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Ask HN: is it possible to earn a living US wage at oDesk?
76 points by oneiroscopist on Dec 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments
I wonder - is it possible to earn a living wage by freelancing at sites like oDesk or eLance? And I mean US living wage, not Eastern European living wage, for example.

I put myself through college about 6 years ago contracting. I found most of my clients through similar sites (Rentacoder and scriptlance). I was making about $30k a year working part time during the school year, and mostly full time in the summers. Not a spectacular wage when you compare it to full time Silicon Valley wages, but I'd definitely call it a "living wage" for the US.

The key to being successful on these sites is to view them as a way to meet and get to know longterm clients. It's much easier to charge higher rates once someone has gotten to know you and the quality of your work. I often did one or two projects through the site on a fixed rate while we got to know each other, and then would work directly with them on an hourly basis after that.

If I'm not being mistaken, you are the one who answered my question two years ago on StackOverFlow (http://stackoverflow.com/questions/763883/options-for-a-deve...)

It was a long road. I have had lot of non-related issues and difficulties but I almost got there. I made $10K doing it last year and I may make 3 or 4 times that number this year.

You are one of the persons who changed my life, although it was a simple response. Thank you.

Thanks for linking and for sharing as well :) .

I'm in Uruguay, we have a decent developer culture here, but I want to go the freelance route as well (I'm sick of my current job - it's safe and pays a reasonable local wage but is Dilbert-esque).

My programming skills are similar to what you had at the beginning. Did you blog about what you went through?

No. I'm not sure if I'm the best person to talk about it. But if I can give you an advice, it's: Go and do it. I didn't know that my skills at that time weren't high enough, so I went and I did it. I learned everything (programming, marketing, writing, handling clients, running a business...) in the road. And yes, I was alone. There are no developer/freelance culture in my small city.

Thanks :) . I will do it (and hopefully blog about it if I'm not too tired !).

My goal is to quit my job on April (I get a small bonus at the end of March which, coupled with some little savings, will help me through the first few months), but to start my first freelance job in January to test the waters.

I think starting freelancing before you quit is very wise. One of the things about switching from full-time employment to freelancing is that it often takes much longer to get paid, and cash flow is much less steady. It also takes a while to build up enough of a pipeline of work that you stay busy all the time. This all boils down to it being nice to have a paycheck while you're ramping up.

Wow:) That's really, really awesome to hear. Congratulations on building your business - I feel very honored to have nudged you in the right direction, however slightly.


Seconded. I have a couple of friends who did the same thing. They did contracts on eLance for about 6 months until they had enough clients coming directly to them. I'm sure their current rates are an order of magnitude higher now than they were during the eLance days.

Thanks for reply, Scotty. What technologies were you using?

Most of my work was basic LAMP stack (perl and php). I developed a set of long term clients that relied on me to run the web infrastructure for their small online business, whatever that happened to entail. Usually a mixture of system administration, new development, and maintenance programming.

One of the things I loved about freelancing was that it was really easy to find an excuse to learn a new piece of technology - I just used it on the next project I worked on.

Here's a link to the responses I gave last couple times this came up:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2619439 http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1195524

Short answer: Yes. Just be sure to differentiate on quality rather than price. Your fellow oDeskers are racing to the bottom on price. Let them. Casually walk to the top on quality and you'll find yourself all alone with a nice stack of work from good clients.

Thanks, good points

Over the past 7 years using the different sites I've turned down 20 projects that I've been asked to bid on, and have only taken one when I was really in dire straits. You could probably make more on odesk than at mcdonalds, but you'll make 5-8x as much by building up a network on linkedin, and by posting your resume to craigslist once per week. I set my contracting rate on a sliding scale from $250/hour down to $125/hour based on commitment, project, and how much I like the guy I'm talking with. I manage to bill out 750-1250 hours per year depending on how much I care to work versus how much I desire to travel. I couldn't fathom managing to bill out at more than $35/hour on oDesk, and even then I would be considered expensive.

oDesk/elance/etc is where cheapskates who don't know what they want or how to ask for it go to get what they pay for from guys in India and Romania who don't know how to accomplish the work they're being paid to do.

What do you actually do, for $250 an hour?

Primarily devops consulting. $250/hour is what I'll charge for emergency work from unknown entities, poorly managed entities, or for piece work from customers who aren't likely to be a significant source of project work. For small projects I don't bill hourly, but rather I'll decide that a piece of work is about 4 hours of my time, and that I'm uninterested in doing it for less than $1k.


He/She probably provides value in excess of that to his clients. It's not about 'what you do' is about how much value that provides to the client. I can't charge that much for a website to my neighbor because it doesn't provide him much value.

On the other hand tweaking a couple buttons could be extremely valuable to a business that relies on it's website to generate leads. Smart clients don't care how much stuff costs they care how much money it will make them.

I am more interested in the specific details.

Would you be available for specific questions concerning how you built up your network on LinkedIn? You don't have an email address in your profile.

If you're smart enough to ask this question, why are you thinking of ways to shoehorn a business into oDesk? It's a seller's market for dev talent in 2011 and probably for all of 2012. The ability to solve business problems using software development skills is not a commodity. It isn't sold by bidding prices down. No, the opposite of that.

This is one of those places where a reasonable amount of extra effort yields a disproportionate amount of benefit. You don't make linearly more money positioning yourself as a real consultancy; you make much more money.

I don't think anybody's actually saying, "I'm looking for a place where I can sell my services at a lower price."

Here's what happens: No matter how you position yourself, billing $500 an hour to the zero prospective customers you (the general "you") have right now is still not very profitable. Most developers have about as much idea of how to find customers as they do about how to perform open-heart surgery. Connecting developers and clients is the one area where oDesk shines — and since it's the same area where engineers are weak, many can't help but consider it.

For a freelancer, not being able to find customers is a scarlet-fever-grade problem, and oDesk is an aspirin-grade solution.

I'm not going to berate anyone for using oDesk, especially if they've found an oDesk groove that works for them. But I'd strongly encourage freelancers --- especially prospective freelancers --- to put lots and lots of effort into figuring out how they're going to do customer acquisition outside of sites like oDesk.

Whatever you may think about how convenient oDesk is, you are at the nadir of your professional competitive positioning on sites like that, and will probably (and avoidably) get your worst possible bill rate as a result.

I'd generally like HN'ers to be better at freelancing (it's the best way to start a new company, and it's the direction the industry is moving long-term), and so I'm prickly about things like oDesk which make it harder, not easier, to be a going freelance concern.

This is something I struggle with. Do you have any suggestions for how to do customer acquisition remotely?

I am doing my research. I am not that familiar with oDesk, and presently looking into switching to freelance development. A question I posted on HN (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3394265) lead to this, very informative, discussion

The advice you got there was reasonable: use oDesk once or twice to see if you like doing transactional development work (ie, series of unrelated projects under tight time pressure) but treat oDesk as an apprenticeship, and as soon as you feel like you're going to stick with consultative development, get the f!%k off oDesk.

Depends where. You probably can't live in Manhattan working as an oDesker, but you could easily make enough to make a good living if you're in the midwest.

Your strategy though would be to build up a resume with oDesk. You're probably going to hit a limit though - I mean I've worked with $20/hr Eastern European developers that would be $100k developers in the Bay Area/NYC so it will come down to: what is your reputation and how much can you command.

After you build up a portfolio, you're going to have to use it as a spring board to get a fulltime job or fulltime onsite contracting for like $40/hour, etc. at a company.

From there you can basically build a "normal" software career and get the industry contacts, start networking as a programmer and if you decide can go back to remote contracting for a better-than-living-wage.

This isn't the path I took, but I know a lot of developers who have took this path, worked their way up the ladder throughout the 90's/2000's around the US, then 'retired' to a good life with their family in say Kansas/Nebraska (insert midwestern state) doing contracting work and getting to enjoy life the way they want (life Silicon Valley/NYC isn't for everyone).

REMEMBER, software as a career is going to be mostly networking and people skills in the long run - good luck!


I know a gentleman who swears by oDesk, mostly as a billing/mediation platform for custom Twilio apps. I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole, but he charges enough to make it viable.

I was at the Twilio conference this year and there was a talk from Tim Lytle who only uses oDesk for his clients. He claims to have a pretty good client base and is busy from the work.

Twilio also endorses oDesk as a platform for people to find qualified programmers http://www.twilio.com/blog/2011/06/twilio-partners-with-odes..., maybe the answer is to specialize and differentiate to become more successful when competing against $10 per hour international outsourcers.

Why won't you deal with it? Bad experience? On the customer or developer side?

Short version: it adds nothing I need, positioning myself against the competition there would be certifiably insane, and the type of clients I most successfully work with would avoid me like the plague if I proposed working through oDesk.

Thanks, Patio. I gather you were on the workforce side, correct?

I make around $1k a month just off of Elance. The key to success in freelancing is finding a niche.

The downside to freelancing is once you're in that niche it's hard to crawl out of it. I have been doing solely WordPress stuff on sites like Elance,etc. for the past 9months I have reached a point of boredom yet I can't get anything outside of that because everything in my portfolio is WordPress. So now I am screwed.

Not to throw the thread off track, but have some q's for you. Would you mind dropping me a mail? Your e-mail isn't listed. gy92663 at gmail. Thanks!

"US living wage" isn't very useful. A living wage in Manhattan is an integer multiple of a living wage in Montana.

What term would you suggest?

I'd suggest being more specific than "US". Either name a part of the country, or, better yet, just name an income.

Fair enough. I'd say 80K for a 50 hour week (since freelancers are expected to buy their own health insurance, do not get any paid time off, so 80K is a very modest wage for a developer in those circumstances)

I realize a college student/single guy does not need all that much, but for a 29+, with a family, I think that's the minimum (again, with all the self-employment taxes, insurance etc).

I have a ruby on rails outsourcer that gets paid $5000 USD per month for 60 hours of work. I referencing my earlier post - I think specializations and showing competence in your chosen language / API / platform or type of work you do is key.

I've used oDesk to hire several contractors. Currently, I have a Chinese C++ developer working for me who is bringing in close to $5k per month from my project alone.

I know I could get by on $60k per year but it really depends on what constitutes a 'living wage.' :)

It's definitely very possible. There are US-based contractors who successfully charge $40-50/hour and get lots of business. The competition is steep though, I wouldn't recommend this as a way to get business if you're based in US.

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