In late-October I thought I would give a try at getting some freelance design jobs on Elance. At that point I had been a client on Elance for almost a year and had been extremely happy with the system. I think my plan at the time was to see how easy it is to make some extra pocket change on Elance. The answer is: it’s not that easy to make money on Elance but you can do it.
Actually months before I had registered on Elance as a freelancer in the Writing and Translation category. But I began to see that a lot of the jobs could be really time-consuming and it was really hard to know when a job was successfully completed. In my mind I thought that Design would be a more discrete category and therefore limit the amount of back-and-forth with the client at the revision stage. So I switched to the Design & Multimedia category and started seeking jobs there. Note that with a free membership on Elance you can only submit proposals in a single category. For a modest $10 you can start a Basic membership which allows more categories and more Connects. Connects! These are little tokens that you receive each month that allow you too submit proposals for jobs. Most jobs require a single Connect. But featured jobs require more. So each month you have 40 Connects to work with and you can eat them up pretty fast. I’ve read elsewhere that some full-time Elancers get one hire for every ten proposals they submit. So you could potentially use up those 40 proposals and only get hired for 4 jobs.
The jobs themselves vary in the Design category. I was focusing at the beginning on logos and small design jobs. When you’re starting out you’re working really hard to build up your credentials. Clients are reluctant to hire someone with no job history and no ratings. My thinking at the time was: “I’ll just apply for the cheapest jobs and do an amazing job on them thus building my ranking.” That worked to an extent but it came at a price. A lot of these jobs paid around $30 and the clients often expected huge amounts of work for that amount. If you’re pondering freelancing on Elance you have to understand one thing: The client has all the power. The reason being that once you’ve agreed to the terms and started working you have to work on the job until they are satisfied or otherwise risk getting a low rating and bad review.
The most important part in the hiring process is agreeing on the terms. You have to try to understand the client’s requirements, what they are providing you with and what you are being asked to do. But in many cases the clients either did not understand the complexity of what they were asking or they concealed the true complexity of the job from me. For example, I was hired to shrink a PDF file. This requires about 5 minutes of time and almost zero technical skill. And then the same client wanted to hire me to reformat and layout a ten page document. When I told him the price would be much higher than what I had charged for the PDF shrinking job he thought I was ripping him off since this new job was obviously (to him) much simpler than the first one.
In the working stage it was very common to have feature creep in which the client expected me to do some huge amount of work without increasing the job or the price. The other thing that happened is that we got stuck in endless rounds of revisions. After a while I started trying to be very clear in the terms about what I was being paid to do and how many revisions that included. But even with fairly clear terms clients would be shocked and offended when I informed them that I would have to charge more for the extra work they were asking me to do.
All the time this wrangling is going on the clock is ticking. Remember this is moonlighting, something I’m supposed to be doing in my spare time. But it ended up ballooning to the point that I was spending all day on piddly jobs and finding it difficult to keep an eye on my main job because of the endless stream of client demands and revisions.
I haven’t mentioned my own qualifications for the jobs yet. This was a delicate issue. You want clients to think you are qualified and have experience but often you lack the kind of paid work that you can show in your portfolio that will make them think you can do their job. As part of my job with the Red Zebra Project I am continually doing design jobs. Some of them are incredibly complex. For example, I lay out folding books which are a single piece of paper that folds into a mini book. They require very tight margins and crops and a lot of complex graphic and text layout. I am meticulous in the extreme in laying out these books. But clients look at those sorts of jobs and aren’t really able to appreciate the skills the go into making something like that come together. I also do logo design, photo manipulation and lots of text editing. But all these skills have just been gained on the job. I’ve never done a course in graphic design or received certification in any of the Adobe tools like Illustrator and Photoshop. Instead, I’ve learned the skills when I needed them. All that to say that I am not a certified professional but I am highly skilled. Still showing that on Elance takes time. I think if you really want to make a go of it you have to be really patient. Build up your portfolio by taking a class or simply doing example work.
Having bragged on myself I will say that sometimes my lack of formal training got me in trouble. This was especially true at the stage of working with the printer. It’s one thing to create a page of beautiful stickers, but the printer wants bleed and crop indications and also needs text converted to outlines. Some of this stuff I had to learn through making mistakes and clients don’t really like that.
My clients by the way were primarily from the US and Australia with a few from other far-flung places. In one case a client from Singapore ended up being a nightmare because I couldn’t really understand his English and also the job he presented was tiny in comparison with what he was really expecting.
At the end of the day it boils down to not how much you are paid but what kinds of ratings the client will give you. I tried very hard to please clients and was getting quite good reviews, high ratings and a few repeat hires. Then one vindictive client gave me extremely low ratings to vent his unhappiness with the job and also claimed that I was a terrible freelancer without any skills. At this point I had so many positive reviews that it would be obvious to anyone who wanted to hire me that this client was just being a jerk. But it did affect my stars taking me down from 4.8 to 4.1 and that looks really bad since potential clients will look at your stars and number of jobs first when considering you for a job.
However, one of the things I really love about Elance is that you as the freelancer are given the chance to reply to reviews and this is a crucial activity that you need to get right. If you flame the client in review you are going to look immature and possibly guilty. But if you can keep your cool and reply professionally it is a chance to show future clients that this was more about the client than about you.
At the end of my month I had made about $500 dollars and earned every penny by working hard. It is not easy money. And considering that I have a full-time job and am writing a Masters thesis I just can’t justify the distraction of having to fiddle with these kinds of jobs and suffer the kinds of emotional ups and downs that come with them.
I might consider continuing with Elance under a few circumstances. First, being hired by a long-term client who I enjoy working with. Second, doing a big ticket job. Third, being able to work on jobs that are really, really well defined so that you know what the client expects and there isn’t a big hassle over finishing them off. But for now, I’m going to say my Elance experiment has ended. I learned a lot. My Illustrator skills improved amazingly. And I made a bit of spending money. But for me, I think the best thing to do is focus on being a client on Elance rather than a freelancer.