Work At Home. No, Really.
You've probably received emails or seen comments posted to online forums that promote various work at home arrangements. They usually go something like this:
I am now making extra $17k or more every month from home by doing very simple and easy job online on computer.
They can be very tempting if you're unemployed, especially if your life situation makes you an undesirable in the eyes of traditional employers. But don't get your hopes up. They're inevitably a bunch of bullcrap.
This essay, on the other hand, is based on my personal work at home experience over the past several years. It includes actual screenshots from my freelancer account at Upwork.com and provides exhaustive, in-depth guidance on how to set up your own account and start pursuing your own work at home opportunities.
Warning: When I say exhaustive, I mean it. This is a very long essay.
If you don't have the time to read the whole essay, here's the shortcut version.
- Create a freelancer account at Upwork.com
- Complete the required validation steps
- Create your freelancer profile
- Get approved
- Purchase connects at $0.15 each OR get a "pro" account ($14.95/month)
- Start bidding on contracts of interest
I use the words job, contract, assignment, work, and project interchangeably. As used in this essay, they all mean a paid instance of freelance work done through Upwork.
Why Do This?
If you're an old fart like me (currently 64 years old), you've discovered that companies don't want to hire you. Heck, nowadays, it can be tough to get hired if you're over 30. If you were laid off or fired from your last job, it's even worse. And if you have a disability or any other "red flag", it can be nearly impossible.
Furthermore, if you have limited experience or lack specific (often outrageous) credentials or don't present well at in-person interviews, you're painfully aware of just how unemployable you are via traditional job-seeking methods.
As for me, I'm not only old, but I've been self-employed for many years (something not highly valued by most traditional employers). Because I draw early Social Security and there's an income limit of $18,240, I only work part-time through Upwork. However, there's no reason you can't work 40 hours or more weekly if your circumstances permit.
What Is Upwork?
Upwork is a global freelancing platform where businesses and independent professionals connect and collaborate remotely. It was created through the merger of Odesk and Elance, the two largest freelancing sites at the time.
You create a freelancer account, bid on a number of jobs each month with either purchased connects ($0.15 each, 1 to 6 required per bid) or with the Freelancer Plus account allotment, and then track time worked via a desktop app. (Plus accounts cost $14.95 per month and include 70 connects.)
What Kind Of Jobs Are Available?
Upwork attracts clients needing many different skills at various experience levels. The What Specific Types Of Work Are Available section goes into more detail. I also offer tips here and there that will help you present your own unique background in the best light.
How Much Experience Do You Need?
Work is available for beginner, intermediate, and expert skill levels. I'll say more about this down below in the How To Bid For A Job section.
What Does It Cost?
Creating your basic freelancer account is free. Submitting a proposal to a specific job listing uses 1 to 6 connects at $0.15 each. If a client sends you an interview request directly, no connects are required.
Alternatively, you can upgrade to a Freelance Plus account that costs $14.95 per month. You're given 70 connects per month and other benefits with the Plus account.
Upwork makes most of their revenue collecting a commission on contracts you work. The commission is 20% for the first $500 earned, 10% of $500.01 to $10,000, and 5% for earnings over $10,000.
Tip: Strive for longer-term contracts to reduce the commission paid. You'll earn more with one $2,500 contract from a single client than with five $500 contracts from different clients.
How Do You Start?
Visit Upwork.com and click the Sign Up link on the menu. Signing up as an individual freelancer using your real name makes everything much simpler. You'll be a sole proprietor for tax purposes.
Important points to keep in mind when registering and setting up your account:
- Using a fraudulent or anonymous identity is never a good idea
- You need a valid email address and phone number for verification and contact
- You need a bank account for location validation and to receive payment
- You can also use a PayPal account to receive payment
- You need a credit card or PayPal account to purchase connects or pay fees
- The more verified information you supply, the more credible you are and the better your likelihood of being hired
Not every freelance application is accepted. Upwork receives 10,000 applications each day. What should help you get accepted is being located in the United States, creating a complete and accurate profile (discussed below), and possessing skills that match jobs typically offered on Upwork.
What does that last part mean? Well, it makes sense that your average carpenter won't be accepted, because carpentry can't be done online. But a carpenter that can also develop online carpentry courses or write how-to articles about carpentry likely will.
Another example is writer. It's true that generic writers are a dime a dozen. But specialized writers, e.g. tech writer or cybersecurity writer or legal writer or medical writer, etc., are in high demand.
What Specific Types Of Work Are Available?
A lot. Virtually anything doable remotely has been or will be offered. The list below contains the 12 main categories. In addition, each main category has anything from a few to a plethora of subcategories beneath it.
- Accounting & Consulting
- Admin Support
- Customer Service
- Data Science & Analytics
- Design & Creative
- Engineering & Architecture
- IT & Networking
- Sales & Marketing
- Web, Mobile & Software Dev
Technical work is popular of course, as tech has a long tradition of supporting remote workers. But you'll also find there's work for:
- Graphic artist
- Voice actor
- Technical writer
- Editor or proofreader
- Virtual assitant
- Lawyer or paralegal
- Many, many other functions
The vast majority of contracts are worked remotely, with all communication through Upwork messaging, phone, email, or Skype. Occasionally, though, there are clients that request hands-on contract work on-site.
OMG!!! You're Self-employed!!!
Working as a contractor means you're self-employed. There's no accounting or HR department. You track your own income. You need to pay estimated taxes when due. You don't get a W2 form. You won't even get a 1099 form except under special circumstances. You're now a Schedule C sole proprietor tax filer.
I can't emphasize this enough: Remote contract work is not for everyone. However, if you're willing to accept the challenges, it's rewarding and offers a great opportunity to work at home doing things you enjoy. And you can set your own hours on most contracts.
Creating a full and complete profile that presents you and your abilities in the best light is crucial. Quite a bit of your profile can be adapted from your current resume if you have one. Another important section of your profile is your portfolio items. Each profile section is discussed in detail below.
Here's the summary from my actual Upwork profile. I'll explain it after the screenshot.
There are three privacy levels available for your profile - Public, Only Upwork Users, and Private (your profile is accessible only through your proposals or contracts).
In the upper right corner are my "badges". I have a 100% job success score and I'm top rated. These were earned over time and help me get assignments. The job success score means I've successfully completed each job and have received excellent feedback ratings from clients. Your score is calculated after your 5th completed assignment.
Tip: Some job listings specify a minimum job success score. Aim for 90% or higher because that earns the Top Rated badge and helps you get the best jobs.
Next is my title. I focus on gigs that involve marketing, technology, or a combination of the two things. Your title is very important, as it's the first thing potential clients see. That being said, however, keep it functional and don't inflate. You want to convey what you do. Unless you're a qualified CEO and you're bidding on CEO contracts, don't title yourself CEO.
After title is my executive summary. You can use the executive summary from your resume, but I suggest reorganizing it to highlight the types of contracts you'll bid on and the type of clients you want finding you. In addition, the executive summary here can be a bit more salesy than traditional ("Put my 40 years experience in business and the technology industry to work for you" is my attention grabber).
Tip: Only the first paragraph or two display without clicking a link, so put the important stuff up top.
Finally, my rate and contracting statistics are shown. I've been able to bump my rate up from its initial $30 per hour to my current $75 as my reputation built and as I gained experience at properly bidding for assignments that suit me. Statistics-wise, I earned about $70,000 gross (after Upwork's cut) working 1,291 hours on 60 jobs since I started freelancing with Upwork.
Suggestions About Your Rate
Choosing the correct rate to charge is a bit of an art. You don't want to lowball yourself under the assumption you'll get more work that way. You have to work at it to raise your rate later on. Many clients only want to pay what the last client paid.
On the other hand, you don't want to price yourself out of the market. I suggest using the salary of your last traditional job working for others plus 37.5%. For example, if you made $40,000 per year as a web coder, that's $20 per hour (40K divided by 2,000 hours) plus $7.50 for a $27.50 hourly rate. The extra $7.50 (37.5% of $20) covers Upwork's commission and the benefits you don't receive as a freelancer, such as sick days, vacation, insurance, etc.
If you don't have a prior job you can use for this purpose, research what other freelancers in your situation charge. Or use Glassdoor.com to discover salary ranges for the type of work you want. Or, when nothing else works, take a SWAG (Scientific Wild-Assed Guess). You'll quickly find out if your rate is appropriate based on the responses or lack of responses you get from your proposals.
Work History & Feedback
After the summary is your Upwork work history. Naturally, this section will be thin when you're first starting out. I offer tips on how to build your initial history down below. The next screenshot shows part of my work history. I've worked on 60 jobs, including 6 ongoing assignments.
I have a few clients that have been with me for years and across multiple contracts. (Lower commissions, remember?) They activate me as needed, sometimes just an hour or two every few months. I've also had many one-time clients. Having long-term clients is safe and comfortable while performing a variety of tasks for multiple short-term clients keeps you up-to-date and flexible.
As you can see from the 4 assignments listed, I work on a variety of things. But if you only have a single specialty, there's no reason not to focus all of your efforts on that one thing. In fact, if you have a high-demand specialty, you can charge premium rates.
Finally, doing a good job for every client is, of course, crucial. Some clients, although not all, rate you when the contract is completed. This rating affects your job success score and greatly impacts your likelihood of being hired by other clients.
Your portfolio lets you impress clients with previous work you've done. This can be from school projects, volunteer work, materials you created during an internship, work you did for a previous employer (make sure you're permitted to us it!), or computer programs or artwork or books or blog posts or anything else relevant whether paid or unpaid that "Shows 'em what you can do". Here's a portion of my portfolio:
When I started on Upwork, I couldn't provide much work product from employers because of NDAs and security restrictions. Instead, I used screenshots from computer programs I've written for my own businesses and samples from some of my own websites. I even repurposed an old post from Daily Kos into a PDF document. As I completed Upwork assignments, I added additional portfolio items (with permission).
The Skills section contains tags that highlight your particular interests and expertise. You select them (up to 10) based on the type of work you want to attract. They are matched with search keywords when clients look for freelancers in the Upwork search engine. Give them a lot of thought. They're snapshots of your skills and will include or exclude you from notice for particular assignments. Here's my current set:
I've also modified mine as needed when I'm looking for a specific type of work. Sometimes I highlight hard technical skills (programming, DBA, system admin). Other times I highlight writing or marketing. Currently, I'm using a variety of business/marketing, technology, and writing tags.
Adapt your resume for this section. I recommend reformatting as needed to showcase the skill set you're presenting. Unlike when you're applying for regular employment with an HR department, most clients don't conduct background checks or verify your employment history. This DOES NOT mean you should lie in this section!
You generally need to go through an interview process upon applying for a contract with a new client. This is usually a phone or Skype call; sometimes just an email exchange and provision of a couple of example projects. You need to explain how your skills help the client with this task. And you obviously need to be concerned with your reputation. It's hard to get hired after a client gives you a 1.0 score.
Here's my employment history as displayed in my Upwork profile. It's similar to my formal resume, just rearranged to bring key points into the part that shows without clicking the More link.
If your paid work history is thin, non-existent, or has gaping holes, you could also list unpaid experience as long as it relates to the types of contracts you're seeking. For example, being a volunteer church secretary may have equipped you with computer software skills, customer service skills, scheduling expertise and more. It's all about how you frame your experiences in the best possible way.
Use careful and accurate wording in your employment history and your overall profile. You should cite any articles you've written, software programs you've developed, or any other factoid that demonstrates expertise you acquired by any means.
As seen in the following screenshot, I have a bachelor's degree in business.
That's helped me secure some marketing contracts. However, my programming and other tech skill are either self-taught or from employer-provided training. (Note: You cannot expect and will rarely get client-provided training. They're paying to harness your existing knowledge.) Because I don't have a formal degree in Computer Science, I've built my own technical cred through other means.
Unlike traditional employers, Upwork clients typically prefer demonstrated skills and ability over paper credentials. Highlight what you can do, not what boxes you can tick.
If you don't have a lot of formal college education but have taken specialized courses or been given skills training by an employer or acquired a license or certification in a particular field, show it off here.
This is a wide-open, catch-all section of your profile. I use this section to list online articles I've written for Linkedin (business & technology) and CodeProject (programming). However, you can use this section for anything you feel may be relevant to the type of client you're trying to attract.
For example, you can highlight special projects you undertook for an employer. You can list temporary assignments doing specific tasks. You can list non-profit or volunteer work or school projects or internships. Keep it related to the work you're seeking, but treat it as the Wild West where it's acceptable to place anything that won't fit anywhere else.
How To Get Work
After you've completed as full a profile as possible, you'll of course want to start getting jobs. Once you're established, you'll likely get Interview Requests from clients that are interested in you. At first, though, you need to put yourself out there and submit proposals for the contracts you're interested in.
Tip: If you have trouble getting your first contract, check with your friends and relatives and former employers and anyone else you know to see if they're willing to become an Upwork client and hire you for something they need.
Finding Potential Jobs
You'll use the Find Work search engine to look for interesting assignments. Type in a keyword or key phrase. For example, say you're a good writer and want work producing white papers or blog posts or other documentation. I searched on documentation just now and found these listings that were posted within the last 2 hours:
- Technical writer for security startup
- Tech savvy pro needed process automation and documentation
- Writer needed for Marketing document
- Business feasibility report
- Sales materials
- Editing & proof reading
- Writer for 2 articles about industrial equipment
Under the title, each listing states whether it is hourly or fixed price (I'll discuss fixed price contracts in a little bit; I don't like them but some freelancers do), the skill level (Beginner, Intermediate, or Expert), and a short description with a link to the detailed job posting. Also, since I limit my search to companies looking for U.S. workers only, this is also indicated. In addition, there's time estimate, location, and tags. (Remember them? You set them in your profile!) Here's an example listing from the search results above:
[Note: POC means Proof of Concept.]
If I wanted to apply to this job, I'd click the title to bring up the full listing. This is where you can learn more about the client and their recent hiring history. If you're interested, submit a proposal. For this particular client, I'd just laugh and move on because their average hourly rate paid is only $7.33 per hour. This typically indicates they hired most of their freelancers from India.
You have to remember that you may be competing against a global supply of freelancers. The rates charged in other countries are way below US rates. That's why I only bid on jobs limited to US applicants. As with most things in life, you have to sift through the chaff to find the wheat. Good clients and good contracts are out there, you just need to put in a bit of effort to find them.
Here's an example of a better potential client:
I would probably have applied for this 2 or 3 years ago. Looking at the detailed listing, it turns out this is a highly rated client (freelancers get to rate clients, too), the average rate paid is $22 per hour but checking their hiring history reveals they've paid up to $50 on other contracts, and I can mention my medical-related background in my proposal (software director for medical apps and served in a MASH unit in the National Guard).
Crafting Your Proposal
Submitting a proposal involves setting your rate for the particular job, writing a cover letter, and answering any written questions the client asks in the listing. For the Copy Editor listing above, the question was Do you have experience with medical copy editing?
That's where I'd mold my specific experience related to medical. While my experience isn't 100% aligned, it does fit the detailed description's "ideal candidate will have a medical or biosciences background, experience in copyediting or publishing", and I could highlight my experience with medical software proposals and user documentation in addition to my many years of copyediting other types of material.
For a proposal to succeed, you need to meet as many criteria as possible. If your skills match one or more of the tags chosen by the client, mention that explicitly in your cover letter. If the listing specifies a Job Success Score at least 90%, make sure you've got it. If the client wants a Native Speaker of a particular language, mare sure you are.
According to Monster, only 18% of hiring managers rank the cover letter as important. That's not the case here. A good cover letter can help you clinch the assignment. It's where you brag about specific skills or experience that fit the client's needs. It's where you point a potential client to your Upwork profile for detailed information about you. It's usually their first impression of you.
Some Upwork freelancers insist that you must use a custom cover letter for each job you apply to. I usually don't bother. I have boilerplate derived from my executive summary that I use for most proposals. If I feel it's necessary, though, I'll put in custom sentences and discard irrelevant portions. For instance, this cover letter highlighting specific needs snagged me an interview for a job listing titled "Developer needed for creating an ecommerce/ trading platform":
Hi, Jonathon. In addition to having a thorough background in programming and technology, I've operated an online store for many years and have accrued hands-on experience with the supply chain and logistics functions.
By The Way
Upwork has an unusually helpful help system you can draw on, and their support is really good. There's also a forum where you can post questions and read other freelancer's posts.
How To Bid For A Job
You're probably wondering how to figure out what to charge for a job. Sure, you have your standard rate, the one you calculated earlier for your profile. But for some jobs, you may want to charge more or less that that amount.
But First, A Word About Plans
Upwork offers two membership levels. The free membership plan is adequate, and you can buy "connects" for 15 cents each. You use 1 to 6 connects per job application. Most require two connects, so you can apply for 30 cents. The Freelancer Plus plan costs $14.95 a month and gives 70 connects. Also, the Plus plan lets you see what your competitors bid on a particular project.
Skill Levels in job listings tell you what experience level a client is looking for and, by extension, what they're willing to pay for that experience. Generally speaking, the higher the experience level requested, the fewer freelancers will apply.
- Entry level
- Client is looking for freelancers with the lowest rates
- Client is looking for a mix of experience and value
- Client is willing to pay higher rates for the most experienced freelancers
Clues To Bidding
I've mentioned some of the clues you can use to determine your bid. First, for experienced Upwork clients, base your bid on what they've paid others for similar work. This is available two ways -- the average rate paid is in the About the client section of the detailed job listing and the payments for previous jobs is in the Client's recent history section.
You'll typically set your rate at or near the maximum historical rate, but you may come in a bit lower when you're new. If you're in the plus plan, you can see what other freelancers have bid and set your rate accordingly (dismissing the low-ball bids from India and China, of course).
What if it's a new client with no history or an existing client that hasn't contracted this type of work before? I use my published rate or I do Internet research to estimate what work like that generally pays. You can use Glassdoor and similar resources to find employee salaries for that type work and then calculate an appropriate freelancer rate as discussed above.
Types Of Contracts
There are two types of contracts available -- hourly and fixed price.
With an hourly contract, you're paid for each hour you're logged into Upwork's time tracking app working on a specific contract. The app does a screen grab once during each 10 minute period (it's random; could be a few seconds in, could be the full 10 minutes) and the app times out if your keyboard or mouse are inactive for more than 10 minutes.
Quite a few hourly job listings specify a payment range. For example, $30 to $60 per hour.
Fixed-price contracts specify a certain dollar amount for the entire project. You need to figure out how long each segment of the project will take, devise a deliverable list (a deliverable is a document or web page or image or other piece of completed work), and then bid on the project based on how much you think your time is worth for that amount of work. Clients set a maximum amount they're willing to pay, so you need to stay in their budget.
On fixed price jobs, if you bid too low, you'll either have to eat the excess time or do incomplete work. And incomplete work will hurt your reputation. If you bid too high, you probably won't get the contract. Project cost estimation is complex. Bids often turn out to be too low due to unrecognized or unexpected issues. Sometimes, renegotiation is possible. Sometimes.
Even on hourly jobs, though, clients like an estimate of how long it will take. Use your best judgement to figure out how long you think you'll need and add a bit of padding. For example, if the job is to write a 1,000 word blog entry and you write at 200 words per hour, your estimate would be 6 hours (5 hours writing plus 1 hour padding).
As mentioned earlier, working as a contractor means you're self-employed. You track your own income and collect and pay your own taxes. There's no W2 form, and you won't get 1099 form except under special circumstances.
If you're a freelancer whom the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines as a “U.S. Person” and earn money working with your client through Upwork, you need to report this income on your tax return. But because of changes to the tax laws, freelancers—including those who earned more than $600—will not receive a Form 1099-MISC from Upwork (and your clients are not required to send you a 1099-Misc either). Source: Upwork Help System
You don't get health insurance (but that's part of why you add 37.5% to your rate). In addition, you pay Self-Employment taxes, which are the employer's portion of FICA (Social Security & Medicare) as well as the employee portion of those taxes.
On the plus side, though, you may be able to deduct expenses such as Internet access, computer, home office space, telephone, and other legitimate items from your gross income, thus reducing your overall tax liability. Use Schedule C of Form 1040 to list your income and expenses.
Keep all receipts, statements, and other documentation. Use tax preparation software or an online service. Hire a tax firm if you need to. The business related portion of tax preparation fees are also deductible.
I hope this essay is helpful. If any c99 member needs assistance getting started on Upwork or would like a profile review, Send me a private message and I'll gladly assist. But be aware that I'll likely need to learn who you are in real life. I will, of course, always respect your privacy and not share anything with anybody.