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I’ve worked reasonably paid (by Western standards) for 15 years.

I'm wondering whether there is any point me trying to crack the online freelance market.

  1. I compete against thousands of people with a markedly lower sense of "reasonable pay".

  2. I have no publicly available work to show. Why would anyone give me my first contract?

It seems like a lot of hard work. Is it worth it, and how should I go about it?

  • You can even take another path and try yourself in TopTal or Crossover. These companies hire freelancers and give clients some extra guarantee in exchange to rates that are above market's average. As an employee (actually, subcontractor), you get a steady flow of projects and decent hourly rate. This may be a good way for you to assess your real knowledge and gain momentum as a freelancer. – Fleischpflanzerl Apr 15 '15 at 20:13
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I believe that being a 'Westerner' definitely works to your advantage for many reasons. Let me share part of my experience on the subject, as a freelance developer who started in London, then moved on to other 'western' countries. I had no portfolio, having done only bar work since I left Uni, but I was really motivated.

First, as you said, the market is flooded by low-rates developers, asking as little as $3/hour. But the quality of the work they provide, and the heart they put in it reflects the rate they offer. Think about it, if they were skilled enough to ask 10 times the rate they offer, they probably would.

Most of the time, when you put an ad on Elance (now known as Upwork), you receive instantly a dozen of generic replies, often in broken English, and obviously copypasted from a defined set, maybe triggered by a keyword like 'WordPress' or similar. Here's how to take advantage of that:

1. Choose the proposals carefully, and personalize your reply.

Take some time to read the proposal, and start thinking about how you'll solve the client's problem, instead of copypasting a list of your 'skills' that he/she doesn't know anything about. Find something you're interested in doing, and be enthusiastic in your reply. At the beginning, I used to choose only challenging proposals, that I knew I could fix, but didn't know exactly how. I was doing a bit of research on Google, then explained my 'plan' to the client. Often, the actual solution I ended up using was different than the original plan, but it didn't matter, I had made a difference by showing some 'care' in my answer.

2. Emphasize the fact that you do speak English perfectly.

This is a bit controversial, but once the client will have struggled his way through 10 replies full of spelling/grammar mistakes, your proposal will be a breeze of fresh air to him. Remind them of that discreetly in your answer. I usually use almost informal language, to further distance myself from the 'Dear Sir, ...' answers, and I always mention the fact that I do speak good English.

TL;DR: Make your answer pleasant to read, and you'll score more points.

3. Your rate shows your worth, so don't undervalue yourself.

Once again, you want to set yourself aside from the pack. There always will be clients who will choose Price over Quality, but my advice is that you should avoid them, or your hours and stress levels are going to skyrocket, and you'll be back behind your office in no time. If I'm unsure what the client is looking for, I don't give a rate right away, and ask him to clearly to pick 2 out of these 3 things: speed, quality or price (Project Management Triangle). Be daring, and it will pay off, you'll make strong relationships with good people, who will reward you fairly and value your work. That's what I appreciate the most about freelancing, you're not stuck with a nasty boss, ever. That being said, you can set your rate a little bit lower at the start, if you want to build a portfolio quickly. Remember however that you will most likely build long-lasting relationships with your clients, so it'll be harder to up your rate later.

If you do all those things, your portfolio and feedback will quickly match your big mouth (which remains your best asset as it shows confidence), and you'll learn which proposals to answer, and which to avoid. By being 'different' in your approach, you'll become the go-to guy for all your previous clients, and there will be no more competition for you. If you have it in you, it is definitely worth it.

  • 1
    Contrary to your answer I have only received unrealistic offers on Odesk. One was actually very cool, extending research of light caustics to industrial level design. I did a fairly detailed proposal, cost would have been at least $100k for any Western engineer or engineering firm. The company said they had $2k to spend...since then I have received offers for full stack jobs w/ 5 years of experience for $10/hour, machine learning jobs which required a Ph.D or a masters for $15/hour...not anywhere near western market rates. – daaxix Nov 9 '14 at 3:57
  • I've chosen to avoid Odesk because of those, they are notorious for pushing the rates down. That being said, I doubt you'll find a ML expert anywhere in the world who would work for 15$/hour. I'd suggest you try Elance, which has proven a lot more lucrative to me. At the moment I'm working for rates up to 60$/hour for clients I met on Elance. After trust was established, we moved out of the site and they're now hiring me as an independent contractor. The key is to find the right people, not the ones who want ehir job done on the cheap... – xShirase Nov 9 '14 at 10:01
  • My last contract was at $125/hour, and I've raised my rates since then. My specialties are ML applied to imaging and optics problems, C++ software architecture and development, physical optics, and optics instrumentation ( like machine vision). Many of the protects that I have been solicited for are actually good fits technically, with many projects needing a level of expertise which is uncommon. After the compensation quotes I am worried however, either there are people with this level of expertise working for fast food wages, ou these companies aren't filling their technical needs. – daaxix Nov 10 '14 at 4:13
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1) I compete against thousands of people with a markedly lower sense of "reasonable pay"

It always like that. Welcome to the world of freelancers. The only way to get some work as the Western contractor is to provide quality, on-site presence and warranty. There are many clients who either want a local or US contractor or clients who want US-type warranty. They are your target clients.

Also, if I am not mistaken, I think that I read that Elance has large amount of US contractors. You may check Elance and see how other work, their hourly rate, etc.

2) I have no publicly available work to show. Why would anyone give me my first contract?

Do you need it after 15 years in the industry? I am sure you can put a few best projects in your portfolio and during the interview you can talk to the client about them. I highly doubt that there isn't any project that you cannot show them. I know other contractors who worked for the large companies and they put the large CMS' into their portfolio stating that they did not code them but they took part in them.

It seems like a lot of hard work. Is it worth it, and how should I go about it?

Yes, a lot and lot of hard work, a lot of thinking and a lot of other things you never faced sitting by the desk of the large company. That is why we say "you are either a freelancer or not". It's not easy at all, but for me it was harder to sit by the desk 9 to 5 then to be 1 month without any project.

No one can answer should you do it. You should start part-time freelancing on per project basis. Then after some time you will realize whether you will go back to your current work or you will drop it and become a freelancer.

  • -1: The world of low-rate freelancing is not the only place where freelancers can compete. It's a matter of positioning. There are people even on this site who charge U.S. $125+ an hour. You get there by not positioning yourself in the bargain basement and prospecting, not by bidding on jobs for people who don't want to spend the money. To get your rates even higher than that, consider value pricing, wherein you take a percentage of the increased profit that results from a project (that's one way to do it). That moves more toward consulting than freelancing, but it's still independent work. – David Mar 10 '15 at 17:39
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    @David Where do I say to go low-rate? I don't do low rate as well and have a good living. – Peter MV Mar 10 '15 at 17:43
  • "It always like that. Welcome to the world of freelancers." We don't have to compete (directly) against the low-rate freelancers because we're interested in working with different kinds of clients (the ones who will pay us the rates we ask them for). Also, I'm not sure that a full-time, on-site presence is necessary for setting yourself apart from low-cost providers. It's one way to do it, but I've also seen other designers and developers with their own shops who do most or all of their work remotely. – David Mar 10 '15 at 17:50
  • @David I was rejected a few times due to location factor. Just passed my experience. It's not every time like that. And I still stand behind my sentence :). The first thing everyone asks is "how can I compete against cheap contractors who also have a lot of experience". It's simply because not everyone can wait to find good paying customer. I've been freelancing for the past 4 years, and only 6 months ago I found "the one". 60+ clients before him were one or two timers. – Peter MV Mar 10 '15 at 19:19
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Freelancing and being an employee are two different worlds. You are right that no one will contact you and contract you.

My advice speaking from personal experience:

  1. There are larger IT/software house/web/digital/marketing companies (contractors) who are looking for independent subcontractors because they have too much work or lack of talent and want to outsource. You should contact them and only them. Your 15 years of experience does matter to them. Do some work as a sole proprietor and ask for legal rights to include this work on your public portfolio.

  2. At this point do not waste your time trying to contract non-IT clients directly offering your freelance software development services. To these non-computer savvy people you are a joke. A desperate guy looking for work. Being in mid 30s doubles that image. The non-IT clients do not usually hire freelance software developers. If they do, probably it is because they have extremely low budgets and are not worth attention.

  3. When you finally have a portfolio to show - INCORPORATE, hire an accountant. Everyone will take you 500% more seriously. Now you can start offering services to regular folks because you have become a proper business with some cred (the portfolio). Do not burn bridges with IT-companies you have been subcontracted by in the past. Now, as you are incorporated, they will love you even more, just promise them that you will not run away with they clients. Form partnerships with other businesses instead.

  4. Be specific in your services, know exactly want you want to do and pass over anything else to your partners. If you are a company of one - do not offer to build skyscrapers because no one will take you seriously.

  5. Avoid bidding sites, "contests", free work and such. because after 15 years you probably do not need to "prove yourself".

  • +1. Several great points here. Some companies won't legally let you put work for them in your portfolio, especially in portfolios for fields where your thought process is very important and needs to be shown in your portfolio entries (e.g., UX is about much more than making things look pretty). Partnerships, such as with companies offering complementary services in a similar industry (I'm interested in doing several of these), are another good approach. Bidding sites, etc., are generally the wrong places to look. (A few specialized ones exist for high-priced consultants.) – David Mar 10 '15 at 17:46
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I wondered the same thing when I started out: how to set myself apart and make a livable wage, but applying what I've listed below has almost got me there! But it has been a slog - two years and counting - as my existing skills didn't really match with online freelancing.

  • Specialise. Find something you are passionate about - this will come out in your responses to clients - and there is a demand for. Take on as much open source projects as you can find; find the forums where other specialists in your field hand out; take on as many little jobs as you can to get your rating up.
  • Find your rate. This one I'm still working on, as as xShirase says it can be harder to up your rate later, but once I'd decided on my speciality I looked to see what the rate being charged by those with decent rankings was and priced myself at that. I then adjusted my rate until I started getting plenty of interest. Hopefully I'll be able to start upping that rate as my ranking increases.
  • Explore keywords. This one was a surprise for me, but by playing around with the keywords I managed to find a whole raft of new jobs for my skills.
  • Pick a decent freelancing site. I've tried Elance, Guru, Freelancer and oDesk and oDesk is the only one I bother with now.

Good luck! Nothing beats the range of challenges you get thrown from all around the world - and you get paid for it :)

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