Author: Liz Vickers
Liz Vickers has been working exclusively on freelance platforms since 2011. She’s worked consultatively with many partners helping them to mobilize populations online – including refugee camps, Veterans organizations, and African & Middle Eastern geographies where limited economic opportunity exists. She currently volunteers mentoring talent in Kakuma refugee camp one-on-one and is also a volunteer with Manara, helping engineers prepare for interviews. She is also part of Upwork’s hybrid workforce and manages programs on their Talent Success team.
Easier entry to self-employment has opened doors to a new world of opportunity; in the U.S. alone, freelancing contributed nearly $1-trillion to the economy (nearly five percent of GDP) last year.
But opportunity isn’t distributed evenly. It’s often concentrated in geographic areas, industries, or communities—leaving workers with skills and determination underemployed and disconnected.
Technology helps link these underserved populations to global value chains, connecting them to companies that need their expertise. In this article, I’ll explain how Upwork and the Upwork Foundation can help your organization and the people you work with make an impact.
We’ll look at:
- How digital platforms work
- Two common misunderstandings
- Agency versus individual: Which is a better fit?
- What does it take to succeed?
- Things to consider for the community you want to mobilize
- What the Upwork Foundation does
How digital platforms work
I was introduced to online work as a means to grow my own consulting and program/project management business and later joined Upwork’s distributed team. When the Upwork Foundation launched in 2018, I quickly volunteered to help.
Since 2016, I’ve invested hundreds of hours into groups of various sizes and diverse backgrounds as they worked to get businesses off the ground. This has included:
- Refugees with newly learned digital skills
- Military spouses facing frequent relocations
- Highly skilled individuals with limited resources
- Large groups backed by dedicated funding and government support
Building a business from scratch is possible but it isn’t simple.
A common challenge? Getting talented people in front of the businesses that need their help. Upwork is an online global marketplace for independent service providers that helps bridge this gap.
Professionals from the U.S. and around the world provide more than 5,000 skills across more than 70 categories of work. Other businesses leverage Upwork for access to that flexible and high-quality talent; more than two million projects are posted to the site every year.
How does the process work?
- A business publishes a detailed job post that explains their project and the skills they’re looking for.
- They invite contractors directly to consider their project or open the project to proposals.
- As proposals roll in, the business selects the one that best aligns with their needs.
Agency versus individual: Which is a better fit?
Upwork supports two different business structures:
- Individuals: For independent contractors who are building their own business
- Agencies: For teams of professionals that typically take on large or complex projects
Each model has strengths and potential challenges. Let’s take a look…
With an individual account, the worker is responsible for building their own business. This includes creating an Upwork profile, submitting proposals to potential clients, and delivering quality work.
An agency account is started by an agency owner or business manager who then adds employees or contractors as team members. Team permissions allow the agency owner to delegate work while maintaining account security.
Two common misunderstandings
It’s important to clarify a couple of points before your organization dives into online work.
Misconception #1: There are projects on Upwork for our entire community
Upwork is competitive: Less than two percent of those who want a project actually get one. Upwork helps create economic opportunities, but a business still needs to have a solid foundation.
Misconception #2: Businesses want to engage people from social impact organizations
Social impact may be a bonus and even a preference for some companies, but it isn’t the primary objective. Businesses need skilled talent that can deliver great work every time.
What does it take to succeed?
Appropriate tools—including reliable Internet access—are essential, but I’ve found that the blueprint for success can be very different from one individual to the next…
Learn to compete on Upwork
Acceptance to Upwork is highly competitive, with more than 10,000 requests to join every day. To give professionals better access to opportunities, Upwork considers a number of factors as part of the application process. Not everyone is accepted.
Once an application is approved, the real competition begins. It’s up to each individual to learn how to market themselves to potential clients.
- A profile is an opportunity to grab a potential client’s attention and stand out. It also gives the Upwork platform the information it needs to match skills with projects.
- A portfolio showcases a professional’s best work; it can help illustrate the thought process behind the work as well as their problem-solving capabilities.
- A proposal explains why a consultant’s skills and experience are a perfect fit for a project—and why they’re a better match than anybody else. (Connects are available for purchase and are typically used to submit proposals for projects on Upwork. Learn more here.)
Identify skills and services that can sell
According to Freelancing in America, while occupations vary widely, 45 percent of freelancers provide skilled services such as programming, marketing, and business consulting. It’s important to identify which skills within your community are most marketable.
It’s also helpful to understand an individual’s skill level. This helps identify which projects to go for, how to price services competitively, and how to prioritize future training.
For further information:
- Review the latest skills index, which highlights the most in-demand skills each quarter.
- Check out job postings within a particular skillset. What are clients looking for? How do they describe their needs?
- Browse categories of talent here. Look at top performers—how do they position themselves?
Build a great reputation
To make it easier for potential clients to recognize the best of the best, Upwork developed the Rising Talent program, Top Rated status, and the Job Success Score.
The invite-only Rising Talent program is for independent professionals and agencies that are new to the platform and show early success. Learn more…
For more established businesses, Top Rated status indicates a consistent commitment to quality work, positive customer experience, and respect for the Upwork Terms of Service. Qualifying service providers have a badge displayed on their profile. Learn more…
The Job Success Score is a measure of client satisfaction and a contractor or agency’s success on Upwork. It’s based on the overall contract history on Upwork, relationships (i.e., repeat projects), and client feedback. Learn more…
Specific considerations for underserved communities
Through my work with the Upwork Foundation, I’ve also learned that underserved populations often benefit from additional support, such as…
One particular consideration is how invaluable some financial assistance can be. For example, for someone who’s currently employed, a stipend can make a significant difference. Or, if they’ll be working from a specific location, funding for transportation may be helpful.
An overview of professional expectations
If your community may not have experience working in a traditional business environment, they may benefit from an introduction. For example:
- Effective communication: How to write a professional email, how to schedule meetings (including across time zones), when to be proactive about asking for client feedback, how to deal with difficult situations from a customer service point of view.
- Time management: How to meet deadlines, how to juggle priorities, how to schedule the week, how to plan for unforeseen circumstances (i.e., problem with timeline, illness, etc.).
- Self promotion: Deciding what to highlight on a profile, how to create an effective portfolio, how to respond to tough questions in an interview.
- Changing perspective: How previous experience adds value, explaining a solution’s potential impact, educating clients to foster a better understanding.
Exploring different contexts
The norms of the population you work with can be very different than the day-to-day realities of potential clients. For example:
- English is often a common denominator on digital platforms. Strong verbal and written language skills can be a particularly important factor when it comes to sounding professional and communicating effectively. A free tool, such as Grammarly, can be helpful.
- Rates and budgets can vary widely. To help determine a rate that’s competitive and bid on projects effectively, it’s important to understand conversion rates and cost of living variances.
- International business customs and etiquette can also be very different. To get started, read about potential hurdles and get an overview of the six dimensions that help define national cultures.
Local business requirements
Regulations for business registration, fees, and taxes vary by location. It’s important that new businesses understand these requirements up front in order to avoid issues down the road.
The proposal-to-win ratio gets better as service providers become more savvy and build a reputation, but the initial learning curve can be steep. On average, it takes 20 proposals for a new contractor to win their first project on Upwork.
Pushing through initial frustrations and disappointments takes a certain tolerance to risk, a willingness to learn and try new things, the fortitude to keep trying and submit a lot of proposals, and a strong belief that success is possible.