I Try Elance. I Feel Demoralised. Should I Forget it?


In the last two weeks I’ve been spending some time at the Internet freelancer site Elance, which has (apparently) become the biggest site of its kind. I originally signed up for Elance back in 2007, didn’t have much luck, and managed to get local clients instead, which was much better business. Now, some years later, I thought I’d see if anything had improved.

The interface has improved. But the problems are even worse.

What is it and what is the problem?

Elance is effectively a bid-site that acts as a middle-man for freelancers and potential clients. It’s like an eBay for freelancers.

It sounds like a great idea, except it’s marred by sharks on both sides and a massive price war that is simply demoralising. Here’s how it works: a client posts a job and then freelancers bid on the job (you get ten free ‘bids’ with your account, thereafter you have to pay for bidding.) The client goes over all the bids (and there are plenty – 100 bids on one job is not a rare occurrence) and picks the freelancer they want to work with.

Communication takes place on Elance’s ‘workspace’ – where freelancer and client chat, post files, and so on. Milestones and price are finalised and the money goes into Escrow to prevent either party from cheating the other (disappearing off the face of the planet).

25 bids and counting

I’ve actually now become a heavyweight in the writing industry with seven years’ experience. This means I do know my stuff and I don’t feel arrogant admitting it. Obviously there are many things I still do need to learn but most of the work on Elance sounds manageable. So far, since I’ve started bidding, I’ve bid for 25 jobs. Here’s what it’s been like.

First few bids rejected because my price was too high.

One client comes back to me, doesn’t seem phased about price, but wants me to create five ‘test’ articles (150 words each) to make sure I’m the right fit. His words were effectively, “I like your writing. Do these ‘tester’ articles for me so I can show my client that you’re the right fit. After you’ve done them, you’re hired.”

I’m miffed because, quite honestly, my portfolio has work in it that’s much more complex than what he’s asking for. But since the articles won’t take long (they really were easy) and I can see he is sub-contracting me, I give him the ‘tester’ articles. He awarded the job to another (whose online profile had grammar errors), has kept the job open (is he going to also award me some of the work?) and won’t answer any of my communication on Skype or on Elance. This has happened before and my ‘tester’ articles were used, even without being paid for. I’m waiting for the same to happen here.

Three other clients get hold of me and ask me to look at lowering my price. Perhaps I could, but Elance not only charges for every bid I make, but also takes a cut of every dollar I make on the site. So if I lower my rate to $20 an article (which as far as I’m concerned is ridiculous) then Elance will take a cut out of that. So I have to quote taking Elance’s fee into consideration, which gives me little room to negotiate.

I lower my price anyway. Considerably. But they award it someone who has an even lower price – a price that is far lower than they originally advertised. Had I known they were looking for that price in the first place, I wouldn’t have even bid! But this false advertising still cost me one of my precious bidding coins (called a “Connect”.) So I learn there’s no end to the pricing war.

I bid on another job for a very, very low price – lower than the client asked for in their post. He wanted four articles done quickly and so I said, “This is not my standard price but I can do them right now at this price. All I want is positive feedback on my profile.” I thought I’d play a bit of the game and get some points on my profile. He awards it to someone who has an even lower price ($3 for 750 word articles? Come on) and whose profile is littered with mistakes. So he could have had a quality writer, but to save even more money (and pay much less than he advertised for) he goes for someone who can’t write.

Great idea. Hire a writer who can’t write.

With others there’s simply no communication whatsoever. Many of them look like they probably posted the job on multiple sites of this kind and found someone elsewhere, costing me money to bid on a dead-end.

Problems and solutions

1. Elance drives down a trade’s respectability and it makes no effort to fix this problem.

There are clients there looking for 500 – 750 word articles for $1 each. These articles must be original, keyword optimised, SEO rich, engaging and every other buzzword you can think of. Not even writers from India can actually afford to take up this kind of work.

The writers who probably do agree to that price are not writers, they’re spinners, taking other content on the web and using a program to change the wording and sell these off as original. Utter nonsense.

This gives people the wrong idea of the effort a trade requires. Unfortunately, the perception is getting out there that writers ought to be cheap because, “I can get a writer on Elance for a fraction of the price.” No sir, what you’re going to get is a shark who’s going to provide you spinned, plagiarised work loaded with errors. You’re also going to get a shape-shifter who will disappear off the face of the planet once the work is done and you realise you need it fixed. You’re going to also get a migraine for days. And you’re going to have to pay someone else to fix the work.

SOLUTION: Clients posting low pay work should be banned. But Elance won’t do that, because it makes money off of each bid.

2. Many of the writers are students

Because they’re students, they’re just looking to make some pocket money. I have no problem with this but Elance could create different tiers, as it were, so that people know when they’re dealing with students and when they’re dealing with professionals.

SOLUTION: Create a student tier and professional tiers and anything else in-between. But Elance won’t do that as it might chase away its large provider client base – cheapskates.

3. Sub-contractors are the main problem

Many freelancers have realised that they can also be the middle-man. So they use the middle-man to become another middle-man. Some are even acting as a middle-man with a middle-man as their client, all operating on the middle-man network that is Elance. Think about what that means to pricing.

They sign up, get a client, and then palm off the work to a cheaper writer, taking a 50 – 70 percent cut off the top, for no or very little work. If there are several middle-men in the process, you can see why the pricing can be so ridiculous.

I’ve had a journalist work for me who hired someone on Elance to do his work for him and paid him a fraction of his salary. He got fired.

SOLUTION: Ban sub-contracting. But Elance won’t do that as it means it’ll chase away a huge part of their customers who are milking and destroying the system. Short-term thinking, Elance. This isn’t going to last forever.

4. Clients who post have no idea what good writing looks like

Cheap writers can play the game because most clients are probably not looking at their profile, their cover letter or their portfolio; they’re looking at price first, the other stuff only after. Dazzle them with price and most of the time you probably win the business.

Many clients smile when they get the work as they don’t actually know what good writing looks like. Only later they’ll find out that what they got is plagiarised work. Or, one day, someone smart in their family will look at their website and inform them of all the glaring spelling and grammar errors which makes their business look bad.

SOLUTION: Educate providers. But Elance won’t do that because it’ll have less providers using the service.

This is a demoralising process

No professional likes to put together a decent cover-letter, provide a portfolio catered to the client’s needs, decide on a competitive price and then be told, “Well, that guy who writes on weekends can offer me the same for five times less than you.” Really? The same, heh? That same guy who can’t even spell on his portfolio? “Yes, but he’s cheaper.” He also can’t write. “Yes, but he’s cheaper.” (And then you realise you’re speaking to nothing else but a sub-contractor, not an actual businessman.)

I actually think that sub-contractors are the main problem here.

Apparently, the going rate is that for every ten bids, a freelancer will pick up one job. It also seems that it’s going to take anything from a year to two years before you start getting the good work that’s on there, because by that time you’ve done enough cheap jobs for sub-contractors to make your profile there look good (with ratings and so on). But there are plenty of horror stories on the net of writers who did just that and had their profile shut down by Elance because they had too many projects in the pipeline (if people come looking for you, it means Elance is not making money off all the bids that could have potentially been made on those projects.)

If you’re starting out, Elance can make sense. But many who are starting out know they can write, and Elance will demoralise you just the same, because it doesn’t matter how well you can write or how much value you can add, all that matters is whether you’re cheaper than the next guy.

If you’re a pro, then Elance is mostly a waste. Elance could get more pros in there if it created a tier system that works, but as it stands now, that’s not going to make them money.

My energy is going to be better spent writing for professional clients, not the millions of start-ups, sub-contractors, cheapskates that live on Elance. Should I forget Elance?

16 thoughts on “I Try Elance. I Feel Demoralised. Should I Forget it?”

  1. Nice article man. It is a horrible system full of exploitation. I’d say forget it.
    Having said that, I’m thinking of trying out one or two of the other similar sites.

    1. What other sites have you found? Or don’t you want to publicise them? 😛

      PeoplePerHour seems to have some better pricing – I imagine because it’s British – but I’m not getting much luck there either right now.

  2. Pingback: Essential Tips for Elance | Freelance Writer Lounge

  3. FreelanceWriter

    Ryan, very interesting post. I wrote an article on my blog called Why You Hate Elance. Hope you will take a look and let me know what you think. To you, I would say forget Elance. Though I’ve been very successful and have clients on the site that pay well, I am backing away from the platform as Elance continues to develop policies that favor clients.

    1. Thanks for commenting 🙂 I can’t seem to follow your link – it appears that it’s linking back to my blog instead. You’re welcome to repost a link if you would like.


  4. Pingback: Why You Hate Elance | Freelance Writer Lounge

  5. I hope the
    original poster finds a better place for his or her career since the terrible
    experience with Elance. You are not alone in your nightmare experience with
    Elance. Obviously from all the comments and horror stories, other workers are
    getting ripped off by Elance’s predatory practices and policies. Elance, by its
    design is an abusive place that consistently harms people in subtle—and often
    blatant–ways. The Elance policies promote this abusive atmosphere and if you
    have worked there for any length of time, you will sense that the Elance clients
    generally have an abusive posture. Clients expect the contractor to work
    basically for free for weeks or months on end, and then—if, and only if, the
    result is satisfactory—the client decides if they will pay or not. What totally
    insane environment like that would not eventually foster an abusive atmosphere?
    Predators are attracted to such a place as Elance.

    Elance claims to have dispute resolution, but it all favors the client and the contractor
    gets screwed in the end by their Kangaroo system. Read the countless horror
    stories on the net. If you work at other bid sites, or with customers directly,
    you come so sense the clients at Elance—and Elance itself–is full of abuse and
    corruption in the sense that contractors are constantly stolen from and their
    accounts deleted. I say FRAUDULENT because if you search google you can find
    this: “eLance, a Web-based marketplace for freelancers, is keeping mum
    following the indictment of its founder and general manager on securities fraud
    charges.” The waters run deep at Elance, and a little searching reveals that
    many Elance writers have had their accounts terminated inexplicably. If you
    work there, expect to have your funds confiscated without notice, only to deal
    with unresponsive, abusive, condescending Elance personnel. It is a scary,
    creepy place run by fraudsters. When the managers of a business are crooked, as
    the news articles indicate about the top managers at Elance, the employees (Elance
    contractors in this case) pay with their paychecks. I wish the original poster
    well and better fortunes elsewhere. Peace.

  6. Elance is a baby next to Odesk. However the IRS is legislating changes to the online freelance workforce and will soon enforce “forced” taxation at point of fee transference. Which means all these people undermining the workforce in the US will have to pay an additional fee called taxes. All of these freelance sites put up disclaimers so they can negate having to force collect. problem is they are a facilitator between two parties either paying for or receiving payment for work.
    The disclaimers are nonsense.
    Also how do we enforce the labor laws with regards to these projects which are actually jobs in the labor market?
    We need to make the freelance companies more accountable and not leave them to decide the ins and outs of taxation or labor disputes.
    My statement stems from recent experiences with Elance and Odesk who treated me with utter disrespect. The reason is they have no ombudsman to oversee the overseer in those companies.
    There is very little fairness in dispute resolution mechanisms in place. Its based on the amount of fees not legitimacy of the issue.
    BTW Does anyone know how to get ahold of corporate at elance?

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  9. Pingback: Why I closed my Elance profile and you should too | Ryan Peter. Writer.

  10. Thanks for the article, Ryan. I found it very informative. I came across your piece because after two years of successful work via Elance they, first, reviewed my account and then closed it. They wouldn’t tell me why. I spoke to a woman over the phone and she seemed very nervous. She said they would eventually tell me why–but they never did. All I received was canned email responses.

    The whole “closing” process took about a month. I can only make random guesses as to why they ditched me. I did make myself “unavailable” for several months due to excessive work (via a consulting firm) and because I took a month’s vacation. Apparently I wasn’t making enough money for them anymore. The whole business has been VERY Orwellian. I told them so. I will not recommend this place to my professional community anymore. Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

    PS I am also a lover and writer of fantasy and speculative fiction.

    1. Thanks Maya. You join a growing number of writers I know who’ve experienced the same nonsense. Their business can’t last forever – I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years time the whole thing either lands in some major legal trouble, becomes a running joke, or becomes a fraction of what it is today (or what it could have been).

      Great taste in reading! 🙂

  11. I know this article is pretty old, but I thought I’d chime in.

    A client on Elance wanted me to write 100 articles for 400 words each for a ‘client’ of his own for 20 dollars TOTAL. Based on the job posting, I thought I was going to be paid per article. Boy oh boy was I wrong. This person wanted me to write 40k words for just 20 dollars.

    A potential client wanted proofread articles for $3/500 words. After making my bid (I was desperate for a 5 star review) the client sends me a message asking me to write 30 articles at 1000 words each for just $5 each(30k words for just 150 dollars!). This new request had nothing to do with the original job posting. I withdrew my bid.

    The experiences I had are not anomalies. This is what takes place on Elance on a day to day basis.

    If you’re a writer and are halfway decent, avoid Elance and all freelance sites. You’re better off just writing a book and selling it on Amazon; you’ll make more money and deal with less losers.

    Apart from the occasional good client, most of the job posters on Elance are either complete idiots or scam artists looking for slave labor.

  12. Great article! I came upon it because my frustration led me to search on “Elance is degrading.” Seriously though, I am practically in tears here. I worked my butt off cleaning up some really horrendous copywriting for a client who had two websites that needed proofreading. I worked HOURS correcting non-sentences and correcting HUNDREDS of typos. It was a complete JOKE. My kids could have done a better job writing this stuff. So in the end, the guy says “although she knows nothing about our field, she’s a good proofreader,” and ends up giving me a score of 2 on expertise. WHAT?? Because I am not a web developer I get slammed in the expertise category? So I’m done. With a 3.7 score on one of two jobs I can forget about being hired again. I totally agree with Carl above – this client is a complete idiot.

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