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.