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?

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