Episode 88: How to Compete Against Upwork

Throughout history new technologies have always had beneficial, yet disruptive outcomes. The printing press put many scribes out of work. Photographic typography ended the careers of linotype operators, and digital photography has put tons of pressure on professional photographers. Today, the Internet’s enabling of world wide crowdsourcing, is having similar effects on creative freelancers. How are you supposed to support yourself as a designer if clients can access creative services at bargain basement rates? Is there any way for a creative entrepreneur to do battle with Upwork, and win?

Let’s be honest. If you were a bootstrapping startup founder, trying to get your product off the ground by leveraging credit cards, and you had to choose between spending a few hundred dollars on a logo from Upwork, or a few thousand from you—which would you choose? Companies do mature and eventually understand the need to invest in branding, but not usually when they are just getting off the starting block. Platforms like Upwork and Fiverr provide low cost alternatives, and thousands upon thousands of creative opportunities have moved in that direction.

Some freelancers have come to the conclusion that if they can’t beat ‘em, then they might as well join ‘em. And so they spin up their own profiles to score some budget gigs. But if you throw in the towel like that, I hope you love Ramin noodles and second hand clothes, because you’ll be resigning yourself to the fate of the starving artist. You’ll have to scramble and hustle until you wear yourself out. But this does not have to be your fate—there are strategies to beat Upwork.

Now let me be clear. You can’t compete for the same territory. You are going to have to move up market and find clients that have moved on freelancers on demand. You see, of all those bootstrapping startups, most will fail, but some will succeed and grow. And it won’t be long before that cheap hasty logo is not doing the job. They’ll need more direction and support than they can get from an ever rotating set of freelancers. These are the more mature businesses you need to find.

But once you identify such businesses, you’ll have another challenge presented by the existence of Fiverr and Upwork—how will you distinguish yourself from the thousands of portfolios on those platforms? As a designer you might be able to see the difference between your portfolio and mass produced work—but sadly, your prospect’s eyes are not usually so discerning. And so you will have to differentiate on other factors.

Aside from a higher level of talent, more mature companies are looking for branding resources that they can trust, and who can offer greater strategic guidance than anyone available on a freelance marketplace. Knowing this, you can start to shift your marketing language and portfolio case studies to highlight not just your aesthetic capabilities, but your practical experience guiding clients toward better branding.

One way to demonstrate such value is through a concentration of experience in a particular industry or deliverable. When a client sees that you have done work for companies similar to theirs, or in markets that they are trying to reach, you will stand out—not only from crowdsource options, but from other professional designers like you. In other words, you need PinPoint Positioning as your secret weapon to meet the challenge of low cost freelancing platforms.

Without PinPoint Positioning your place in the market will be as vulnerable as typesetters were to desktop publishing. But with it you can rise above the fray, and even gain a premium among your peers.

Making the leap to effective differentiation takes courage and not a little investment of time. But you owe it to yourself, and the future of your creative practice to put some distance between you and the increasing availability of low cost creative services.

Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?