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Ask HN: Are freelancer sites (e.g. Odesk, Elance) useless?
116 points by fatpanda 2083 days ago | hide | past | web | 67 comments | favorite
So I submitted a few gigs to freelance sites like Odesk, freelancer.com, elance etc. I used the handy guide provided by Derek Sivers on how to write up a good "help wanted" ad.

I was looking for a skilled designer to produce a simple UI.

After about 2 minutes, I received around 8 applications on odesk and freelancer.com. By the end of the day, I had around 40 applications in total.

Problem is: almost all of them sucked. Very disappointing indeed.

Has anyone out there actually found a good designer / developer on one of these freelance sites? Care to share tips?

As a rule, you can toss every response you get in the first hour. As you've noticed, there are tons on people on those sites who send out the same canned proposal to every single listing. That level of attention is a good indicator of how the rest of your project will go if you're foolish enough to take one of them on.

Wait a few days. If you've written a good project description (and if you're a bit lucky), you'll start to see a few qualified proposals trickle in.

This is the main problem with freelancing sites. The race to the bottom finished years ago, and the result is that there are simply no good developers or designers left there. It's actually an opportunity waiting for talented newcomers, since a single person showing up and acting professionally would get the job described by this poster (and everybody else who goes there seriously looking to build something).

I took the time to write up my experiences with these freelance sites a few years back:


Thanks for tip. You're absolutely right, most of the first once were automated and totally crap. This was evidenced by the fact that they didn't contain the test "I AM REAL" statement which was intended to filter out the spammers.

I'll wait it out a bit longer before calling it quits on these sites.

I work as a django freelancer and have picked up over a dozen sites and built up quite the portfolio in less than a year on Elance. I've met some awesome clients there, and i think the kind of people you attract also reflect on the kind of person you are, and what you want out of it.

A lot of people expect a work of someone at 100$/hr but only want to pay 10-20$/hr.

- Price is a pretty good differentiating factor.

- Communication is another. If he can speak/communicate well then you can still work with him even if he's not a "rockstar"

- Portfolio of work. is he able to deliver a product by himself?

- Get references of past clients. Infact as a freelancer myself, they're my biggest selling point. I simply hand out references of 3-4 clients i've worked with.

- And to be honest, things like "I am real", actually put me and probably other professionals off from your post. You have to treat us like professionals, and not like cheap throw-away labour!

- Be as descriptive as possible, add mockups, add anything that might help a person to judge the effort/skillset needed for that job. Otherwise it indicates, you didn't do much homework and want us to fill in all the blanks. To outsource anything, you actually have to put in more time initially than the actual dev!

"things like "I am real", actually put me and probably other professionals off from your post."

I suspect the poster's goal was to easily identify those responders who didn't even bother to read the posting (or those posters who were machines!). Is there a less offensive way he could have obtained this information?

Well yeah sure, by asking pertinent questions about the project or how i "might" solve X. What technology might be good for X etc? In my opinion it gets a conversation going, which might be a better way of judging someones worth(goes both ways).

Posting "I am real" looks more like a test for "i'm smarter than a 5th grader"? But other freelancers might differ on this.

Think of it like a CAPTCHA. It's not a reflection on you as a person, and it's not much of an imposition — it's just a way to stave of an inevitable flood of illegitimate requests.

And just like captcha, expect a decline in conversion :-), that's all i'm saying.

I asked for a pencil sketch of a logo idea. Went with the only artist who submitted one. I even ended up using the original idea.

Pro tip here, I have spent a few hundred thousand in the past few years outsourcing on these sites and the simple - "please respond in the Private Message area with the phrase 'i am real'" goes very long way in filtering out these bad providers.

Additionally have them restate in their own words what they feel that you want from them. It is amazing how much miscommunications happens at that initial stage.

I think asking them to say "I am Real" is a waste of time. You could get much more useful information by asking them to do something else that would also show that they read your instructions.

I prefer to ask them to demonstrate their knowledge or skills in some way. Either:

a) researching something very minor that will only take 5-10 minutes

b) including samples of something very specific they did that is relevant to the task you posted

And then if they don't include what you requested, you can delete them because they obviously didn't read it.

This was evidenced by the fact that they didn't contain the test "I AM REAL" statement which was intended to filter out the spammers.

Sorry, but this is stupid. I think a developer should write a dedicated message. That is, you should figure it out from the message you get, you don't need such things. I actually ignore buyers that put such rules.

I've no experience of these sites, but asking dev's to put "i am real" strikes me as something they're doing out of desperation of dealing with fake requests etc.

This implies to me that they will be all the more appreciative when you turn out to actually be real! A client that appreciates you from the get go, well that has to be a good thing, no?

The problem is that it's disrespectful in the first place. Who wants to be part of a group that is so little respected? How hard is it to make an evaluation that doesn't devalue the audience?

Harder than you think. OTOH, how hard is it (on your feelings) to type 'i am human'?

From the other side of the fence, I can tell you its extremely difficult to find reasonable clients as a programmer on one of these sites. The expectations are almost always unreasonable, and the rates clients are willing to pay are very low.

When I had started using various sites of this type, my intention was to take projects at below my normal rate to fill in "dead time" -- I'd decided I could settle for $25 an hour. This number proved virtually impossible to meet except for the rare client who needed something immediately and was willing to pay $50-$75 to have something fixed.

The end result? I think competent programmers are driven away from these sites because the financial rewards are simply not worth it. I found getting projects at $20/hour a challenge, and $15/hour typical. To put that in perspective I was charging my more typical clients $50/hour at the time.

I think it really depends on your specific set of skills. If you have a niche skill that a lot of $2-3 an hour programmers aren't going to be able to duplicate, there will be a few higher paying gigs. I only joined oDesk recently but have already had some luck with Haskell development. If your primary skill is, say, PHP or Ruby you might have more trouble.

I have the opposite problem. I'm a former mobile game engineer at an RoR shop, and decided to go the freelance route, recently. However, I have no idea where to start.

I initially went to the sites listed above, but eh...every job had hundreds of bids offering absurd rates (no, you are not going to build a Facebook clone for $200 dollars in 10 days).

Anyone have any tips on how to find clients who understand the market and are willing to pay for quality work?

My first freelance gig came from oDesk a couple of years ago, and since then I've gone on to freelance full time. I'm not an expert on the subject by any stretch, but this is the best advice I can give:

* Don't try and compete on price. A lot of freelancers on the site can go lower, and you'll end up broke. Besides, if a client is more interested in saving a few dollars than paying for a decent worker, you're saving yourself a lot of future pain.

* When you apply for something, say what you'll do and give a rough idea of how you'll solve their problem. It only has to be a few paragraphs, but you'll have put more thought in than 99% of other applicants.

* Look for jobs that mention an ongoing relationship. This usually means they have a lot more work and want to try things out.

All of my work now comes from referrals which in some way originate from the first job I did on oDesk. It was discouraging when I was rejected for jobs despite putting in the effort, but the work paid off in the end. Best of luck!

Don't try and compete on price.

Agreed, it's a game that you're not going to win. I found that even if a client said "No way, that's my limit," they'd often come back a day later asking me to work for the original amount of money I'd quoted.

I recently blogged about how I got started freelancing here:


"Don't try and compete on price." This is very good advice.

We've been using Odesk for about 5 years now for overflow and large projects. From the buyer side of things, communication is key. If you can communicate well and promptly it will go a long way towards instilling confidence in the buyer.

For buyers just going to Odesk for the first time, expect to be bitten in the ass a few times. All of the knowledge in the world isn't going to save you from having a developer half a world away bail on you for no reason.

Look for freelancers that are a part of a group, as a whole they are more responsible than single freelancers.

I really like your approach, obvious but it didn't cross my mind before. Using the freelancing sites to bootstrap yourself but aiming towards long-term relationships and referrals. Two questions though: 1. Can you share what you do as a freelancer? 2. You are not longer active on oDesk or any other freelance sites then?

1. I started doing custom blog plugins, but have also done e-commerce sites, Facebook apps and custom web applications. I'm a coder, not a designer, but that hasn't caused any problems for me so far.

2. Haven't touched oDesk since my first job there. I might use it again in the future, but to be honest I found searching for work there rather depressing with all the low rates.

Do you (and others) still rely mostly on these sites now, or have you moved beyond that completely? If you have, how long did it take?

I was extremely fortunate in that my first job on oDesk led to everything else.

One thing I would recommend is looking for potential clients that need help with blogs, especially in a non-technical field. If they're at the point where they're paying for help, they probably have a good network of friends they can refer you to if you do a good job.

I have had quite a bit of success using these services.

Here are a few of my tips:

1. As jasonkester said, wait at least a week before you start looking at proposals and making your decision. You get a lot of crap in the first few days, and you want to give the "good" people enough time to find and read it.

2. Be really clear and specific with your RFP. Go in into as much detail as possible, and look for responses that indicate that they have read it. Also, make sure you use a descriptive headline. You're competing with quite a few people, so you want your project to stand out.

3. Ask a few specific questions in your description. This is not only a great way to start to grasp their domain knowledge, but you also can filter out people who haven't read it (similar to #2).

4. When you have narrowed down your selection to 3 or 4, send them an even more detailed description of your project and arrange a Skype call. It's easy to be deceptive via email, but if you have someone on the phone you can quickly gauge how competent they are on the fly. Treat it like a real phone interview for a job you've had in the past, except you are the interviewer.

Good luck!

The good ones stay away from this kind of sites. The only chance is to catch someone good and promising before he gets buried under piles of works, raises the prices and no longer needs those sites ;)

Seems to be my pattern. I've got to increase my rates 100% in last 6 months, and I have still had to say No to some customers/additional work, because of enough work.

I've got encouraging comments from my customers, but dont think I am that good. (Probably/Hopefully Dunning-Kruger effect in play).

For those as curious as me: "The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority."[1]


It is not Dunning-Kruger effect. It is impostor syndrome.


I have no psychology experience but after reading the wikipedia page of Impostor Syndrome, Dunning-Kruger effect, and skimming through Dunning and Kruger's Nobel Prize paper[1] there is a third effect/syndrome that seems to be involved: False consensus effect [2]. They state: "Simply, put, these participants assumed that because they performed so well, their peers must have performed well likewise."[1]. If you are interested as how they reached that conclusion refer to section "Burden of Expertise" on page 1131 (pdf page 11) in [1].

As an extra note: The Impostor syndrome is not an officially recognized psychological disorder[3]. I've seen the Impostor syndrome mentioned many times but had never taken time to read the complete wikipedia page.

[1]http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~dunning/publications/pdf/un... [2]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_consensus_effect [3]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

Agreed, that was exactly my experience as a freelancer. I got a couple of jobs quickly by charging extremely low prices, and after receiving feedback i got quite a lot of traction. immediately raised the prices, and now i'm thinking of cutting out the middle-man.

also, the quality of most of the job requests is pretty low as well.

The good ones stay away from this kind of sites.

Yes and no; I would get a job, and usually lots more work would come as a direct result of that. Out of interest, once or twice a month, I'd take a look back on the site to see if there was anything interesting I'd like to work on, and if so, I would.

I have been on both sides of these freelance sites. I freelanced through them when I was in school.

Now I occasionally outsource some of our work through these websites. Following are the tips that usually work for me:

- Freelance Outsourcing works best for smaller projects with a clear scope. Examples: web design, PSD to XHTML, WordPress / CMS themes etc. It works best in this use case because a lot of people have such requirements. Freelancers are well versed with it, and they have usually worked on at least one similar project.

- Find the designers / developers who have worked on a project similar like yours. There are freelancers who are expert at a particular stack / technology / framework. Example: Wordpress, Django, Code Igniter, iOS experts. They don't apply at every listing unlike most freelancers. Once you shortlist them, invite them to apply for your listing and review their past work.

"Freelance Outsourcing works best for smaller projects with a clear scope"

Agreed. This is exactly the kind of outsourcing my website focuses on.

You have on one end of the spectrum "project outsourcing" (odesk, elance, ...) and on the other end "microtask outsourcing" (fiverr), and in between there is http://taskarmy.com that focuses on skilled tasks.

I am looking for more quality developers on it, especially PHP. Please submit your service if you are interested.


If you are searching for a designer, the sites listed above are not the right places, i'd try with 99designs.com or manually searching a designer from dribbble.com.

If you decide to go the 99design way (easier maybe) read this: http://blog.trisse.com/2011/05/09/how-to-make-the-most-of-yo...

Thanks for the link - very good tips there.

I think you're right with dribbble. I've also been looking into Behance.net and Creattica. Have you had good experiences with directly approaching designers?

Never had the need for the high quality design the users of those sites provide, yet :) But even if there isn't an automated process to manage requests, i guess that (1)selecting a few of them, (2)sending a customized project/request description and (3)asking for a quote shouldn't be too much of an overhead, you have to do the most time consuming task (2) even if you decide to use 99designs. The main difference between the two approach will be the price, btw.

Hey, maybe some of you freelance web developers could make a site like Dribbble, but for developers: invite-only, high quality developers, and screenshots/descriptions of completed projects. Maybe client ratings/recommendations too.

I feel like GitHub is the Dribbble for developers (except for the exclusivity).

You'll probably gather more out of their code than screenshots of what they've been a part of.

Yeah, github is a great way for developers to see what other developers are like, but it doesn't tell you which developers are looking for freelance work, nor does it help nontechnical people figure out who is good (unless it has some recommendation system that I don't know about)

I'm currently working with an excellent Django developer (in China) and a top-notch designer/front-end dev (in Serbia). Found them both through oDesk.

Apply a bit of filtering. One trick I use is asking a simple domain-knowledge type question in the posting. Ignore everyone who doesn't read it properly or doesn't bother answering. That will instantly cut a lot of the crud out.

Sorry to have to use HN for this as you don't have an email address in your profile, but could I get in touch with your designer in Serbia please?

Good idea thanks! Care to put me in touch with your django developer? I'm actually moving to China shortly.

I work on oDesk as an ASP.NET developer. I never apply to any jobs. The more experienced employers don't usually post their projects publicly; they create private projects, and then send out invitations encouraging selected individuals to apply. That way they avoid receiving low-quality responses.

This is a good point, but to get invited you need to have a good history.

What did you do when you started to get your first clients?

I started the regular way, by creating a profile, taking the time to fill in my job history properly, and to do as many oDesk tests as possible. I set my initial price lowish to reflect absence of history.

The first jobs I got were not in IT but in translation and copywriting, where demonstrating my skills was much easier. To get the first job in IT, I had to offer references outside oDesk - which were followed up - to make my profile credible.

Once I had my first jobs, my main focus was on delivering very high quality work - even if it was not always very well paid - so as to build up a very positive feedback history. My main focus at this stage was on creating a good profile, not making money.

Once I had enough history and feedback, new job offers started rolling in, and I stopped looking for work.

As someone who had posted jobs on oDesk, I have to say that even the low skilled jobs (data entry) are poorly done. I've also posted some higher skilled jobs like basic stuff based on Zend and it too was a disappointment. I've now learned my lesson on higher skilled jobs (design and dev) going after HTML chop shops, 99designs or real designers with websites.

I'm still looking for somewhere for cheap mechanical labor (basic writing gigs, data entry etc). Anyone have any suggestions?

http://taskarmy.com focuses on task outsourcing instead of project outsourcing.

Disclaimer: my baby.

I've found some good designer/developers through freelance sites like Guru and Elance and even Craigslist.

My trick, if it is one, is to put a human face on my postings. I share a little about who I am, a young entrepreneur trying to do something cool.

This usually helps get 1 or 2 posts that are by someone whose a good match and it usually goes well from there.

I've just signed up on odesk as a freelance programmer. Do you think it will scare people away if I say that my English skill is 3 stars out of 5 ? I'm afraid people aren't willing to work with guys who are not fluent in English... By the way, does anyone know if there are Europeans posting jobs on odesk ?

From what you just posted your English sounds fine. If your English isn't great, and you feel there is some miscommunication, make sure not to hide it but just to ask for verification about what you're thinking you need to do.

Thank you, actually on Odesk 3 stars mean fluent in written English, but not so good in spoken English. I wonder if a lot of people need to communicate on skype for example.

Yeah, there are Europeans posting jobs, I'm currently doing a project for some cool swedes.

Reading the comments here is actually somewhat interesting. I've considered doing a bit of freelancing for some extra cash (I'm in college now) but I always assumed that the people on these sites were pros and that I wouldn't stand a chance.

Maybe I'll have to give freelancing another thought!

Go for it, you just need a bit of patience in the beginning, but if you comminicate well in your proposal (provide some rough ideas about possible implementations, related experience, etc.) you stand a good chance of getting work. Once you get a few good reviews you stand a better chance that you will be invited to work without having to apply directly as well.

In average the response you'll receive on free lance marketplaces will always be disappointing, but if the project is not too complicate, you can always find someone good enough to do it.

One option is to invite coders to bid on your project by looking at their past experiences and find some that may relate to the type of project you have.

Other than that, and I know I've said this before, the best coders on free lance sites are those that ask questions relevant to your project description.

While you can safely discard all those that submit generic bids with links to their portfolios without any type of comment about the project they are bidding on, those that ask questions are the ones you want to work with.

The best way to use these sites is to find the one developer on there that is actually competent and then make a closed project that speaks directly to that provider. Sure you will pay $25 to $60 per hour, but you will get damn good service and quality. The rest of it is a crap shoot.

I've outsourced a ton, spending >$5k over the past 8-years or so. I've written a little about how best to outsource through these platforms: http://www.keithmander.com/?p=243

Thanks Keith. It was a good read. Also liked your post on ebay hacks!

As a rule of thumb, if you are looking for a developer on these websites, focus your search on eastern europeans and skip the indians and pakistanis.

Of course there are good indians, but more often than not, you would be wasting your time.

In short, yes I have found good designers. One of the keys is to give 4 or 5 of the best applicants a small test project before moving forward

'handy guide provided by Derek Sivers on how to write up a good "help wanted" ad.' Can you suggest a link , where I can find the ad you are referring ! thanks

the recently launched http://codeyouridea.com looks like an interesting take on the problem. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2540909

my odesk secret: only pitch developers you want to work for you. The inbound stuff is all crap, where as I've found several awesome developers and designers who I contact via email on a regular basis, and bill all work through oDesk.

The sites under discussion are very explicitly not for spec work. Because they make their money by taking a percentage from the payment, in fact, they do everything they can to make sure all work is paid.

How is this related at all?

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