What do we want? Fabulous, well-paying clients! When do we want them? Right this second! Every freelancer needs to find work, but do popular outsourcing websites like Upwork, People Per Hour, 3desk, Fiverr, and Guru actually lead to well-paid work for Virtual Assistants? Read on to find out.
Ahh, the joys of today’s gig economy. Great when you need a cheap taxi or a burger in a hurry, not always so good when (like those overworked, underpaid Uber and Deliveroo drivers) you’re the one providing the service.
Take Upwork, for example. Upwork is just one of a growing number of websites where freelancers can register, bid and apply for jobs posted by companies and individuals around the world.
On paper, Upwork is a dream for Virtual Assistants, connecting them to a pool of global clients while letting them pick and choose projects that are the perfect match to their skill set.
But when it comes down to it, is Upwork good for Virtual Assistants?
The question I know you want answering is whether registering with Upwork will lead to good clients and satisfying work and (an even bigger question), will it pay anywhere near the average hourly rate of £30 currently charged by UK Virtual Assistants?
Read on for the good, bad and the (sometimes) ugly truth in my in-depth guide to Upwork for Virtual Assistants and I’ll do my best to provide you with the answers.
I’ll even provide you with some clever tips and tricks if you do decide to go ahead and sign up.
Formerly Elance-oDesk, Upwork is a global digital network that connects freelancers to clients for task-based work. Clients can interview, hire and work with you, and then pay you at the end, entirely through the platform.
Upwork makes the bulk of its revenue through freelancers like you because it takes a chunk of your earnings (more on that later). It also makes some money from clients, through admin costs like payment processing, currency exchange charges and membership fees.
How does Upwork work?
If a client has a job that needs doing, they can search through freelancer profile listings to find the person who looks like the best match. Or they can post the job as an advert on the platform so that any freelancer who is interested can apply.
If the client chooses you for the job, they hire you by sending you a contract with set hours, pay rate and a deadline for the work to be completed.
They do all this through Upwork’s real-time chat. This feature also lets you send and receive files, keep in touch about the job, send invoices and get paid.
Basically, Upwork wants to keep everything squirrelled away within its own platform so it knows what everyone’s up to.
In fact, it all gets even more Big Brother.
If you’re on an hourly contract, Upwork will count your keystrokes and take photos of your screen every now and then to check you’re actually working and not shopping on Amazon or watching cat videos.
Upwork is algorithm-based so if you do a good job, clients can leave you a review and a rating, which helps other prospective clients decide whether or not to hire you.
Good ratings will win you badges to make your profile stand out from the crowd – something that’s super important given there are an estimated eight million other Virtual Assistants on Upwork.
My own experience
Before we go into the nuts and bolts of getting started on Upwork, I thought I’d let you know a little bit more about my own experience.
When I first set my business up in 2008, I registered on a few of these sites because, at that point, I didn’t have a clue where to find clients.
To be honest, it felt a bit like a cattle market.
I felt as if I was having to “sell myself” and prove my worth to strangers and that I had to justify my rates or lower them in order to be chosen.
It was totally demoralising.
I think many businesses on these sites are actually looking for the cheapest solution. They know they can hire someone who is willing to undercut everyone else or a freelancer living in a country with a low cost of living who can afford to do the job for half the price.
My experience at the time was that unless you were willing to undervalue and underprice yourself, it was hard to be selected.
What do other Virtual Assistants think about Upwork?
Now, that was my personal experience and, for transparency, it has been a very, very long time since I tried to get any work through freelancing job sites.
However, many members of my Facebook group say they get a lot of work through Upwork.
When I asked for personal experiences using these kinds of websites, there were some incredibly positive comments and about Upwork in particular:
“Upwork has been extremely successful for me. I think it all depends on the VA and how much work they’re willing to put in. It does take some time to build up ratings and there’s a ton of “rejection” just getting started but it can pay off if you stick with it. The majority of my long-term clients have come from Upwork. They pay extremely well and I’ve gotten tons of referrals from them too.”
“I use Upwork and literally have clients fall in my lap DAILY. I’ve worked hard to gain a Top Rated Plus status so I get tons of invitations, especially from enterprise clients. The downside is they do take a percentage of your earnings (that’s how they profit), but the more you earn with a specific client, the less Upwork takes in fees on any contracts with that client.”
What kind of work is there for Virtual Assistants on Upwork?
A quick look at current job listings on Upwork for Virtual Assistants brings up tens of thousands of admin jobs, ranging from research, data entry, customer service, blog post writing, social media and bookkeeping. There are one-off projects as well as ongoing work on both fixed-price and hourly contracts.
In fact, in the world of admin jobs, if you can name it, chances are it’ll be on there, as this member of your VA Handbookers Facebook group can testify…
“I’ve had several long-term brilliant clients from Upwork and they all pay my hourly rate. I’ve been managing the marketing for a chauffeur business since Feb 2018. This year I’ve worked for a tuition school managing social media and since October 2020 I’ve been working for a meditation teacher managing admin/customer service/marketing. The meditation teacher is Alistair Appleton (BBC Escape to the Country) so well-known people use Upwork too!”
Is Upwork free for Virtual Assistants to use?
It doesn’t cost anything to set up your Upwork profile, but once you start earning you’ll be charged a fee as a percentage. This works on a sliding scale per client as they want to reward and encourage long-term relationships.
You’re charged 20% for the first $500 you bill a client, 10% for billings between $500.01 and $10,000 and 5% for total billings over $10,000.
Confused? Think of it like this.
Say you earn $600 from a project with a new client, you’d pay 20% on the first $500 and 10% on the remaining $100, which means you’d end up with $490.
You also have to ‘pay’ to apply for jobs, using Upwork’s virtual currency which they call ‘Connects’. This feature was added to the site in May 2019 because employers were finding that they were getting hundreds of proposals to sift through.
Upwork’s logic is that when freelancers are asked to pay to make a proposal, it weeds out any time wasters and people who are not really qualified to do the task.
Which kinda makes sense.
Paying to apply for a job isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because you get 40 Upwork Connects for free when you sign up, then ten free per month after that on the standard free plan which is called Freelance Basic.
You can also earn Connects by taking the Upwork Readiness Test, winning an interview, completing a skill certification or earning a talent badge.
Can’t be arsed with all that? You can also just buy Connects for $0.15 each which are sold in bundles of 10, 20, 40, 60, and 80.
Can Virtual Assistants make money from Upwork?
Whenever I ask the Facebook group if they get work from these kinds of job sites, the results are always mixed.
While many VAs report that lucrative VA work and Upwork don’t always go hand in hand:
“I often get replies to my proposals and get turned down A LOT after I give my hourly rate. It seems like people are charging lower rates and there and businesses go to Upwork expecting “cheaper” professionals.”
“It definitely seems like the lower-priced bids win more. I had one CEO basically tell me I was being outbid by those in other countries that can live on $5/h.”
“I got a couple of one-off projects which paid OK, but low-cost competition made getting more work very difficult. I tried multiple platforms and generally found the clients didn’t want to pay what the work was worth.”
“I found them to be a waste of time and full of scammers wanting you for a role completely different to the one they advertise and normally involved selling puppies (which I guess are non-existent) for them – which infuriated me and I told them as much, only not quite as polite as that. I can’t be bothered with them, the pay is awful too.”
“I refuse to compete with someone who will charge $7 for a service I charge $30 for. It’s not my bag.”
“I was rejected from Upwork but ended up approved in 2020 and think the only luck I’ve had on it is this one potential client. A friend of mine has had great luck with it and is currently working for someone in Mexico, but I feel like I’m an animal at the market. Also, what incentive is there for me to pay for Connects when 90% of the time I’m going to be undercut. I’d rather put that money towards ads for my services.”
But then other Virtual Assistants say they make decent money from the site.
“It’s true that clients are often looking for a better or easier deal, but I found two clients through Upwork – a BIG global Fortune 500 company a consumer goods startup. I never expected to find these clients on Upwork but they have given me all my work and treat me like their employees. The rates started off lower than I wanted but I was able to bump this up after showing them my worth.”
Strategies for being successful on Upwork
As you can see, the feedback on Upwork is very mixed however, the successful ones seem to have a clear strategy. Their advice is:
Go niche – the most successful VAs on Upwork tend to specialise in in-demand services which means they can command a higher price for their services. So don’t go too general when you’re writing your profile.
Instead, focus on just one or two things you’re good at and that are highly sought-after by clients. Use these skills as keywords and sprinkle them throughout your profile.
Here are the ten most in-demand admin skills on Upwork for 2022.
Set your filters – when searching Upwork for jobs, set your filters so you only see listings in the UK (if you’re a UK-based VA obvs).
It’s much easier working with people who share your working culture and, although it’s not always the case, UK clients might be more likely to pay a semi-decent wage.
Don’t compete in a race to the bottom – quality clients will always want quality freelancers. So don’t be afraid to set your hourly rate at the amount you’d be happy to work for and always bid what YOU think the job is worth.
Yes, even if that means exceeding the client’s stated budget!
This is usually just a placeholder figure anyway, as most employers have no idea of what it costs to do the job they’re posting.
Pricing higher than the dozens of other freelancers bidding for the work is actually a good way to demonstrate your expertise and can set you apart from the rest.
One of the Virtual Assistants from your Facebook group uses just this strategy.
“I’ve had more setbacks than success, most coming back saying I’m too high priced. However, I politely go back explaining my time is valuable and my service standards are high, you get what you pay for.”
Read client reviews – before you send a proposal for the job you’ve got your eye on, read reviews of the client written by freelancers who’ve worked for them.
If they’ve got previous for scope creep, stinginess or just being a nightmare to work with, you’ll get a feel for it.
How do I land my first Virtual Assistant job on Upwork?
Total Upwork newbie? Getting your first VA job on Upwork means you have to bid for it. Only those who’ve been working via the site for a long time will have built up the reputation it takes to get clients to approach them.
You bid for a job by writing a proposal, which is a bit like a cover letter. Writing winning proposals can be time-consuming, so choose which jobs you apply for carefully.
Search the site regularly and pounce on any new postings like a hyena on a wildebeest.
Clients often fill positions from the first ten applications they receive, so you have to get your proposal in fast if you’re to stand any chance at all. If there are more than 25 proposals already submitted, forget it. You’re going to be wasting your time.
How do I write a killer VA proposal on Upwork?
While your Upwork profile is your shop window, crafting a badass proposal is even more important when it comes to landing clients.
It’s the only way you’ll convince prospective employers to hire you, as this VA Handbooker (and total Upwork pro) explains…
“I make sure every proposal I write is very specific to the job and includes details about why I’m the best fit. If the job entails advanced Excel experience, for example, I make sure to include that I am an Excel expert and share some previous jobs that are similar.”
Land more clients on Upwork with these proposal-writing tips.
Make it personal – addressing the client by name will make your proposal stand out from the gazillions of templated versions they’ll receive. You can normally find out a client’s name in seconds, by looking at their freelancer feedback.
Make it tailored – sending thousands of off-the-peg proposals will cost you Connects and won’t win you the work anyway.
It’s much better to send 10 proposals that are carefully tailored to the job you’re applying for than 100 that aren’t, as it shows the client you care about their project.
Make it all about the client – each job on Upwork represents a problem to be solved. So forget writing irrelevant paragraphs about yourself, your education or even your work history and instead, focus entirely on what you can do for the client and how you’d go about solving their particular problem.
How do I optimise my profile on Upwork?
Creating your profile is the first thing you’ll do on Upwork and it’s worth taking the time to make it a good ‘un.
This will probably take you half a day, at least.
At its very basic, writing a good VA profile on Upwork means making sure EVERY section is as complete as possible – yes, even the boring sections, like education.
Choose an eye-catching title along with a professional-looking photo and add testimonials from past and present clients.
You should also optimise your Upwork profile by sprinkling it with a few relevant industry keywords related to your niche, to help the site’s algorithm find you.
The most crucial part of any VA profile on Upwork is the overview.
Write this with your dream client firmly in mind – what are they looking for? What are their problems or goals, and how would you go about solving them?
Make sure your bio is focused on how you will improve their lives, not the other way around!
Why does Upwork keep rejecting my profile?
Getting your Upwork profile rejected is a common complaint from the VAs in the Facebook group.
“I tried twice to get on Upwork and was rejected both times! Yet the VA agency I worked through managed it and found the client that she subsequently placed me with. So it’s not a complete waste of time.”
So, if you’ve been rejected, don’t take it personally – and don’t give up. There’s an algorithm that decides whether you get accepted or not, and it’s not uncommon to have a profile rejected three or four times before you finally nail one that beats the system.
Make sure you’re using a business email, rather than Gmail or Hotmail, and the more specialised you can make your profile sound, the better.
Upwork receives tens of thousands of submissions from Virtual Assistants each week so drilling down into a niche that has lower submissions, such as a WordPress developer or social media manager, for example, is more likely to see your profile accepted.
So, is Upwork a good site for Virtual Assistants?
Say the word ‘Upwork’ to a group of VAs and you’ll quickly hear plenty of horror stories, scams, dubious accountancy practices, clients disappearing and clients wanting the moon on a stick for a tenner.
But some VAs do make money on Upwork – it just takes time and effort and knowing how to play the game.
If you’re struggling to get clients you have nothing to lose (except a big chunk of your waking hours and perhaps even a bit of your soul) by giving these freelancing job sites a go.
In my opinion, I still think it’s better to decide who you want to work with and then contact those clients directly rather than sitting around hoping to be picked.
Instead, be proactive with your marketing. Choose the tasks you want to do and the services you want to offer and then find the people who need those services instead of taking on every piece of work that comes your way.
As you’ve seen, Upwork seems to be a pretty potential revenue source for VAs and so I guess it shouldn’t be written off.
However, my advice is to treat the platform in the same way as your other marketing efforts. Find out how it works, give it your best effort, assess the results and if you decide that it isn’t working for you, turn your attention elsewhere.
Wanna sort your marketing once and for all?
Marketing is simple once you understand how it works because, while the platforms we use will always change, the principles remain the same
Learn the principles of marketing and you will always know how to get work.