barely could turn a profit despite massive success in terms of generating traffic. Plus it dominated a long-standing niche, ESL training and certification. Yet it still suffered from lackluster revenues per visit and overall.

For us, given how often we produce content it’s just not worth it. Plus increasingly we think the quality (or lack of quality) in the advertising shown reflects on us as webmasters and site builders and such.

How about you, are you thinking about ditching Google Adsense from your site this year?

How to Detect Bad Clients from their Choice of Words

What if “bad clients” had a language all their own? They do. When you’re in a service business detecting and avoiding bad clients is vital. Often in B2B services like website development, graphic design, there is a reality that many of the business owners that come to you for services are not going to make it. They are on-route to bancruptcy or some other form of demise, and they may try to take you with them if you don’t protect yourself. New freelancers or firm owners don’t usually understand this at first, and it takes many a hard lesson to get it. Even if you get it, will you overreact and hurt your chances of attracting good clients?

Bad clients come in a few different forms, but obviously the non-pay client is near or at the top of the list of those we want to avoid. One question that comes up here is “do I really need to detect non-pay clients, why not just enforce strict payment terms”? This is a matter of choice, because stricter payment terms may cost you sales in some cases and generally may hurt your business more than it helps. And even with strict payment terms, unless you are collecting 100% payment in advance you’re almost certain to bear some risk. After all from the buyers perspective, would you buy a B2B service like graphic design if the designer wants complete payment in advance? I wouldn’t unless it was from a very large company with a clear refund policy. Even in that scenario, it’s more a “deposit” than a payment if there is the potential to get the funds back when warranted.

What cannot be escaped it seems is that to make any business transaction happen both parties need to protect their interests. Most businesses are not looking to outright scam the other party but definitely many disputes occur over expectations, terms, payments etc. As a seller you have to strike a balance where your payment policies and other terms are still attractive and reasonable to the buyers you want, while dissuading the “bad clients” from buying at all. Or you have to learn the language bad clients use to make deals that ultimately are lose-lose. I recommend doing both!

Interestingly enough most bad deals are not where one party wins and the other loses. It’s often the case that a bad buyer will not get what they want, and will also harm you in the process. This goes back to my point earlier, some businesses are not going to make it, and the owners are suffering from some combination of bad planning, poor decision-making, unrealistic expectations. Within our business dealing mainly with website development or application programming, we find many prospective clients have a very poor understanding of what their buying. And it’s all too common to find potential buyers that have very foolish ideas about what they can achieve for a given budget or time frame. The problems aren’t always around money, it could start as an issue around schedule and then degrade into a dispute over money.

Here are some examples of what a client might say to help us identify them as a bad client:

  • “this part of the site should be really easy.” How does a client know something is easy unless they are an expert in the field? And even if they were an expert in the field, never trust them to make a fair evaluation. Chances are if it was that easy, they would not need you to do it at all. This is a statement of “I don’t want to pay much and even if that part takes 10-hours, I want to try to pay only for 2-hours and I want you to be stuck with the bulk of the bill”. In other words, danger danger, we have a bad client approaching from the east – get out the guns! Good clients never presume something is easy/simple/basic/included. All that kind of language is a negotiation tactic around paying less and taking more. And it doesn’t come people who actually want to pay for what they receive. A good client would say a similar thing as a question “what steps are involved in doing this”? or “is that a simple thing to do, how much time might be involved”?
  • “I have a budget but it’s top secret and only me and the CIA and a few carefully chosen corporate consultancy wizards know what it is. I definitely can’t even ballpark it with you other than to size it’s really sizable and don’t worry I have unlimited cash but cannot agree to any specific number”. I’ve never seen a prospective client say “I am nearly broke, my Visa is racked I’m not sure if I’ll make rent this month let alone be able to pay you for your work”. Instead non-pay candidates dodge questions around budget and in some cases act the way a drug addict acts when police ask him “do you have cocaine in your pocket”? If the question “what is your budget” results in a long story or other non-answer, beware. Especially if it’s a brush-off followed by a quick change in conversation. Bad clients will often try to get the topic back to “work you must do to please them” rather than discussing “the money we pay for the services”. Remember a deal is a trade, don’t be so eager to make the sale that you forget that work without pay is worse than just working on internal unpaid projects. People that don’t want to pay are thieves, don’t make it easy for them to target you. Politely but firmly press the issue, get a number from the prospect even if it take multiple discussions and some quoting from you.
  • “we can do that part later”. This one isn’t always a sign of a bad client because it could just be a decision to delay certain parts of a project. But in some cases what is cleverly done here by non-committal, non-payers is they are trying to avoid bearing costs by delaying work and what they’re thinking is maybe later I can sneak this item back into the project. Or they may trying to buy time to afford the item in the case of the secretly broke client who plans to non-pay.
  • Using confusion to avoid a project scope. There is no specific quote I can offer for this but to relate the recent project that motivated this post I was working with a designer who was vastly disorganized. He wanted to build a site, had a partial design, no written plan, and was unable to make decisions on features to include in the site. By making much of the discussions verbal he cleverly managed to drain my time while at the same time making the project requirements so confusing that nobody could ever prove exactly what was approved, or what payment was due for which items. Some people don’t do this intentionally, they just are confused and therefore they do business in a confusing way. This might be tolerable if they don’t mind paying for the time they waste by being disorganized. Watch out for the circle talker, somebody who will continually raise the same topic but when a decision is required they just loop write back to talking about the subject. In this particular project this designer would draw out a feature on paper, then talk about, then redraw it. Along the way, he couldn’t agree on exactly what to approve or talk about costs because his mind just doesn’t have the focus required to make progress forward.
  • I could do this myself. I’ve never ever had a good client say this. Think about if you’re buying something like writing articles, would you tell the writer “I also know how to write English, so I could do this myself so don’t go thinking your services have value or that you might be more capable in this area than me”. Even if you were an award-winning writer, would you say that to somebody you hire? Not if you have any respect for them, or the professional they work with. Personally I have 12-years programming experience and in most projects I could do 99% of the coding work myself. But when I hire other developers, I respect their skills and I need them because I cannot work 200-hours per week. So I would never degrade the situation by claiming that I can do the job, therefore they are unimportant. This is a warning sign that the prospective client doesn’t have respect for you or what you do, and generally they don’t value your time. In their mind, they could have gotten the work done for $0 by doing it themselves, so any invoice from you is too high. It gives them a feeling of justification later if they non-pay. They might even non-pay, do the work themselves then say to you “look after I ripped you off I did the work myself, proof that I didn’t need you!”.
  • I talked to another guy who said that part is easy. I think I already wrote about the people who claim work is small or easy as a way to avoid paying for it. People who claim they got a qualified opinion from someone else are almost certainly lying. Personally I don’t have time in most cases to get competing quotes for specific work. Because the time involved in getting the quote is more than the benefit. It might be different in design and other creative work. But in development it can take hours to communicate a project and get a quote. So chances are I’ll only go for more quotes if I can’t make a deal. So would it be honest to say “I already have a quote for 35-hours on this piece of work, but you’re quote is 55 so you must be mistaken”. No, and anyway the way to handle this is the same. Unless you have a reason to reconsider your quote like the client has clarified their requirements, you should stand your ground and also call their bluff. Say okay, if you send me this quotation I will evaluate the firm/contractor that provided it and see if their services and caliber of work is similar to ours, then I will consider matching the quote if that’s the case. Expect dead silence or a quick retraction from the prospect this is nothing more than ploy 95% of the time. In a situation where the prospect actually has multiple quotes, the language will be different. For example they may say honestly that “I found another guy willing to do this at $35/hour, that’s less than your rate is there any room to negotiate your rate”? Or in a fixed-rate project, they’ll talk more about what’s included and not included in the competing quote. Because fair and reasonable clients know that it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison anyway, they can’t possibly predict if the other vendor will even do the project at all, let alone what the quality or completion would be or what other costs might occur.

I hope this post helps those of you starting out as developers, designers or in any B2B service business. If you know of other language that prospective “bad clients” or non-pays use I’d love to hear it from you. After all it’s better I hear it from you and watch for it than to hear it from the next bad client.

And I’ll leave on a philosophical note here, that ultimately protecting your business against bad clients isn’t just for your benefit. It’s actually an integral part of taking care of your good clients. Because if you have to write off a thousands of dollars a year in unpaid invoices, you’ll have no choice but to pass that business cost on to the good clients that are paying your bills and are treating you fairly.


Elance Fails to Really Provide Buyers Choices

At GoldHat Group we’ve been selling and hiring on Elance for over 7-years. During that time I’ve seen the platform become more and more inundated with Indian and Pakistan based firms and freelancers. Now that’s great if you want to hire from this region. The problem is, what if you don’t? When you post a job in any category, but especially programming/development, often you get 25+ bids immediately from India/Pakistan firms. Now I’ve got a long list of reasons I’ll never try Indian or Pakistan firms again after dozens of failed projects, so I have to hide or sift through all these bids to get to the ones I’m interested in.

The reason this is an issue is that selecting the option to “Prefer Candidates from a Location” is a “preference” only and has no effect on preventing bids from regions you’re not interested in. It’s only purpose to notify the bidders that you prefer a given location. It does not restrict bids to the area(s) you choose, and Indian/Pakistan firms seem united in ignoring any preferences.

What if you really, really would like a freelancer who speaks English? No problem, every Indian/Pakistan based freelancer claims to have perfect English skills, which is often proclaimed by stating clearly “me speak the English perfect, no problem on project sirs”. Indeed, hiring them certainly won’t lead to massive communication problems and project failure.

Here is the big question, why doesn’t Elance just allow buyers to have the control they clearly want? If we want to hire in our own timezone so we can organize meetings and collaborate, only allow bids in the chosen timezone. If we require a minimum fluency in any language, why not have language testing on the site so we can determine who actually speaks at a “business ready” proficiency? And why not enable complete blocking of bids from countries/regions, so we can avoid seeing bids we never have any interest in because of a history of failed projects in that area?

The simple answer is Elance is dependent on it’s selection of low budget offshore freelancers, and in a sense feels it must promote these regions in order to remain viable. After all if the buyers from Canada and the US or Europe start hiring freelancers in their own regions or nearby, maybe we don’t need Elance at all? Maybe the result is smaller regional marketplace sites, or heaven forbid, companies putting out RFP’s and getting bids directly, bypassing any need to pay Elance fees. Speaking of Elance fees, their habit of charging fees on top of fees on top of fees isn’t sitting well with many freelancers and small firms who are finding they can get plenty of work directly without using Elance or another bidding site. So while Elance remains a major marketplace, it’s becoming a market that is increasingly avoided by serious developers and agencies. Let the Indian’s and Pakistani’s have it seems to be the consensus among most of the Canadian/American firms I’ve talked too.

I will add for any Canadian freelancers finding this post that the prevalence of Indian/Pakistani freelancers has actually helped rather than hurt quality bidders on Elance. Buyers are finding themselves forced to search the rough for diamonds. If that’s you, they are delighted to find someone who speaks English. Yes, speaking English and being able to communicate effectively about a project, once considered a basic skill to enter the market, is now a prized and highly sought after quality. You can bid $40+ on Elance projects against dozens of below $20/hour bidders and win, simply because you give the buyer confidence.

There needs to be a marketplace that provide geo-based options, and enables local/regional hiring while still supporting a globalized approach. More focus on quality assurance in the platform would also be a nice to have as a buyer. I’d like to see a platform that more actively helped us manage a remote workforce. Some of the elements of that are in place in Elance like timetracker, messaging, milestones. Yet it doesn’t always help. There is still a tendency for freelancers to get busy, forget about clients, and the platform doesn’t really provide any options in these situations other than dispute or fire. I’d like more tools around check-ins, like an integrated ticket-system where we could see the process of work and our freelancers would be able to show what they are doing and when via the platform.