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Tell HN: Now is the perfect time to roll out a new freelance platform
52 points by ehhe on Aug 17, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments
The Elance is going to be shut down soon and merged into oDesk aka Upwork. And Upwork is an absolute disaster.

The messaging system doesn't work. The stats don't work. The search barely works. The ranking system is a joke. The invoices they send to clients are illegal in Europe.[https://community.upwork.com/t5/Clients/Name-on-a-received-invoice/m-p/92225#U92225]

And for the last few days, the job application system -- arguably, the most important thing on the whole website -- stopped working.

If you want to appreciate the full extend of the disaster, just visit their forum and see what their freelancers and clients have to say about it: https://community.upwork.com

They are already loosing people and the only reason anyone's still using them is the lack of a better alternative.

This is the perfect chance for a new platform.

How can you build a platform that doesn't race to the bottom but allows it to extract the value added (and hence profits) from collecting and vetting great talent?

I always imagine the interaction with supply (quality freelance developer) and demand (company needing work done) to be like this:

Company: "I need great freelancers!" Dev: "I'm a great freelancer! My rate is $100/hr [or whatever]!"

[Company interviews Dev, sees prev results, feels happy w/Dev]

Company: "Great! We'll pay you that for the first few days on this platform, then engage you for long term projects off the platform. That way, we don't have to pay Matching Site the finder's fee."

The end point you imagine there often does not happen because it is REALLY useful to have an escrow agent inbetween. I use odesk/upwork personally, and it provides me a lot of value.

It bills my work to my clients weekly, and automatically withdraws the money from their credit card. This means if a client is unhappy with a freelancer it's easy for them to start a dialogue and start it early; and at the same time the freelancer has protection with less-than-honest clients and can lose, at most, a week's worth of work.

Compare this to normal freelancer contracts where the cash is typically paid monthly, with a delay of 14+ days after receipt of invoice. If a client acts in bad faith in that case, the freelancer loses a lot more, and to get money back, would have to go through international courts, which often costs more than the money they lost.

Very helpful insight, thanks. To summarize - the value added services of billing, monitoring and dispute resolution make it worthwhile for the contractor to use the service.

The 'value' could be more modest - small subscription charges or one time fees. Being listed as a dev for, say, $10/year, with extra charges for being at the top of the list, extra pictures/listings, etc.

Some modest pay to list fee for a project, then extra tools unlocked for more $.

Even large placement agencies usually only try to get a cut of your salary for 6 months usually, then you 'go direct'. ("contract to hire" standards I've generally seen in my experience).

Toptal arguably does this, but it's not an open freelance platform by any means.

I think that vetting both sides would be one way, albeit a bit difficult to really do once you're trying to scale.

Full disclosure: I work with Gigster.

We noticed the same broken things here. I don't want to give Elance/UpWork too hard a time - they can be good for some things (like Data Entry, etc) but clearly their model has some issues when it comes to development projects.

Where our model is different is that all of our projects have a dedicated Product Manager who overseas the build for fixed-price projects. The developers and clients deal directly with the project's PM (not with each other). That saves time for the client. It adds a layer but this counter-intuitively improves communication. I speak broken Spanish. So if I run into a Spanish speaker who speaks broken English then we can communicate. That's fine if we're doing something simple but if the nuance of different words matters then we'll do much better if we have a professional translator who's a native speaker in both languages in between us.

I actually interviewed the former CEO of oDesk for my blog a few years ago (long before Gigster existed) so I've been following this space and thinking about where it's heading for a while. That's why I agree with the OP about the opportunity for a new platform to rise in this space and the fundamental issue that a race to the bottom will impact the quality of the build.

@jalopy & @mithaldu - I think what you're alluding to is the simplicity of not having to deal with all the pain of being a freelancer (client management, paperwork, etc). That's our appeal to developers: we give them specs and they can just focus on building, not marketing themselves, client management, etc.

@logn - Eerily similar to how we operate.

Do you guys have any plans of hiring experienced remote PM's in a similar way that you hire freelance devs?

The major issue I am finding with the new platforms like gigster and toptal is their negotiation strategies.

It is in their best interest to keep deal-flow high, which means that they try not to reject submitted projects and try to push the low prices onto the developer.

If a developer from India knows his chops and can run circles around JS-developers in Silicon Valley, he will also know that he can charge $100 per hour, over-deliver and still be cheaper than a bootcamp-JS guy.

Yet Toptal will negotiate a rate of $25 (or thereabouts), based on some average-pricing they use and justifying that "this is what most devs charge in your area, so $100 per hour will be too high, simply cause you're in India".

Also, this is a new account asking this question... It got me wondering whether this is some backhanded marketing-PR for gigster.

I can confirm that Upwork is an unmitigated disaster. As someone trying to get started and hire a contractor, I couldn't figure how to do some very basic things. It's truly mind-boggling how bad it is.

Everyone involved in the design and programming should be placed on some kind of industry Do-Not-Hire list.

> the only reason anyone's still using them is the lack of a better alternative

That, however, is not true. Freelancer.com has been around forever and is much better. (By which I mean it's functional — a vast improvement over Upwork.)

You really have a way with words. I loved reading your comment.

My thoughts for a good freelancer platform (after having used them extensively) --

1. Require specs. If needed make this be marketplace listed work too, to write a spec.

2. Require flat-priced projects. Site moderators will handle scope-creep disputes.

3. Track each project's overall cost and analyze how much each developer actually costs for projects.

I think this would help eliminate the problem that low cost hourly devs sometimes make up for their pricing in quantity.

I'm a freelance developer and I hire people to do small, well defined jobs for me all the time from these sites (data entry, ms word to clean html conversions, etc.).

I've used elance extensively and I'm very, VERY disappointed with how the "transition" to upwork has gone. It is bordering on unusable and has added a lot of difficulty to what should be a straightforward transaction. What a disaster.

So yes, I would agree that there needs to be another competitor that is straightforward to use and definitely an opportunity here. I feel like Metcalfe's Law / network effects of the existing sites might be difficult to overcome, but its worth a shot!

Thanks for the tip. I'm going to make one where the rates aren't disclosed in the search feature, and billing options are only available in per-day and per-week increments. :P

What about Gigster? https://trygigster.com/

They are part of the Summer Class of 2015 for Y-Combinator and are really promising. You basically sign up to be a Gigster and then get paired with gigs that pay. Within a week you could be up and running with real projects that actually pay.

Gigster handles all the PM and HR related functions of a business and quickly gets jobs to you so you can start right away.

Has anyone here even made any money from these sites? I looked at them a couple times to earn some beer money. The jobs are always vague or the low rates offered by some programmers makes the market less appealing.

I simply cannot compete on price with those living in India and Pakistan. Sorry, I can't do programming for $8 an hour. All these sites are packed full of people who will do the job for less than you. I honestly think the only way to get some decent gigs is by going to a site that is US only or Europe only.

It's possible you can't compete, but you shouldn't just assume it. Based on my admittedly limited experience hiring people on these freelancing platforms, the majority of contractors are terrible. Even ones with 5-star average ratings can be completely incompetent.

Thus, for one recent project, I could have chosen from a dozen C++ programmers, all highly rated, charging around $10/hour, but I went straight for the guy charging $60/hour. He did the job perfectly in 7 hours. My hunch, based on past experience, is the alternative would have been days and days of sorting through disappointing results from 3 or 4 different $10/hour jokers before finally giving up.

I would be very interested in a platform that somehow performed real quality control and only accepted people charging a minimum of $50/hour, so that I was virtually guaranteed to only deal with competent professionals who would reliably deliver.

You mean like gun.io ?

No, not like that. Thanks for telling me about gun.io, because I hadn't heard of them, but they seem like basically just a slightly hipper version of a contract programming agency, and there are many of those. I don't want to deal with a concierge and sort through resumes (to reiterate, I can already get that exact service from dozens of established agencies) and I don't want to hire people for weeks/months to be "part of the team" -- which seems to be what gun.io is geared towards. I could be misunderstanding what they do, of course.

For my purposes, I like the elance/Freelancer model, where I can post a job and quickly hire someone to do 2 hours or 20 hours of specific work. I've just been very disappointed with the quality of work I've gotten every single time I've used these services (with one exception, noted above).

Yeah, you're misunderstanding what they do. It's like elance, but without the race to the bottom on pricing. You can do everything from very small jobs up to hiring them directly into your company.

Gun helps you find somebody that fits your requirements, which I think is a step up from elance and the like. They even kick freelancers out of the system if they scam customers or produce poor quality work.

I'm not surprised you're disappointed with the quality of work from elance and similar. Anyone and their dog can offer services through that platform, and the reality is that the people doing the hiring often don't know what they actually want and they don't know how to evaluate the quality of what they're given (on a technical level), so it's pretty easy for a bad developer to get a 5 star rating.

CEO of gun.io here - thanks for the kind words :)

we're not perfect by any means, but i'm happy to see there's love for what we're about!

What you're about is the reason I use the platform as a freelancer :)

I started looking for freelance jobs on Elance at the end of June for fun. I've since completed 7 super simple tasks and made $1200. It's definitely a race to the bottom and I'm lucky to have a cushy fulltime web developer job because it'd be hard to live off of Elance earnings alone. But as a hobby it's not bad. Completely agree though, clients tend to be super vague in their job listings and their budgets are miniscule. Every once in a while I find a gem though and it can be satisfying to help someone out remotely for some extra cash.

Do you have any ideas on what changes could be made to make it less of a race to the bottom? Charge a fee to post jobs? Enforce a minimum $/hr?

I honestly don't know if it's possible or even something that should be prevented. There will always be people in countries with lower costs of living that can offer to do a job remotely for cheaper. I don't know if it's fair necessarily to exclude them and keep pricing higher artificially just for our (developers) benefit. This is supply and demand on a global scale. Fortunately, I found that overseas developers who offer to do those jobs for pennies also often deliver subpar quality and have poor communication skills. That's where I can stand out and capitalize on that competitive advantage. Clients that want to pay ridiculously low amounts for huge, complex tasks are clients I don't want to work with anyways. They tend to be a giant pain in the ass. The overseas developers can gladly take them. Clients that know the value of my more expensive rates are the ones that tend to be easier to work with and have less unreasonable expectations. It's just a matter of trying to find those clients that get it.

> Clients that know the value of my more expensive rates are the ones that tend to be easier to work with and have less unreasonable expectations. It's just a matter of trying to find those clients that get it.

Based on your previous post, it doesn't sound like you get these kinds of clients on elance often. That makes perfect sense to me; elance and odesk have a reputation of being race to the bottom sites, so why would somebody go there looking for quality devs?

Thinking about this some more, it's possible the site I wished existed isn't in the same field as odesk and elance. Those tend to be for shorter, cheaper projects. What I'm looking for is a marketplace for higher end freelance devs, so it's easier for work to find me and so somebody else handles all the escrow details.

Absolutely. I skim every single job posting under web programming on Elance and sometimes a week goes by before one shows up that's promising enough to apply to. It's not ideal, but to me this is fine right now because I'm really just doing this as a hobby. I like the short and sub-$500 fixed price projects because it allows me to test the waters with a new client. If they are too annoying to work with, I get the job done quickly and move on. My goal is to pick up recurring clients this way over time that have already been vetted by me with these smaller projects. For that Elance is not too bad. Upwork on the other hand is a huge mess...

There are definitely some sites out there that help higher end developers and clients to find each other. I see gun.io mentioned a lot. Someone posted about trygigster.com here too. The problem I have with those sites is that they focus too much on the top 5% of developers and huge company clients. There are plenty of competent freelancers that aren't rockstar developers and many good clients that aren't Fortune 500 businesses. It seems there isn't a marketplace for those mid-range freelancers and clients. I'd love a site like that!

I never understood how can people earn that much on these sites. I'm trying since mid-july and earned about $120. I'm looking for HTML/JS/PHP jobs with little/no luck. Can you give some advice?

I focus on job posts by people in the US and emphasize my almost 2 decade experience in web development, my location (California), and my reliability. Clients in the US often prefer freelancers in the US because they've been burned by overseas devs before. I also mostly apply to jobs that aren't that easy to people with less experience (so I avoid any Wordpress/Joomla/Magento jobs, or any of the "convert PSD to HTML" jobs). It always helps to read the job posting entirely and ask clarifying questions in the proposal (shows that you've read it). Also, try to customize your proposal to each client as much as possible.


What about freelancer.com? (formerly vworker)

Freelancer.com isn't "former VWorker".

VWorker.com (which was formerly rentacoder.com) has been bought up by Freelancer.com, which co-existed for some time.


It's the perfect chance for a newer platform that already exists. If people are leaving because of trust issues, then they will go somewhere that people can already recommend which means it needs to already be released and have some customers.

It's not the trust issues, it's that the current platform is literally doesn't work most of the time.

But I do agree with you, a newer platform that already exists probably has a better chance. All they need is some marketing directed at frustrated upwork users.

Excellent. Thank you for this. Perfect timing.

freelancer.com is a similar, race-to-the-bottom type of system.

Background: I am the COO of Toptal

While these technical problems with Upwork’s platform certainly do seem very problematic, I’m not sure that “now is the time to roll out a new freelance platform” is the right conclusion, at least not without some revision.

- For starters, there are plenty of open freelance marketplaces out there that operate pretty much exactly in the same way as Upwork (Freelancer.com, for example). Some are more specialized (like 99designs), but in general the list is pretty endless. Adding another identical platform to the mix is unlikely to accomplish much.

- The real issue is that the operating model for freelance platforms has been broken. This has been the case for a long time, and is unrelated to Upwork’s technical issues.

The open marketplace model falls short in several ways, many of which relate to the “race to the bottom” phenomenon that other responses here mention:

For companies:

a. There’s no quality assurance and profiles/test scores can be fabricated.

b. You have to deal with a large volume of bids, and sifting through them defeats one of the top reasons people hire freelancers: to move fast.

c. There’s very little in the way of protection on any engagement. The risk of your project getting botched by someone incompetent or your freelancer disappearing is significant.

For freelancers:

a. Talented professionals have to deal with absurdly low bids from unqualified people. Many freelancers are forced to lower their rate to below what they’re worth just to get any work.

b. The large volume of bids for most projects means that it can be much tougher to stand out. The most talented freelancers are often the worst self-promoters.

c. There’s no protection from clients with unrealistic expectations.

Long-term, these are the problems that successful freelance models will need to be able to solve at scale. Is this doable? I certainly think so - it’s what we’ve been working on at Toptal. Here’s what we believe the solution looks like, and therefore how we’ve built Toptal to behave:

- All engagements need to solve these problems both for freelancers and for clients. Clients are looking for great freelancers and freelancers are looking for great clients. Therefore the solution is to thoroughly vet both freelancers AND clients.

- Vetting must be rigorous and done in a non-automated, non-riggable, extremely thorough way. Freelancers must be able to set their own rates and not have to worry about low-bid contests. Only clients with serious projects who are ready to pay freelancers what they’re worth need apply. No race to the bottom.

- There must be a high level of support during ALL engagements, even at scale. Clients should only meet freelancers who were handpicked for their project, and vice versa. This also solves the problem of high bid volumes.

- Support should continue throughout the engagement to resolve conflicts and ensure success.

This is exactly how Toptal has operated for several years now for freelance software developers, and it has worked quite well--even though we made some mistakes along the way. While this has been primarily in the software development space thus far, the principles apply to other types of freelance work as well.

Bottom line: Upwork’s technical issues are certainly problematic, but there are larger issues that freelance platform models will need to solve in the long run.

Very good points.

I wasn't necessarily advocating for another upwork copycat. All I was trying to say by this post is that if there's a new or existing platform that works (unlike Upwork) and is superior in some way (i.e. it solves the problems you pointed out), now is the time to ride the wave.

I was aware of TopTal, but according to your website your platform only solves those problems for 'the top 3%'. Even if we assume that two thirds of the freelancers on Upwork are completely incompetent, then there's still 30% of perfectly competent and capable people who also need work.

Still I earn $40-50/h on Upwork while being from Eastern Europe and TopTal limits me to $25/h because "well, people in your region are poor, you should be poor too".

This is most certainly false. If this actually happened to you, email me: breanden@toptal.com.

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