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Ask HN: Do Americans stand a chance on freelance sites?
122 points by lss456 on June 4, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments
I've recently started bidding projects on freelance sites, mostly for web design/programming. I'm bidding against people who will work for $10/hour or less and do really good work. Can Americans get freelance jobs on these sites at a decent wage? Say $20/hour or better?

Absolutely. Just make a point of never competing with the $10/hr crowd.

Take a minute and read a few of those cheap bids. Do they inspire confidence? If you were an employer, would you honestly believe that the person who wrote that bid is capable of building the thing you're trying to build? Of course not. They all sound like a bunch of desperate children trying to get away with something. If you want to take work from them, all you need to do is not sound like a desperate child trying to get away with something.

Take 10 minutes and write a good proposal, with a summary of the project, your basic approach to solving it, and what you think it would realistically take to do the job. Quote your full rate, and don't worry even for a second that your bid is ten times higher than the next highest one. You're sending a message that "I can actually pull this off", and the best way to do that is to distance yourself as far as possible from the herd.

If you succeed, the project owner will end up looking at two stacks of bids. One stack will have 150 flaky looking quotes to do the whole project for $300, none of which stand out as inspiring much confidence. The other stack will have a single well written proposal, quoting a bit more than he'd expected to pay, but clearly from a guy who has done this before and can do it again.

His choice is now: Sift through that rubbish pile and hope I get lucky, or go with the expensive guy.

That's a pretty good place to be.

I have to agree. When it ultimately comes down to it, you shouldn't be competing with the $10/hr crowd.

Clients that understand the importance of good design and solid code knows that it costs money and they're willing to pay for it. Clients that think $10/hr is a normal rate are probably bad clients with an unrealistic expectation of how much work it takes to produce a good website. They'll be late to pay and double the scope of the project.

When I freelance, I usually go through a talent agency. This guarantees payment, the clients are usually much bigger and the projects much more exciting than mom and pop stuff I'd find myself or on those freelancing sites. With them, I'm getting at least $35/hr full time for the period of the project. Sure, not as high as my personal rate when I deal with clients directly, but I enjoy the peace of mind that buffer provides. Plus working through an agency, I never run out of work because it's their job to find work for me. I usually go back and froth between agency and direct work.

Do you mind sharing the name of some of these agencies?

I agree. However, you will be passed over by most project posters for one of two reasons:

1) They aren't serious, and are posting the project to get a sense of how much it may cost them to develop an idea.

or 2) They don't care or are ignorant of quality issues when choosing a $10/hr bid.

As developers, we scoff at badly written code - it offends us. But as a business person, especially the cheap ones, as long as it works and accomplishes the goal, you're happy.

You should ask yourself if that's who you want to work for. You won't capture every dollar posted using the method above, but it will filter out the non-serious and non-quality minded project owners.

This is so true. Taking the second point first ... I keep thinking that -eventually- the market will find it's equilibrium with regards to price/quality for serious projects. Budding entrepreneurs get on these sites, post something, and get screwed by one of these $5/hr people (often and likely, not every time I admit). You would think that they learn by their mistake and come back the second time with different expectations in price and quality. However, there must be an endless supply of budding "entrepreneurs" as I have not seen any leveling off yet.

I use oDesk and Elance. I have looked at, yes many, other sites but the signal to noise ration is just so low and there are only so many hours in the day. I have had much more success finding serious projects on oDesk more so than Elance. I'm curious what others have experienced. And jwwest, you are absolutely right. There are many projects posted that clearly are not intended to proceed. You can't always tell from the post alone. But after some experience, you can certainly tell from the pattern of how a post ages (in conjunction with how it is written).

The project proposals are often incomplete, so my strategy is to make a bid, and in the comments ask intelligent questions about the project and design to show I'm serious and experienced. So far no takers on that.

It could be that the project posters aren't serious, or that they're not impressed by my credentials/portfolio, or maybe my higher price.

Does anyone in the HN community regularly bid on freelance projects and get them?

That sounds like a good strategy. I'm not sure which site you're looking at, but elance and several other sites offer tests that you can take to prove your skills. I'd say a day or two spent on those is time well spent, and generally inspires confidence in the buyers.

There are a number of other free or inexpensive things you can do to make yourself look better: use a sharp looking picture of yourself, have a halfways decent website (a one page site is OK - leaps and bounds better than nothing), email @yourdomain.com, toll free numbers are fairly inexpensive, sign up for a BBB membership, etc.

Also, I can't stress enough that you need to have good clear writing that touts whatever skills you have. (On your profile and your personal site.) Don't lie, but do brag a little. If you're not the best at copy-writing, have a friend look over it.

Also, make sure to mention which city you're in / near, as many buyers prefer to work with someone local.

It's OK to specify on your personal site that you only accept work through [XYZ freelance site].

A blog on your site is a bit more work, but can pay off in the long run. You won't get a lot of business directly through the blog, but it will help boost your google rankings which _will_ bring in business. Keep it strictly limited to informative articles on topics you're interested in working on, and try to post regularly - at least once a week to get started.

Lastly, you want some referrals from me, leave your info here: http://nfriedly.com/techblog/2010/12/calling-all-avaiable-we...

Oh, and what everybody else has said: raise your rates. Start at $45/hr and raise it by $5 every few months.

I often go one step further, and highlight a very broad range in a bid, stating that my proposal is hourly at rate x. Then explain the reasons for needing an hourly assessment: lacking functional specification, requirements, etc. - making it impossible for me to determine an accurate project timeline.

I include a few points that can help them clear up ambiguity in their project requirements, and generally offer an hour of project review as a complimentary service.

On this call (or meeting if they are close), you can quickly determine if they are just trying to get a free hour, or if they are genuinely interested in a more experienced consultant who can really help them with their project.

My experience is about 25% of posters will respond to such a bid/proposal. Of those 25%, about 33% are actually looking for assistance and open to paying for experience.

Notes: I moonlight, and usually bid on projects for which I estimate 40-120 hrs of work, and they are generally in the realm of system administration, database optimization, and php (often on shared hosting). Not the greatest client group with which to work, but you encounter some interesting challenges.

Exactly. Last year I had to choose between a 600 lawyer and a 6k lawyer, guess whom I went with? The 6k lawyer, because even though I am not a lawyer, I could tell the $600 dude was just rambling and did not even understand the seriousness of my case (or maybe he just didn't care)

Are you assuming that all $10 code is bad? What if its done in India by an awesome engineer and his $10 equates to $45 here? So he is actually a high end developer there competing with someone here.

I personally took on a project and didn't like it a bit, so I passed it on to India. That was the furthest my $200 ever went on a $5k project. It was not poetry, but no better or worse than the average. My advice, don't swim upstream and complain about the currents, this is your cue to scale, an opportunity for you to shift away from one man gigs to bigger projects where you outsource and code review, and program parts that interest you yourself, all the while making a lot more money.

I could write a book on my experience going from $12/hr to $85/hr on odesk. It's been quite an experience.

I get plenty of invitations for projects at a rate slightly above $60/hr. I haven't bid on a project in many months, and I even hid my profile for a while when things got too busy at my day job.

There are a few things you need to do to be successful on odesk. I've never done a project on another site, so I don't know if these tips translate, but some of them should.

1) Get some feedback as soon as possible. Find a small project to get your feet wet and bid a low rate to get the job.

2) Answer requests from the prospective client as soon as possible.

3) Use your best grammar. I find it helps me to speak to the prospective client on the phone. YMMV.

4) When you apply to a project, read the project and ask questions. Don't just make some generic cover letter and spam the clients.

5) When you apply to the project, if you are particularly interested in the project, have past experience with the project, or have some interesting piece of information to share with the client, make that clear. It helps you stand out.

6) Take the English test on odesk and do well on it.

7) Fill out your profile. Put relevant projects (even those you didn't do on odesk) in your portfolio. Provide links to your work.

8) Do good work. Make your clients happy. Get good feedback.

9) Remember that price is a signal. Many US clients will assume that you must be good to charge such a high rate.

I used to post on HN as briancooley, but I added one too many zeros to my noproc setting and put myself on about a 694-day hiatus instead of a 69.4-day hiatus. oops Can't say that I miss posting much, but I thought I would offer some suggestions. At least for mobile development, the market seems crazy to me.

You know, you could probably just get your noprocrast setting reset if you sent an email to the right person... cough

Why would you go on a 70-day hiatus from HN, though?

Yeah, I know I could probably send an email, but I have chosen not to do that.

As for reasoning, it was just a personal experiment to see how much karma influenced my decision to post. Apparently it was a lot because this is the first time I jumped the hurdle of creating an account to comment in 93 days, even though there were times I felt the urge to comment.

I also discovered that I get more out of HN because I'm no longer formulating possible comments when I read articles or other user comments.

It was a useful lesson, and I'm undecided whether I want to go back.

To be fair, it's not clear that that's because of Karma - could be because of convenience... but anyway, fair point! Enjoy :-)

I would like to know about your story! Does not have to be a book, but maybe a blog post?

While folks (particular Jason) are giving you excellent advice, can I take this from another angle? A $20 bill rate does not mean you are getting $20 per hour. Not even close. You have to factor in all the non-billable parts of consulting, like writing proposals, educating these clients that $10/hr providers will likely not lead to project success, and handholding them through the project because they'll likely need lots of it. They're disproportionately likely to be pathological clients because they are attempting to do business in a place which might as well be marketforlemons.com to save a few hundred bucks. It took me years to adjust to this, but it is true: a few hundred bucks is not a lot of money.

Can I strongly suggest you make a small investment in improving your business skills, get clients in the old- or new-fashioned ways without a marketplace site, and laugh in the general direction of a $20 bill rate? Also, don't call yourself a freelance programmer. You solve problems for businesses. Many businesses have problems such that there is no number they will not pay to get them resolved.

I'm not sure if you've done this in the past, but would you mind explaining how to get clients in the "old - or new-fashioned ways without a marketplace site"?

You network. You build relationships. You go to meetups and meet interesting people, swap connections, swap leads. You get strong introductions, you follow up, you build client relationships. They like you, they trust you, they want to do business with you, and they're willing to pay 4 or 5 figure sums for the privilege because you sell them more than work: you sell them peace of mind.

http://swombat.com/2011/2/24/paulina-sygulska-how-to-network... is a great article on how to network.

http://swombat.com/2011/2/25/kevin-mcdonagh-how-to-attend-a-... also proposes an approach to get leads from conferences (and despite the apparent machine-gun methodology, I'd like to qualify this article by saying that Kevin is an incredibly chilled out, laid back, friendly kind of guy).

All of the above, plus building an online presence in your area of choice. It is both a good way to make weak ties that turn into strong ties, and a good way for folks to find you when you're not actively networking.

Blogging and community participation (HN, etc) is my best source of consulting leads next to personal recommendations (and it is often a friendcatcher which caught the person doing the recommending).

"you sell them more than work: you sell them peace of mind."

This is the key to freelancing in general, as my father always tells me.(freelance photographer in the Middle East for almost 40 years: http://gustavoferrari.com/).

Whether it's online or off, if you can convince your clients that you can get the job DONE, with no excuses or delays, they will come back again and again. They want to be able to send you work, and forget about it, confident that you will come through.

Currently the shortest path that I can see is to go deep into iOS or Android programming, write a program or two, publish them in the respective app store, build a basic website to promote yourself (i.e. make an online portfolio i.e. just describe the programs you wrote).

Then go after iOS and Android gigs. Currently demand is vastly greater than supply and both platforms are growing, so it's likely to be true for some time.

The "market for lemons" paper was not about the average quality of the market---it was about the selection effects generated when market participants cannot judge quality. Within a online labor market, there are platform-imposed features that reduce information asymmetries & make relative comparisons possible e.g., tests, feedback, verified records of billed hours. The informational problem is much worse without an intermediary, which is why these markets exist.

I agree with everything you say, but still believe that these sites are markets for lemons. The information asymmetries are still severe enough to compromise the overall utility of the market. (If they weren't, this thread would not exist.)

I hire on Elance and ODesk a lot, and almost ignore price. I've never hired the cheapest person.

Instead, put your attention on getting good ratings from past clients. That makes all the difference in the world.

Even consider using their platform when doing work for friends or existing clients. Do it through the site, letting them take their cut, because it's worth it for getting a good strong history of past-projects there.

I'm working with an animator on Elance, and even though we've done 5 projects together, have 10 more upcoming, and do all our communication directly by Skype, he still wants me to keep all project posting & payments through Elance. It's good for both of us. (After each project I give him 5-star ratings, and he does the same for me as an employer.)

I will answer this from an employers perspective. I myself have managed teams of developers, and have also hired individual developers off free lance sites. (as well as graphic designers and writers).

To most employers, the actual rate you charge is not that important. The basic reason is that we view our time as the most valuable constraint on a project. That is, we are far more likely to pay more, if it assures us that it is going to save us time in the long run.

Time can be taken up by having to re-do a project, poor communication, misunderstood requirements, etc etc.

The most important thing you can do (as many below have said), is to read the job description I have posted, and provide a customized proposal to it. I am not asking for a detailed in depth proposal, but I would like to see that you have put in say 20 minutes or so of work on it.

The comment here, http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2619472 is also applicable. My description of the job is likely not going to be exhaustively complete. Ask me one or two questions about the job.

Better yet, if i've missed a very important part of the description, ask the question, but then make an assumption and say, "if I assume this is the task, then I would do y, and my timeline would be x"

Also, use bullets in your reply to me, I'm going to be scanning a ton of applicants, and bullet points help me quickly read through your application.

Hope that helps.

I used to earn a living on rentacoder back in the day. Price is not important - you just need to be really good in your niche, don't appear arrogant (many high price devs make this mistake), and completely understand his problem, then break it down into smaller components for him.

People will pay a good premium if they are reasonably certain their project will be completed fast and with high quality.


In the beginning you might have to bid at a lower hourly rate so you can get a few projects under your belt and good reviews.

Once you have established good reviews and show some experience on the site start bidding at your target hourly rate. You may not get as many projects as the $10/hr crowd but you'll be working at your target hourly rate.


Your reviews are golden, don't take on too much work or drag your feet on a project, as good reviews are your ticket to more work.

Read the jobs carefully, get a feel for the vibe from the client. If you get a feeling they might not be good to work for during the bidding, messaging or emailing do not accept the work. You don't want to work with bad clients that are unreasonable and will be a pain to work with plus could give you a negative review.

Write a custom proposal for each project to show them you're not just using a standard blurb.

Copy and paste their requirements into you bid then go through them line by line rewriting them as part of the scope of work adding any suggestions you can add from your experience.

Link to any similar projects you have completed.

If it's a simple task link to a quick mock up or proof of concept so they can see you're capable of the task.

Link to a portfolio.

List your years of experiences and services you can provide so they have an idea of your capabilities.

If you aren't hungry for work bid only on projects that match your target hourly rate.

If you are hungry for work, lower your target hourly rate for a while.

Market yourself via family and friends, mention that you are a freelancer if they know anyone who needs a website/programming.

Keep learning new things and expanding your capabilities. As your skills improve your profits will as well. You'll complete simple tasks more quickly and more complicated work pays more.

Good luck.

I'm bidding against people who will work for $10/hour or less and do really good work.

I rather doubt that. Nobody does really good work at that rate, not in this field. Cheap programmers do legendarily shoddy work on projects of any scale, and the employers worth working for know that.

Offer great work at a fair wage, and you'll be fine.

To paraphrase Howard Taylor, if you want to succeed as a freelancer, you need to be (A) the very best at what you do, (B) a great communicator, and (C) everyone's favorite person to work with. And I'd add that you need to be able to prove to a prospective employer that you are those things.

My strategy starting out has been to communicate relentlessly and deliver spectacularly. Really understand a client's needs and ask a lot of questions (and make a lot of comments) about a project before even putting in a bid. Do tiny $50 trial contracts well and quickly, and then offer to finish the job at a fair price. Always respond to messages the same day. Always get working software into the customer's hands as fast as possible, and polish the living daylights out of it jointly.

If you're awesome and people know it, nobody will want to hire the $10/hr crowd when they could get you.

Do BMW's stand a chance in the US automotive landscape? Will Whole Foods survive the Walmart onslaught? - Price is just one of the dimensions on which to stand out in a market, there are buyers who look beyond the price.

OP: > I'm bidding against people who will work for $10/hour or less and do really good work.

Repeated response: > No, you aren't. No programmer does good work for $10/hour or less.

The implication: We are obviously worth more than $10/hour, and the problem is just that employers don't know that or can't find us.

This is a dangerous economic oversimplification. It implies that you just need to keep doing the same thing, but advertise better. That is not the problem here.

Yes, the work you do produces a great deal of actual wealth for your employers, more wealth than is generated by the middle manager they pay $50/hour. Similarly, fresh water is much more valuable to me than an iPhone, yet I can buy hundreds of gallons of water for the price of an iPhone.

We have had several decades during which the vast majority of the worldwide supply of programming talent was excluded from the hiring pool. Even within the U.S., a programmer located in certain states and cities has been able to command a higher wage on that basis. When you have been the beneficiary of artificial scarcity and consequential producer surplus [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_surplus], it is easy to proudly and mistakenly relate your economic value with your actual value.

Don't get depressed when you see your work performed for $10/hour. You have not grown less talented or even less unique than you used to be; you had simply overestimated your uniqueness based on confounded experimental data. The great news is that in the meantime there has been someone exactly like you, someone who happened to exist in a different geography, whose wage has now gone up to $10/hour.

The only fix is niche work. Make yourself more unique. This won't work as well as it used to, since non-Americans can learn new skills too, but that is how capitalism works.

So far elance.com has gotten me decent wages that an American would expect; however, freelancer.com and vworker.com have yielded nothing but $5/hr crap jobs and projects where the scope creep was so bad I ended up making like $2/hr by the end. Also, freelanceswitch seems to be better because you have to pay $7/mo to bid on jobs and most of the $5/hr crowd won't do that.

For a developer like you, there is a set of good jobs that you can get with some effort, and a vast set of jobs that you will never get, no matter what you do. Some jobs are either not serious about hiring or don't care about quality and are actively seeking the lowest price. They will be disappointed and their project will probably never be finished the way they want it. You don't want to work with these people, and you don't want to compete down to an unreasonable wage unless you're just starting out.

There is, however, a smaller set of jobs which you are qualified for based on your unique skillset and which will recognize quality and ignore price. If you can convince these employers that you are the best for the job, you can get some decent, well-paying work.

The problem is, with ubiquitous "race to the bottom" low bids on nearly every project (many of them automatically generated and of extremely poor quality) it's really hard to tell the difference between the two. Just apply broadly and don't set your heart on any one project - you can't know what the person behind it is really like, or if you ever really had a shot.

It's tough and your portfolio should demonstrate your skill for your premium price/rate. I'd love to work with more North American freelancers, but they just don't bid on jobs. I have to go through profiles and invite them, but even then I rarely get a response.

So yes, apply, show interest through your initial contact, and have a kick-ass portfolio. You'll get work.

Originally from third-world country, I went from $8/hr to $50/hr in less then a year on oDesk. I quit it since I work on h-1b visa now in USA, but once I get greencard, plan to get back to freelancing, if no other projects will popup in my head.

Well, from this point of view, being an American seems to be better than being an European at the moment. I'm from Serbia, which is I believe the country with the lowest avg. income in this part of the Europe (and much lower than EU countries), and (ok, being senior dev) I wouldn't bid under $20, just wouldn't make sense. And I do get enough work to keep me busy. So, what I meant to say, none of us can compete with these $5/h guys prise-wise, but (if you are good) there's more than enough work for everybody, just find your price niche and compete there, don't waste time on low bids.

I quit taking on much freelance work and bumped my elance.com rate up to $120/hour. I still get about one request for proposal each month.

I have given up on oDesk it seems to be impossible now to find anything that pays above $50.

I have shifted my attention to Elance. Quality work,good pay, and more employees wanting Americans. Just insanely competitive.

I got my first bid accepted after shelling out an extra $10 after using my first 10 connects. I made the money back but even with a good rating it is still difficult.

I'm still trying to make a go of it on vworker, but have no ratings. However, this guy seems to be successful with it: http://tbbuck.com/winning-your-first-freelance-job-on-vworke...

It's not the hourly rate, it's the total cost and quality delivered. Try bidding on fixed priced projects - while you'll still likely to submit higher bids, the difference is not as big as the hourly rate - since an experienced programmer can do more in less time.

Represent yourself with class and show a portfolio of quality work. Not everyone goes for the lowest bidder, and you definitely want the clients that are looking for quality. Do you really want to work for someone who expects you to work for 12$ / hour?

I'm on the other end (hire folks remotely). New folks are impossible to hire because there's no way to judge how much you do in an hour.

If people have past projects I can see: "they built X app for Y price." But if you're new, all I see is an hourly rate, which means nothing.

You can solve this 2 ways

1) lower your rate so low that someone hires you, and build up your experience so you can charge more

2) show examples of your work, with prices. "I built this. If you wanted a site just like this, it would cost you $XXXX (XX hours)".

No one does the latter. I wish they would.

I don't think you can compete on price, which is why you should compete on quality.

Just as an example, I have seen some bids request that the person speak fluently English. Obviously, the person posting the project has been bitten in the past with communication issues with their outsourced resource. That's one of your strengths.

How professional and thoughtful are your answers? They'd better stand out if you want to justify charging more.

If you are very new to the industry, you might face some difficulty initially since people are not sure if its worth paying you more when there are others who are ready to do same work at cheaper rate.

But if you have good portfolio, audience, contacts, you won't face much problem.

If somebody is cheaper, there's a reason why they are cheaper. If you are good at what you are doing, people will be happy to pay you what you are worth.

Good Luck :)

One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is culture. I have hired people on elance and sometimes the simplest things trip you up because of cultural differences. There are even significant cultural difference between California and Louisiana, let alone between the US and a another country overseas.

This is correct. In my experience, the 10-20$/hr guys are usually programmers who have just started and are good only for some sideline stuff. The moment you engage with them with a sizable work, either the rate goes up or they back off.

The higher your bid the better. Your $100 an hour rate is your premium branding.

when i hire freelancers i consider 10/hour quotes only for very easy jobs if not i simply delete them and pay attention to higher bids. of course a higher bid is on of the variables i look for, but a so cheap quote make me think that im payin or for a bad coder or a good one that will make my proyect with out really paying attention to it and without me spending a lot of time explaining everything once and again and again he will do a bad work, i don't need any of those situations so i simply delete those quotes

On mark! Past performance is a key indicator for future behavior ie product and service.

my minimum is at 50€/h because people hired those for 10 or 5€/h which failed or stopped calling back ..

If you're not in a position to market your skills outside of freelance sites or at a higher cost, your skills probably aren't worth over $10/hour.

Those are completely separate skillsets which don't even contribute to each other. I make six figures full-time from an employer who's very eager to keep me onboard, but I know almost nothing about marketing myself freelance. I've only worked 1099 once, at the request of a company who licensed code from a failed startup I was part of.

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