The 5 biggest challenges of being an online freelancer

25 January 2017

After publishing my previous articles about Online Freelancing and making a Perfect Profile on Upwork, I got some reactions. People told me that it’s impossible to get jobs on Upwork: the rates are too low and the competition too high. On social media I see many posts of people trying to get started with online freelancing, but they have trouble getting their career off the ground.

I know that there are many people trying online freelancing who don’t succeed. I even experienced this amongst my own friends. They wanted to work online, so they asked me how to do it. After my instructions, they tried for a while but gave up quickly. My friends will now probably also say that online freelancing is impossible, that the competition is too high and the earnings too low.

I understand this point of view. Making money online is not as easy as it seems. There are many pitfalls and challenges. It needs a lot of dedication, patience and time. When you are one of those people who have been trying to get started with online freelancing: I don’t want to say that you are not working hard enough. I know that getting your online career off the ground is not easy. But I think it helps to know in advance what the biggest challenges of online work are. This way you can decide if it’s worth the effort for you. And if you do decide to go for it, what difficulties you can expect. This is by no means a post to complain, just a reality check. So here we go: the 5 biggest challenges of online freelancing!

office 1

Me working somewhere in Montenegro

Challenge 1: You have competition from all over the world.

The market for online freelance work is global. This means that you will be competing with people from everywhere from the United States to Pakistan, all for the same jobs. There will be people who work for much lower rates than you. There will also be people with much more experience than you.

You have to realize this and be smart about it. Make sure that you stand out. Don’t try to compete by having the lowest rate. Compete by delivering quality. Make sure you have examples of work to show possible clients, and collect reviews and testimonials from former employers. These reviews can even be from employers that you worked for ‘offline’. If you did not do any online work before. Start by creating things that you can show on your profile. Create your own website that showcases your writing, art or design work. You need some form of proof that your work is any good. Otherwise no one will hire you.

Challenge 2: Online work takes more dedication than a ‘normal’ job.

As I said before: when you work as an online freelancer YOU are the one who has to motivate YOU. Most of the time you will work all by yourself. No boss that checks if you were on time and no colleagues to chat with by the coffee machine. You have to make sure you deliver good work before the deadline you agreed on. There is no manager who will be angry if you show up late in the morning. So you have to motivate yourself to start work on time.

For me, my work is always the first priority. It does not matter in which country I am or if I am visiting family or friends, I plan my working days and stick to the schedule. When I arrive somewhere new, I first try to find a place with a good table and wifi connection to work. This way I always know that I can work my hours. After the work is done, I can start exploring and socialising. Yes, there are temptations all around me: new landscapes to be discovered, new friends inviting us for drinks. But I always have to finish my work first. That’s the only way this lifestyle will be sustainable for me.

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Ok, I do get to work from a hammock sometimes, so it’s not that painful to skip the sightseeing ;)

Challenge 3: Communication is key

In the world of online freelancing, chance is that you will never meet your clients face to face. This means that you have to rely mostly on your written communication to get (and keep) the job. Of course it all starts with a well written and complete freelancer profile. But it does not stop there. If you apply for jobs you have to write a nice cover letter to present yourself. But even after you landed the job, you have to use written communication to function. Make sure you understand the instructions you are getting, ask questions to make sure you understand everything and keep your client up to date during your work in progress.

If you want to find jobs, and also keep them. Realise that you have to put a lot of effort in your written communication. You can not get by with chat-style mails.

Challenge 4: You have to watch out for scams

One common complaint about Upwork is that it’s full of scams. I have to admit: there are scams and I even came across some myself. Especially in the beginning of my ‘Upwork career’, I was very hungry for work and I also got scammed. My very first job was for a guy who needed lots of translations on very short notice. He hired me for the job and I literally spent the next 48 hours working without sleeping to finish on time. He seemed satisfied with my work and hired me again. Unfortunately I never got paid for that second job. This was really shitty!

Luckily, this kind of scam is easy to avoid. First of all: you should never start working on a job before the client has created a contract for you. (I was so eager to keep my first job, that I started before the contract was made. Now I know better…) Upwork also has a new service called “escrow’. This means that the client has to pay (part of) your fee upfront to Upwork. Once you have finished (part of) the job, you receive your fee. This way the client does not get the chance to not pay you.

Another common scam on Upwork is: clients asking for free ‘test’ work. Myself and other befriended freelancers have experienced this first hand. A client asks you for a short translation, small design or short text, just to see what your work looks like. After you delivered your free sample, you never hear from them again. In the worst case scenario, they even publish your free work!

In this case the solution is again: do not start working until you have a contract. Ideally: do not start working until the client has paid part of your fee into escrow. Of course clients can ask for samples of your work, but you have to be very careful with this. As a rule of thumb you can say that you do not deliver more than 10-20 minutes of free work as a sample.

office 8

Challenge 5: You are responsible for your office space

Being an online freelancer means that you have to organise your own office space. If you work from home, this should not be too hard. A wifi connection, a laptop and a desk will do the trick. If you are working while traveling, or even working from a van, it is another story. My experience is that it’s not easy to find a place that has:

  • A stable wifi connection
  • A good table to sit on
  • No loud music

Well, at least these are my requirements for a good place to work. Usually one of the three components is there….for example: I have a little desk in Box, where I can work in silence. But to get stable internet in Box is not always possible. So then I go to cafes, but especially in rural areas (where we tend to hang out) the cafes are not set for ‘digital nomads’ like myself. In short: working while traveling means hunting for good offices. That takes time, and sometimes nerves. My bi-weekly team meeting on Skype is actually my biggest stress factor. Every second week I have to find very good wifi in a place that’s quiet. Not easy… I can tell you that 😉 I am not saying that it’s a big problem, but it is something you have to reserve some time for, each time you move to a new location.

van desk

My van-desk: quiet and comfortable, but not always good internet

But these challenges are all worth it…

because the world is my office! I do not need to be at a certain place at a certain time, and this gives me such an incredible amount of freedom. I would not change my online freelancing for any other career in the world! (ok, maybe for hotel tester… or professional cat lady).

So if you are thinking about starting as an online freelancer: now you know the most common pitfalls and you can start prepared. Good luck! Don’t forget to read the first parts of this series: “Online Freelancing: how to get started” and “Tips for a perfect profile on Upwork”. If you still have questions after reading all this, just contact me. I’m happy to help you into the right direction.

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