Most people are surprised to find out that I earned six figures in 12 months using Elance as my only source of clients.
I get it: In the minds of most writers, freelancing platforms like Elance tend to conjure up images of penny-per-word hell.
There’s a good reason for this reputation. Many clients are attracted to freelancing sites because they can hire writers at a discount.
But that’s only part of the story.
In my experience, Elance also offers writers a great opportunity to make an excellent living — without all the hassles of “real world” freelancing.
Nor was building up my six-figure Elance income as mysterious or challenging as you might think it would be — especially once I decided to reject conventional wisdom and stop following the masses.
Even if you’ve had a bad experience freelance bidding sites, bear with me: Here’s how I make money as a freelance writer on Elance.
Getting started as a freelance writer
When I set out to become a copywriter and start freelancing in July of 2012 — with no previous experience to speak of — Elance seemed like a good way to get my feet wet.
So I spent dozens of hours researching the idea, devouring blog posts, articles and forum threads on the subject. Unfortunately, my main takeaway from all this reading was that there seemed to be an invisible “cap” on what an Elance writer could earn.
But a few weeks into my Elance adventure, I’d already landed two $50-an-hour jobs. At that point, I realized that one of two things was true:
A) I’d been super lucky and managed to find the only two decent-paying clients on Elance, or
B) There were more of those decent-paying clients out there, and I could make great money if I could figure out how to attract them.
So I spent the next few months developing strategies and tactics specifically designed to pull in the highest-quality clients Elance had to offer.
It wasn’t long before my hourly rate rose from $50, to $75 and ultimately, $125 and beyond.
The challenges most freelancers experience on Elance have less to do with supply and demand, and more to do with not knowing how to find and secure the best-paying work.
Here are some counterintuitive approaches I’ve used to overcome these challenges, winning more work and charging higher rates than my competitors — while spending less time grinding away at the keyboard.
1. Don’t compete on price
Lowering your price on Elance can seem like the right way to deal with low-bidding competitors. But it’s a game you won’t win, and can’t even afford to play.
Personally, I love seeing gaggles of writers racing to the bottom on price: It tells me there’s a lack of quality options available to clients.
Writers who charge bargain rates don’t have time to hone their craft; they’re too busy working their way to burnout. So I go the opposite way — offering high-quality work for a premium price.
There’s nothing mysterious about this plan. I spend a lot of time educating myself about my craft and my niche, and it makes me more valuable than most of my competitors.
Mostly, this strategy involves reading. I regularly pore over a plethora of writing blogs (like the one you’re reading right now) and books like Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (a must-read for all writers), all of which have helped me improve my skills in different ways.
You might think that all of your competitors are gaining the same knowledge as you are through reading, but they aren’t. This simple habit gives you a huge advantage in the marketplace and allows you to charge above-average prices.
2. Choose a specialty
Most Elancers are scared to choose a niche, for fear of shutting out most of the clients they encounter.
So they stick to being the “Jack of all trades.” Or they choose several niches, and misguidedly try to tie them all together (e.g. Resume Writer / Novel Editor / White Paper Author).
My advice? Forget about “most clients.”
Successful freelancing isn’t about catering to the masses. It is, to paraphrase Seth Godin, about finding the “weird” clients who are a perfect fit for you.
The irony of choosing a specialty on Elance is that, far from limiting yourself, you’ll now appear even more valuable to the clients who want and need you the most. It’ll be easier for them to find you, and easier for you to charge them what you’re really worth.
3. To win big, aim small
Bigger jobs on Elance come with a paradox: Though they offer more income potential, they also draw out more competition.
Like this one:
Snagging these long-term or recurring jobs can seem like winning the lottery. But you’re also competing against about as many other people as you would in the actual lottery. Instead, I’ve developed a strategy to flip the odds in my favor.
Rather than trying to get the client to award me the whole enchilada, I offer them a small trial job. This has many benefits, like:
- Helping me stand out from the crowd (who are all pushing for the “big contract”)
- Making it easier for the client to say yes, since there’s less commitment required
- Giving me added credibility and posture (i.e. I don’t appear desperate)
- Offering me a chance to test the waters, just in case the client turns out to not be a good fit
For the job above, instead of forcing the client into the big decision of hiring me for a three-month blogging contract, I suggested we start with a single blog post.
As you can see from the screenshot below, this approach worked out great for both of us, and has been a great income stream for me over the course of a just a few months.
(Of course, this strategy requires some confidence, which goes back to expertly honing your skills. As the great Jim Rohn said, “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.”)
4. Tap into the “Hidden Elance Economy”
The only thing more fun than finding lots of clients is having them find you.
While Elance’s jobs marketplace is great for finding new work, many of the best clients use the “search” feature to scout for writers before they consider posting a job.
If one of these clients likes what they see in your profile, they just might go ahead and invite you to a job they created just for you. Like this one:
I call this the “Hidden Elance Economy” because it’s totally invisible to anyone but you!
Receiving high-quality, private invites like this one allows you to charge more for your work, and gives you a passive stream of new leads to choose from.
Here are some tips for taking advantage of these opportunities:
- Word your profile carefully so clients can easily see exactly what services you offer and the type of client you work best with (if you aren’t sure, don’t worry, you’ll figure it out once you get a feel for the market)
- Over-deliver to clients so they write you the sort of amazing reviews that attract even more awesome clients
- End your profile with a call-to-action letting clients know they can invite you to a private job (otherwise, how will they know?)
Have you found decent-paying writing jobs on Elance?
In my experience, Elance can be an enormously rewarding source of freelancing business, way beyond what the average writer imagines.
But you need to choose the right approaches to make it work. “Going with the flow” is just a race to the bottom. Instead, be strategic and you just might find yourself with lucrative jobs and quality clients.
Have you tried Elance as a source of writing jobs? What was your experience like, and looking back, would you do anything differently?