Freelance Fridays: Don’t Pay to Play!

freelance fridays money
Be a pro. Don’t fall for these games. 

An ad for yet another newish freelancing website popped up in my Facebookfeed the other day. I spent about five minutes clicking around the site and reading social media comments before I left, thoroughly horrified, with yet another so-called service on my nope list.

Contractors of all sorts are bombarded by middlemen promising to find us work. If only we’d shell out for their directories and databases and memberships and heaven knows what all else, we’d be rolling in the golden stuff. Can a freelancing service help you connect with clients you wouldn’t be likely to meet on your own? Yes, but a whole lot of what you’ll get out of it depends on how the company operates. Below are my top five criteria for evaluating websites pitching their client-matching wares to freelancers. While a few sites are named as discussion examples, I freely acknowledge the possibility that some sites may have made substantial changes in the interim. The following is based on my personal experiences, and this is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of individual companies.

The site should actively promote freelancers from developed, English-speaking countries. It may be controversial, but the above is the main reason I gave up on Freelancer (which still loves to spam my inbox to death) years ago. This is basic economics. If you’re an English-speaking creative from a First World nation hoping to make a viable income, the site should not be overwhelmed by competitors from developing countries offering to do craploads of work for pennies. Clients looking to outsource their work this way are interested in procuring super-cheap work, not necessarily high-quality or high-value work. You’re not going to be on the same page.

Plus, after a professional brush with this kind of dirt-cheap outsourcing, I find it just a little too far down on the sleazy creepy scale for personal comfort. While I realize standards of living differ around the world, nobody should be pressuring impoverished people overseas to accept just a few cents to do the same work that would cost several times more in the States (or Britain, or Australia . . . you get the picture). I believe that type of outsourcing is exploitive, and since it goes against my personal values, I’ll pass, thanks.

The job should pay at least $10. Your personal threshold may vary, but come on. At least give yourself minimum wage, ok? If you’re a self-employed American, you also have both halves of Social Security and Medicare taxes to pay. You don’t get unemployment or workers’ comp, either, and you’ll have to shell out for your healthcare. So at the very least, you really should be trying to net somewhere around or above the $10 hourly mark. Steer clear of places that pay pennies on the dollar, or that want you to get all hyped up about earning a couple bucks here and there while keeping high payment thresholds that ensure you’ll take forever to cash out, if you ever do. We both know they’re hoping you’ll just give up and quit.

You’ll find all sorts of “how to make money freelancing” articles telling you to try Fiverr in order to make some quick cash. I posted a few different gigs on this site a couple years back, and I wasn’t especially impressed. In taking a second look for this post, it appears to be easier to offer add-on services that go above the $5 mark now. After scrolling through several pages of offers in random categories, ranging from music mixing to video services to press release writing, however, I still could not find anything with a base price higher than $5. It would appear that pricing your initial product above $5, which used to be a no-no, is still not done. Even if you could set your base rate higher, you’d be swimming so hard against the current as to make it pointless.

Fiverr, in my view, is only going to be a moneymaker for you if you have a great idea for a quick product or service that can actually turn a profit at $4. Why $4? Fiverr takes 20 percent from every transaction. It’s right there in their advertising. On a $5 gig, that’s a buck. So you’ll want to offer something that’s actually worth your time for $4, and then you can add in the extras.

Here’s my beef with sites like this, though: They’re all about selling cheap services. The point is to get swarms of creatives like you to offer their customer base as much as possible at rock bottom prices. The above business model not only pushes you to compete for clients based on price instead of talent, it also ensures you’ll be charged a whopping 20 percent off the top for the privilege! Ouch.

Nobody should be spying on you. Elance and oDesk recently merged into something I have yet to deeply examine (Upwork), for whatever that’s worth. There are still older articles about oDesk software readily available, which reassures me that I don’t have my memory of these companies confused. I had been very excited about trying oDesk until I went to set up my account and discovered that I was expected to download the company’s proprietary software. From what I understood at the time, this software package was supposed to be capable of doing such fun things as recording my keystrokes, taking screenshots without my say-so, and logging my “work” time. Steaming pile of no. I walked away and never looked back. 

This was a few years ago, when I was short on work and ready to try just about anything, but my recollection of the big sell is that clients were supposed to be all jazzed because the company could keep tabs on my productivity. All that did was make me feel devalued. Give professional people a little credit, huh? We go into freelancing because we want control. We want to pick our own projects, set our own schedules, work on our own timetables. As long as your freelancer is meeting deadlines as agreed, there’s no need for cyber micromanagement. You might be able to make decent money this way, but loss of privacy and autonomy is a pretty steep business cost.

Companies shouldn’t force you to let them spy on you at home.

The job should be free to bid. Steer clear of any middlemen who want you to buy tokens, credits, coins, or whatever they’re calling it these days. You shouldn’t be asked to pay to play. If somebody requires you to exchange cash for non-refundable opportunities to bid on jobs, that’s a big ol’ bucket of poop. Run!

One caveat here. In the contracting world, it’s not unusual, in some industries, to have to put down a cash deposit when you bid on a job. This is usually called a bid bond, or bid guarantee, and it basically assures the people soliciting proposals that you’re serious. The cost of these bonds is typically based on the value of the job. The thing is, when you put down a bid bond, you’re supposed to get your money back if you don’t win the bid.

So, these kinds of deposits are normal in some cases. But although it’s quite common to see them in construction, vending, and heavy industry-type situations, bid bonds are not something I expect to find in the contract paperwork for your average freelancer. Regardless, if someone wants you to put cash down with your bid and you don’t get the job, you should be getting a refund. Read the fine print.

Nobody should be controlling the number of jobs you bid. You’re the contractor. It’s your responsibility to determine the workload level you can or can’t handle. Any site that demands payment in exchange for the right to bid more jobs, or that only allows you a set number of bids per week or per month, is a no in my book. This is just another thinly disguised version of pay to play, except instead of getting charged prepaid credits for the right to bid more work, you’re being sold “upgrades” or “membership levels” or some other fancy-sounding but equally meaningless lo

ad of you-know-what.

A freelancing site that doesn’t treat professional people like professionals is unworthy of my, and your, business. We are not amateurs or hobbyists, and odds are quite good that we are also not children. Qualified freelancers do not need babying throughout each project. We do, however, require the freedom to choose our own challenges and the discretion to charge what we believe our labor is worth.

Have you tried a freelancing service recently?


How do you show others that you value your work? Join me on Twitter and share! #prosdontpaytoplay

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