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How I Got Started on Upwork

getting started on upwork

I had an Upwork account for a year and a half before I finally landed my first client. It wasn’t that I didn’t try—I did. I applied for jobs; I even paid for Freelancer Plus membership. But getting started on Upwork isn’t something you can force. I just couldn’t land my first job on my own. But then two months ago, I finally got my first Upwork client.

How’d I do it?

My dad always says, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I finally understood this saying the day a Swedish businesswoman invited me to apply for her job, which happened to be a perfect fit for my skills. I couldn’t believe my luck—I hadn’t applied for the job, and I hadn’t even seriously looked at Upwork in months. While I’m not sure exactly how my first client found me, I’m guessing she found my profile and liked what she saw. This is good news for freelancers who haven’t scored a job yet—it is possible to craft your profile to attract clients even without a previous Upwork job or feedback. 

Here’s what I did before landing my first project:

I filled out my profile completely.

The more complete your profile is, the better chance that clients will find you—and like what they see. I copied and pasted in my job experience from LinkedIn and added my education and skills. I wrote a short bio and uploaded a professional yet friendly looking photo. If you want to land a client on Upwork, you’ll want to do the same—clients want to hire real humans, so prove that you are one in your profile.

I took relevant Upwork tests.

If you really do have experience and skills in the field you’re looking to break into on Upwork, the skills tests shouldn’t be that difficult. Look through the tests and find the ones relevant to you—but don’t start just yet. Make sure you’re in a comfortable place and can devote 30-45 minutes on each test. While some will take less time than that, you don’t want to rush or be distracted and end up with a poor test scores, especially since you have to wait a certain amount of time to retake the tests.

(Note from 2019: Upwork tests are now a thing of the past!)

I included examples in my portfolio.

After all, this is the internet. If you can’t prove that you’ve edited books or designed a website before, why should anyone hire you? In my case, I uploaded my college’s creative writing journal that I designed and edited. Even though it’s not exactly comparable to what many clients who want a book editor are looking for, it’s something they can look at and see that you have the skills you say you have.

Steps I’ve taken after completing my first project — and how you can get started on Upwork

Since I scored my first job, I’ve tried different strategies to build my momentum. Here are a few best practices I’ve started doing to get more clients:

Less is more when it comes to cover letters.

When I first started Upwork, and even for a week or two after I got that first job, I thought I needed to write three or four paragraphs in my cover letter to prove my merit as a freelancer. I wanted to make up for the lack of Upwork experience and feedback by just talking about myself. I told clients about my scores on each and every Upwork test, listed off my internships, and went way into detail about questions and clarifications I had on their job descriptions.

Eventually, though, I figured out that clients aren’t likely to read through sentence after sentence about me—they want to know what I can do for them. This makes sense—after all, if a client only writes one or two sentences for their job description, it’s obvious they value brevity. Now I try to match the length of my cover letter to the length of their job description. This means that for most cover letters, I keep it to two to three sentences, maximum. I only write more if a client has provided a very long job description requesting specific details about me and my experience.

Use interview requests to your advantage.

Occasionally I get job interviews sent to me that do not fit my skills, like grant writing. When this happens, I message the client and let them know that the job isn’t a fit for me, but that I can offer them editing services. This is a good way to reach out to clients without wasting your precious connects.

Tailor your rate to your client.

It’s a waste of your time and your connects if you just stick with the fixed price the client listed or enter your generic hourly rate. For the best chances of connecting with the client—and getting compensated fairly for it—you need to customize your rate to the job.

I look at a client’s average hourly rate to get an idea of how much they’re used to paying their freelancers. If the client has a very low average hourly rate, I usually skip over the project because it’s not worth my time to work for one-third of the minimum amount I should be paid. But if the hourly rate is reasonable, I use this to customize my offer, usually matching the average rate or going slightly below or above it, depending on how much I feel my time is worth on the particular project.

I also look at their previous projects and try to find similar jobs to the project I’m applying for. If the client has worked with other freelancers on similar projects in the past, you can see how much they think your service is worth. If you absolutely cannot charge less than $55 an hour for you service and you see that previous projects were set at $7 an hour, you’ll probably want to move onto another project.

The final—and best—tool for customizing your proposal is to spring for $10 to Upwork’s Freelancer Plus membership. This membership lets you see the bid range on the project, which means you can see the dollar amount of the highest bid, the lowest bid, and the average bid. This information can help you craft a proposal that hits just below the average bid or goes beneath the lowest bid to catch the client’s attention. (Just don’t underbid yourself!)

Keep in touch.

In the occasion that I am behind on a deadline (which never, ever happens), I message my client and let them know that I’m working on their project—even if I’m secretly procrastinating on it until tomorrow. This reassures your client and gives them confidence that you aren’t ghosting them or stealing their intellectual property. Even if you don’t have anything to send them, checking in with your client is essential so they don’t get upset about you missing a deadline and eventually leave you a bad review.

Follow up with clients for reviews.

As an introverted editor who is used to hiding behind a book and a computer screen, it’s scary enough communicating with clients, much less asking them for a review. But given that Upwork’s job success rate is based on how many clients give you feedback and whether the feedback is positive, I’ve found that it’s worth it to ignore that nervous knot in my stomach and type out a quick message to my clients asking if they can write me a review.

Getting started on Upwork and landing your first client certainly isn’t easy—you’ve got to be proactive and work for your first paycheck long before you land your first client. Don’t give up—sooner or later, someone will notice the hard work you’ve done and give you a chance.