You’re scanning the jobs online in the morning. You find yourself reading some puzzling and even worrisome postings:
I need a business logo in 24 hours; will pay $10.
Virtual executive assistant at $3 an hour.
$2/hour for PHP coding.
Whoa, what’s going on here? Why would anyone respond to these ads for work at such low wages? And these people posting sound cranky and demanding – how do they get away with it?
That’s what you think most days when you work online via Elance, Guru.com, GetACoder and other such web sites that line up freelancers and employers. The pay can be low, the employers can be difficult and the competition is fierce for these sometimes penny-ante jobs.
The problem is that you actually apply for some of these jobs. Why? Because that’s how you make a living right now, because your part of the economy is still trying to come back to life after the great recession/depression of the 21st century. Or you’re trying to break into a new business and career and you have to start somewhere. Or it’s more of a choice: you want to live where you want to live and telecommute.
Elance and other freelancing sites have exploded in popularity in part because of the recession and the globalization of the workforce. As a result, these freelancing have established themselves as a new and different kind of high tech economy, one that is decentralized, very competitive and inexpensive for the service buyer.
Hey, Elance is a job. Well, it’s not always a job. Sometimes it’s a rip off.
I’ve been working on Elance for two years, give and take some months here and there. (my profile). And luckily I’m getting close to the point of being able to quit the online world and work for real people. The perverse economy of a service like Elance ultimately drives some good employees – and possibly employers as well – away from the online business model and back to traditional employer-employee relationships. That’s what it’s done to me, and that’s fine. I’m close to burned out on the $100 jobs that take 20 emails and a week of back and forth to complete. I’m tired of being ripped off by employers who use the bidding system to drain advice from a dozen different bidders and then cancel the job because they decided to do it “in house,” now that they know how to do it themselves.
But sometimes, you have to start somewhere. Elance lists 15,000 new jobs posted each week, along with around half a million contractors. I began by doing $20 jobs for people just to begin building a reputation on the service. Now I’m ranked in the top 1% in the web and programming category right around ~500 out of over a hundred thousand other freelancers.
Elance works pretty much the way most everything else works online: they borrow concepts from social networking. (About | Elance). You fill out a profile to “sell” yourself and your skills, add your photo and put together a work portfolio. You can optionally verify your academic degrees and identity for more credibility, and take tests to verify skills in different disciplines, like coding languages. And you start with a reputation of zero; you have to gain a reputation over time based on the amount of work you do and the feedback you get from the people you work for.
A reputation of zero means you usually start with small jobs, because many employers will shy away from a worker with no reputation. (In fact, I prefaced many of my early job bids with the line “I’m new to Elance, but I have lots of experience…” and that seemed to help me get off the ground.)
And when you’re working in a system like Elance, you have to realize from the beginning that Elance is biased toward the service buyer and against you, the employee. It’s that simple, because that’s the way Elance makes money. Because they’re a corporation with shareholders, they must continue a good growth rate to make their money, and that can mean raising the cost of using the service, as borne by the freelancer, and cutting services.
As a result, Elance has had their growing pains. They change parts of the service – what it costs to apply for each job, how workers are ranked, how much you can see of the other bidder’s offers – to give more of an advantage to the employer. Users complain in the Elance forums – called “The Water Cooler” – and Elance sometimes backs off.
On Elance, you pay two fees: the monthly membership fee, which includes a number of “connects” that allows you to actually bid on jobs. You have to pay for each category you work in or want to bid on jobs, like IT and Programming, Design, Writing, and so on. (It’s really a way for Elance to extract more money from you, the freelancer.) And there’s the final 8.75% commission on the overall cost of the job.
You get dinged twice for each job. But you have to pay to play. Employers pay nothing to list jobs and hire people. They’re supposed to verify an ability to pay before they hire, but that’s not required.
So that’s the gist of the business end of the Elance “deal with the devil.” But what are the pitfalls in applying for jobs? On Elance, you’re dealing with potential jobs in two different ways: you’re either searching the job postings for work that matches what you know – such as WordPress, Photoshop, technical writing, and so on – and posting your bid on available jobs. Or you’re responding to invitations to bid on jobs; that means a client has searched for the skills they need and found your profile and sent an invitation with a link to the job posting.
Both of these situations have problems. If you’re responding to a job posting, you give enough information to possibly convince the employer to hire you. The problem is that some employers use Elance as a free support network. They can ask lots of questions on how you will do the work, and after such dialogues, I’ve seen some employers disappear.
If you’re responding to an invitation, sometimes you have a foot in the door, but not always. Sometimes you’re simply being used as comparison shopping. Sometimes you’re going to be ripped off because the invitation asks you to describe how you will do the work in detail, and ten workers have been invited to the job.
And at some point, we have to discuss the elephant in the room, and now is as good as any. All the online freelancing services are inundated with “offshore” workers who place very low bids on jobs. By offshore I mean the thousands of workers in India and Eastern Europe and Russia who can or will work for a few dollars an hour or less. They’re the most active and probably do the majority of the work and produce the most profits for Elance.
I emailed the PR contact for Elance, and heard from Kelly Xie from the PR firm Borders + Gratehouse. She couldn’t break down Elance’s income by nationality, but send some press releases that show in March, Elance passed the $500 million mark of online work and is advancing “toward $1 billion in contractor earnings.”
Their star contractor is a professional writer form Iowa who has made more than $110,000 “by tapping Elance’s vast network of businesses seeking talent online.” He’s “been able to reinvent my career, collaborate with people from all across the globe and become a business of one… on my own terms.”
Elance is a business and a privately held company, so the spin is understandable. Their buzz-phrase is “The Human Cloud.”
But bottom line, it’s a brave new competitive world, so I don’t whine (too much) about the off shore workers. But if I’m the sole U.S. invitee to a job where everyone else is offshore, I simply decline the job right away. I’ve never been hired in a situation where I’m billing at $25/hour and they are billing at $4/hour.
But being in the U.S. can be an advantage. Some employers state “No Off Shore Workers” in their job postings. And I’ve found that being in Montana can be an advantage. If people want to think I’m an honest cowboy type in Big Sky Country (I am, but not so much a cowboy, though I have herded and branded cattle on horesback), that’s great.
Aside from the off shore competition, mostly what you most need to learn on Elance is the same with any job: how to deal with people. It’s true, people are the same everywhere. But when you’re totally online, your bullshit meter must be even more sensitive. It’s easier to be ripped off online than in person. But to be fair, it’s also easier to find a good client, too.
You must be brutal with assessing people online. You need to quickly decide the viability of a job prospect by closely reading the job posting, the employer’s profile and the quality of the feedback they’ve given to past freelancers. (I consider the ethical implications of the job, too, but that’s up to you.)
You get good scanning the jobs and judging: that one will go to India. That employer is cheap. That employer has no idea. That job is a possibility; I’ll bid. That job should be a shoe-in for me, but you never know.
I’ve gone back through my 100+ job history and found horror stories and clients that I would never work for now. This reminded me of looking through my high school year books and discovering forgotten crushes and girlfriends. What could I have possibly been thinking?
It’s a good idea to away jobs from employers with stupid profile names, like JerseyMafioso and SuperGeek and Make$Fast. The mafia never advertises and a real Super Geek isn’t going to be paying for simple help with their WordPress theme. And someone who calls themselves Make$Fast must selling ebooks about trying to make money fast and will want you to take part payment with an affiliate account to sell e-books for them.
And stay away from anyone with a quasi-boudoir photo in their company profiles. Yes, you will see them from time to time. Freelance sites aren’t dating sites. Well, maybe some computer geeks think they are.
Be wary of working for anyone who is more than 20 years older or younger than yourself. (Especially younger.) It’s both a generational thing and a plain old intelligence thing. Would you hire the local school kid to work on your business website? No? Then why do it online?
Does the job posting use correct spelling and grammar? Or even write in complete sentences? I can understand that some employers use English as a second language, and that’s fine. But I will not deal with an employer who writes in all lowercase with no punctuation. Or OMG, uses text-speak. Once again: would you respond to the same want ad offline?
This may sound nitpicky, but be wary of jobs with even a single “!” in the title. These people are usually panicked because their site is broken, or they’re frustrated with what they’ve been working on themselves and will jump at the first $2/hour offer from India. If you bid and get such a job for a decent rate, they can drive you nuts with their anxieties.
And at the same time, I don’t bid on “rush” or “urgent” jobs anymore. They almost always go for $15 to someone in India or a US-based worker desperate for anything. I got a few such “Help Me!” in the past, but they turned out to be for people who should be required by law to turn in their laptop and stay away from all forms of modern technology.
And something to watch out for are the employers who need a quick job and want it done right away but who haven’t funded the escrow with a valid credit card. That’s a potential rip off.
And this should be obvious: if someone is the least bit combative or challenging in their job postings or emails when discussing a potential job, forget them. I’ve had potential customers argue with me about my advice and work when they hired me as a “guru” all the while they admit in the job posting that they know nothing. I’m not out to prove anything to anyone, and I won’t deal with people who insist I prove to them I’m good. And avoid anyone who mentions – or even brags – that they fired the last worker. They have more issues than you want to deal with.
Stay away from those who say they are looking for someone “they can trust.” They already have issues beyond the online world. (And I’m not getting paid enough to be a shrink.)
I seldom respond to a job if the poster complains of being ripped off by other contractors. And never to someone who complains that they only have $50 to finish the job because the last contractor ripped them off.
I never respond to any proposal with any variation of the following statement: “This should only take someone who knows what they are doing an hour or less.” All that says is this: they’re cheapskates. They’ll never be happy. You’ll never be happy working for them. Delete.
And there is oft-seen line (or variation of) “This is a small job, but I will have plenty of work for you in the future…” You can probably trust your next door neighbor with a statement like that. Never believe that online.
Stay away from job invitations that are too personal (unless it’s from a regular client). I’ve had people Google my business name, check my website and then write a chatty invite about we have a lot in common. Such jobs always turn into nightmares, with low budgets, lots of revisions and endless emails afterward asking for help that they feel should have been included.
Avoid anyone in Texas. Seriously. There are the Austin hipster-types who want your full detailed assessment of their php job in written form, and then they take the specs and your advice and go to India. There are the divorce lawyers in cowboy boots and personal injury lawyers who look like they should have been in “Reservoir Dogs” who want “gol-darned good” SEO for $25/month. There are realtors who want a website for their trailer park outside Fort Worth for $150. And Texas is home to that special breed of over-caffeinated mommy blogger who is trying to blog and change a diaper at the same time and run a contest for a prize or sell an e-book about making lots of money being a mommy-blogger, and you can, too, for $59.99, and they want their website to load in one second, or else they won’t pay you and won’t give you good feedback. Don’t go to Texas, for any reason.
Avoid anyone in Amsterdam or the Netherlands: they’re all stoned. Avoid anyone who posts a job at 2 a.m. their time. Avoid jobs on the other side of the international date line where your 8-5 is their next day; they’re just too far away.
Avoid anyone in France. Now, I’d love to go to Paris, and sip espresso on the sidewalk and see the art museums. America and France have a special relationship going back beyond the Statue of Liberty. But I can’t work for the French. There is some basic communication disconnect between American pragmatism and French Romanticism that gives me some serious pause. I can’t put my finger on it, but simply nothing works out. (And this goes for American expats in France; they’ve absorbed these same French qualities that are exasperating.) We pass like two ships in the night, desperately sending morse code with pen lights. Sorry, France.
Real estate agents are generally bad news. The nature of the business means they’re simply talkers and bullshitters. Financial advisors and stockbrokers and their ilk are also bad news for the same reasons. I never had a good work experience with any of them. None of them are very smart, they don’t have a clue about Facebook, and at the same time, they all want to be perfectionists. That’s a dangerous combination. You’ll be chasing your tail in frustration; they’ll give bad feedback.
I don’t know how many other freelancers do this, but before I bid on or accept a job, I assess the moral character of the employer. Is the job for a pay day loan business website? Or how teach people how to cash in on the home foreclosure business? I don’t deal with them. Elance doesn’t have an option called “I’m declining this job invitation because you’re morally despicable.” But they should.
I’ve even seen job postings for people searching for hackers. Right. (To be fair, such jobs tend to be quickly deleted by Elance).
And I avoid anyone remotely associated with Multi-level Marketing. MLM people are by definition psychopaths. They dream of a big paycheck by using their charm to hoodwink others into thinking they can make a lot of money, too. Psychopaths may give ebullient feedback, but only if you work cheap and fast, and you’ll feel the need to take a shower with bleach afterward.
So, after all this: who can you work for?
It really depends. The problem is that we’re all human. But that’s a good thing, because there are exceptions to any rule. But in my experience:
Canadians are generally a good lot to work for. (Except for French-Canadians; see my assessment of the French above). They’re friendly and understanding. Germans and Swiss are usually precise with their job descriptions and appreciate precision in the work you do for them. Brits appreciate the lack of a language barrier, but they can be cranky if you’re catching them during their pub hour.
People at large companies can usually spend the money needed for a good job and are used to hiring people. You can still end up dealing with a bonehead underling, but that can happen anywhere.
Non-profits are generally a good deal and are aware of what it takes for a good investment of time and knowledge for the work they need done. That is, if they can pay.
Some lawyers are good to work for; it seems to depend on their legal specialty. I got ripped off by a divorce lawyer, and as a rule avoid personal injury lawyers or anything adversarial in nature. But I worked for lawyers who specialized in elder law and international law, and they were fine people.
Over the past year, I’ve found myself being a bit vindictive. I bid on a job, it goes to India. A month or two later, the same contractor invites me to a job. I remember they asked for a full outline of the job and then went elsewhere and didn’t even say thanks. Delete. Or now they say that job wasn’t done right and want an American. Too bad.
But some points to consider: Ignore the Elance warnings about contacting employers outside of the service and do phone calls with people who want to talk and seem worthwhile. It can make a huge difference putting a voice to an email, or Skype or iChat and put a face to an online persona. They’re usually ethical and will keep the job on Elance, too, so Elance gets their cut.
And keep a sense of humor. When you find out Monday morning you got ripped off, don’t let it get to you. Karma is a great equalizer, and it still works over the tubes of the Internet.
And get a laugh from what’s on Elance. Some of the funniest job postings I’ve seen were from the minister needing for a eulogy that he can “plug new names and resumes into” each time he needs it. (Hope I don’t die near his church). And have pity on the poster who is advertising for a ghost writer to write their novel for them because they “have a great idea for a fantasy-sci-fi novel but don’t know where to start.” And smirk at the busy executive who wants a virtual assistant to keep up with email on his dating sites. And laugh (and worry) about the graduate student who is advertising for someone to write their Ph.D. thesis.
About the funniest job posting I ever saw also illustrated the life skills I think one needs to survive Elance. I wonder if the “job” was really for the employer themselves? And yes, the posting was all in caps. The job title? NEED 5000 WORDS ASAP ON HOW TO SURVIVE LOST AT SEA.