In the freelancing world, there is a type of resource that has a somewhat mixed reputation among seasoned freelancers, and that is the job bidding site. The best known include Elance-Odesk and Guru, but a web search will bring up others.
The basic idea is that buyers list jobs they’re looking for a freelancer to do. Freelancers, who have profiles set up on the site, submit proposals and bids for the job. Buyers review the proposals they receive and select one or more freelancers to hire. The parties then use the bidding site for communication, file sharing, and exchange of payment and services, and the site takes a cut of the cash.
Sounds simple enough, right? So why do established freelancers often shy away? Well, bidding sites have a reputation for being marketplaces for low-paying jobs. Not just-below-the-going-rate jobs. Not even minimum wage jobs. You can actually find people on there offering work for — and others accepting work for — as little as $3 per hour, or one-tenth the minimum hourly rate indicated by the Editorial Freelancers Association to be “common” for typical editors’ tasks.
These sites are well enough known that people who don’t otherwise know how to find freelancers — and people who don’t otherwise know how to find freelance jobs — can connect with each other. As a result, many of the freelancers are too new to their work to price their services properly or are not full-time freelancers at all and consider their ability to work for low cost to be a selling point for themselves. Similarly, some of the buyers seeking freelancers expect to find a deal by doing their hiring in a context where the competitors’ rates are, well, competitive.
After all, that's the function of bidding sites: to create a competitive environment in which freelancers try to stand out among their peers in order to win jobs. That is, understandably, an environment that many veteran freelancers have no need or desire for. The freelance editors' community on the whole is cooperative, collegial, and supportive. If the competitive environment of bidding sites primarily pushed members to improve the quality of their work, or at least their proposals, then that would be one thing. But all too often, the factor that many bidding site members end up basing their competitive edge on is price, which contributes to the downward rate spiral.
The good, the bad, and the ridiculous
However, having picked up occasional jobs through Elance for the past few years, I can note that while the bidding site dregs are indeed truly miserable, they don’t define the whole. The drawbacks to bidding sites cannot be denied, but that does not mean they need to be exaggerated, either. The quality of the jobs you can find on bidding sites varies more than many seem to realize, and there are decent ones to be had if you’re in a position where it’s worth your time to look.
Alongside the listings seeking a freelancer to edit 15,000 words for $25…
…there are buyers offering to pay $40–50 per hour:
And there are tons that don’t specify a budget. While some buyers are bottom feeders and surely know it, there are many others who haven't a clue as to what the market is like at all and will be looking at the range of bids they receive to get an idea of the going rates. In my experience, writing a strong proposal and clearly explaining what your cost covers can win jobs with the more professional of these clients with no need to compromise your fees.
Those $40–50 per hour jobs are not complete rarities; I see one or two listed most days in the categories I search (Editing & Proofreading and Academic Writing). However, having to write a fresh proposal for every job means being selective, and I tend to put in proposals only for jobs I think I’d do well. Naturally, I don’t get chosen for every job I submit a proposal to, but I have picked up some of my best clients through Elance and still find it a worthwhile source of work at this stage of my career.
Here are some thoughts for anyone who is considering using a bidding site:
1) Think of it as a source that will supplement your work from elsewhere, either now or once you are established.
While there are enough decently paying jobs on bidding sites to make them worth checking out, it’s not a basket you want to put all your eggs in. There won’t be enough for most people to live on, unless you either cut your rates or cut your free time.
Signing up for a bidding site does not mean you’re committing to it as an exclusive partnership. For established freelancers, it can be a good place to turn during a dry spell. For new ones, it can help you find your first clients and learn how to write good, focused proposals.
In other words, it's just another place to look for work. Once you're used to the site, you'll be used to how to skim or search the listings for the opportunities that appeal to you. There's no need to dwell on the dozens that don't.
2) Stick to your guns.
There are a lot of full-time freelancers on bidding sites who don’t back down from the industry rates they work for. They frequent fora like Elance’s Water Cooler bulletin board and the LinkedIn group for Elance members (neither of which is publicly visible). Those who are active in such online discussion centers are often very vocal in complaining about lowball bidders and bottom-feeding clients. The culture of freelancers within the site is just as opposed to the super-low rates permitted there as the culture of freelancers who wouldn’t sign up for the site if it were their last hope.
The point is, these are freelancers, a good number of them, who have been able to carve themselves a niche at a bidding site without reducing their rates in an attempt to compete with those who would settle for $3 per hour. Charge what you’re worth, and look for the jobs that offer those rates or might be open to them.
3) Expect to put in some time to be successful on a bidding site.
You’ll be putting time into a few things: first, writing proposals; second, submitting a lot of proposals relative to each one you get hired for; and third, developing your history on the bidding site.
The time commitment for all three of these is probably a benign factor in determining who — with respect to where in one’s career one is — dips their toes in the bidding site waters and who doesn’t. Just because bidding sites aren't as bad as you've heard, it doesn't necessarily mean they're right for you. If you already have a healthy enough clientele that you have no trouble financially gliding through slow periods, then it’s unlikely that a bidding site will be of any help to you. The time investment probably won’t be worth the rewards.
How much time you spend writing a proposal will vary; mine usually take around 30 to 60 minutes. There’s never a guarantee of receiving a job you submit a proposal for, of course, so you might send off a proposal each day and only get selected for one job in ten or more. It’s important to be prepared for a lot of rejection before you get to that acceptance, and the time put into proposal writing must be worth it to you.
As for developing a history, the site might provide buyers with some information about your past activity, including feedback from previous clients. On Elance, for example, you get a star rating and an algorithm-based “level.” Freelancers who are not brand new often have an advantage over those who are, and those who frequently work through the site end up with a leg up over those who do so infrequently. In some ways this runs counter to using these sites as a supplement to other work, but it's about finding whether you can find a balance. If you can't, then this type of platform might not be right for you.
I have, at times, found myself a tiny bit embarrassed to mention to other freelancers that I have used — and been successful and happy using — Elance to find jobs and clients. I believe that embarrassment is attributable to the sense that true full-time freelancers supposedly don’t use such sites, that they’re for newbies, students, hobbyists, and others who don’t need to take their rates seriously.
Ultimately, however, when you break bidding sites down into their nuts and bolts, rather than focusing on the worst case scenarios that somehow turn into generalizations, they have a useful and legitimate place in the freelancing world. Whether they will be useful for you in particular, however, depends on whether you have the time to commit to them and whether you are able to assess their strengths and weaknesses practically and on their own merits.
My motivation for writing a post about bidding sites is to be able to discuss my experiences on them with my fellow freelancers without having to worry about whether their impulse is to scoff at me for having used them. It should not be about whether one uses bidding sites but how to use them effectively and without succumbing to rate competition.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.