How in the world are you supposed to thrive as a freelancer when clients have access to global crowdsourced platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and 99Designs? Is it even possible to build a freelance practice when the going rate for a logo is $99?
Good News, Bad News
Freelance platforms put downward pressure on pricing. This is great news for consumers! But not such great news for producers. Frankly, if you were starting up a brand new business on a shoestring budget, you would be thrilled to get a logo for $99 bucks. The arguments for brand investment are a hard sell to a bootstrapper.
There will always be a market for low-cost crowd-sourced design. As these platforms grow they have an eroding effect on the lower end of the market. If you want to thrive as a freelancer, you’re going to have to move up market, where clients value strategic branding and design. You’ll need to find clients that have matured beyond the early stages, when cheap-as-possible is the overriding concern. You need to find clients who understand the difference between decoration and design.
You Can’t Go Head-to-Head with Upwork
This also means that you can’t compete with these platforms, and you certainly should not be on them. I have no problem with these platforms in general—frankly they’re a godsend to designers in countries where a $10 per hour gig is ample. And for small businesses that need acceptable and affordable services, these platforms are a win-win. I’ll add to that, if you’re fresh out of art school and need to get some raw experience, then these platforms can serve that purpose as well. But you’re never going to build a sustainable practice there. You have to have a plan to move on.
Making the Leap Away from Crowd Clients
Moving on from Upwork doesn’t happen in stages. There’s a big gulf between the kinds of projects you can pick up there, and clients that are willing to pay $100 per hour or more. You don’t move slowly from $15 per hour, to $20, to $25 on up in increments. You have to make a leap. At some point working for $15 per hour will actually become an impediment to moving on. In order to make ends meet at that rate you have to stay crazy busy. That frenetic activity becomes a paralyzing distraction. Especially since making the leap to a more mature practice will require significant time and attention. So be careful not to get caught in the Upwork vortex.
How to Make the Leap Away From Freelance Platforms
What are the efforts needed to make the leap to a more professional practice? It requires building a platform that positions you as a focused expert in one particular skill, and one particular industry, a.k.a., it requires PinPoint Positioning.
You see most clients can’t distinguish between the logos and layouts they see featured on Upwork and those in your portfolio. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any differences, just that they don’t have the fine-tuned discernment to see it. So you need to demonstrate your value in other ways. And your expert experience is one sure way to demonstrate greater value.
What Mature Clients Value
Trust, experience, expertise. These are all things that mature companies value, and are willing to pay for. And so you will need to invest time thinking through your PinPoint Positioning. That’s no small challenge for most creatives. And, once you’ve done that, you’ll need to redesign your website to showcase your new positioning. On top of that you’ll need to start producing content that aligns with, and validates that positioning. And of course you need to build a portfolio that matches. (Don’t worry. You only need three or four similar examples when you’re just starting out.)
This effort, to identify and establish your positioning, can take months. And if you’re so busy trying to scrape by on Fivver gigs, you’re never going to make that jump.
So do yourself a favor. If you’re still using these platforms, minimize them as much as possible, as soon as possible. Upwork will not ultimately lift you up. It might help get you started, but if you don’t move on, in the end it will drag you down.