The UPP Method to Getting Started and charging more on Upwork

Don't pursue the thing you're passionate about. Pursue the things you're nerdy about.

Who this article is for

This article is for newcomers to freelancing who want to get their first jobs on Upwork without having to reduce their pricing.

There’s a lot to dislike about Upwork: the rock bottom prices; the low-dollar competition; the ugly website that’s greener than Sweetfrog.

However, Upwork has one really useful feature that makes it worth tolerating: paying clients, looking to hire for bite-size jobs you can start right away.

The problem is, most of these clients expect to pay bottom dollar for your services. And since they can see the price and title of every gig you’ve ever done on the platform, it’s very difficult to convince them you’re worth $1000 when you did the job for $10 last week.

This article details my recommendations on how work around all the problems with the Upwork platform and get the exact gigs you want, at the exact price you want.

The process boils down to three steps:

  1. Audit the Upwork gig market in your field to determine who’s hiring for what, and how they’re describing the jobs.
  2. Compose your profile to appeal to your ideal clients.
  3. Set your “Upwork Pricing Precedent” by moving offline clients to Upwork.

Advice on this page assumes you are good at your service, and just need help setting a rate that’s appropriate to your skill level.

  • Do not join Upwork if you have low skills for the service you’re offering. In this case, it’s better to find clients through non-reviewed platforms like Craigslist or your personal network to hone your skills.
  • Be prepared for spending lots of time on communication and client management. You’ll spend at least a third of your time on communication with clients and potential clients. This can be frustrating, but it’s a fact of life when freelancing.

Step one: Auditing the market for Upwork gigs in your field

The biggest mistake newcomers to freelancing platforms like Upwork make is not conducting research about past jobs in their niche.

Doing an audit is simple:

  1. identify top freelancers in your service category and look at their past job titles and pricing.
  2. Move the data to a spreadsheet and look for patterns in wording and “buzzwords” used by job posters.
  3. Use this information to craft an irresistible profile for companies hiring out your target gigs.

Identify top freelancers in your service category

Upwork allows you to sign up as both a freelancer and a client. In client mode, you can run searches for freelancers based on the type of service you want to hire out.

This part isn’t an exact science — just type in obvious keywords for services in your niche. (Javascript developer could search for “javascript developer,” writer could search for “article writer,” etc.)

Try a dozen or so variations of your keyword and see if any profiles appear for more than one. These are likely to be highly-rated freelancers that the Upwork algorithm thinks have the best chance of landing a high-value job.

Make a shortlist of five or so top freelancers. Most of these profiles should have the “top freelancer” badge on their profile. Avoid “rising” badges, as these freelancers aren’t yet proven in the Upwork system.

Now for the insightful part. Open up each profile in a separate tab and scroll down to the “work history and feedback” section.

Open up a spreadsheet and enter 10-20 past job titles for each freelancer, and the fee for each.

Once you have a sheet, just look for patterns. For example, a tech article writer might notice a trend for “cord cutting articles” in job titles. If the average fee for this type of project looks appealing, you can build the keyword into your profile title and text, and make sure some past jobs in your “Upwork Pricing Precedent” include the keyword.

Using Upwork to identify service niches

If you haven’t yet niched down beyond a general service category like “writer” or “developer,” running this exercise on high-level queries like “writer” and “developer” is a great way to look for potential service niches.

How to make your profile attract clients

Once you know exactly what service you’re targeting, go back to your Freelancer profile. Search open job listings for the job titles you identified on top freelancer profiles.

This is where you really need to pay attention — because you’re looking at exactly what potential clients are looking for in detail. Again, make note of any repeated phrasing or patterns in the posts.

Build out your profile text using wording from target clients

At this point you should have an idea of how your target clients describe the job you want to get.

Just like when you’re writing a cover letter, you want to make sure to recycle the phrasing and requirements in the job post. People like to sound of their own voice — and this extends to writing. To go back to that content writing example: if you want to pick up gigs writing “cord cutting content,” use that exact phrasing in your profile, rather than the phrasing you might use personally.

This is also a chance to “de-snob” your profile. If you’re looking for content writing jobs, don’t bill yourself as a “content strategist,” “growth hacker,” “content marketing consultant,” or other cooler-sounding title. Just be straightforward and match your title and description to the gigs you want, in the clients’ language.

Advice: target industries with money to burn

When you’re exploring potential niches for your Upwork profile, consider targeting an industry that has money to burn. Venture-funded startups spending an investor’s money will often pay higher than Joe Shmoe who needs help fixing the WordPress theme on his archery blog. Legal and accounting companies, on the whole, are more concerned with ROI than cost, when compared with someone launching an Etsy store.

How to set your Upwork Pricing Precedent

The final step is to extend your use of niche keyword research and client phrasing and apply it to your job history.

Trying to source your first clients on Upwork is a huge mistake. You’ll almost always have to drop your pricing to the rock bottom to tempt someone to take a risk on your un-reviewed profile. Once you’ve dropped your price, it sticks in your job history forever.

Thankfully, Upwork actively encourages freelancers to bring existing clients onto Upwork. This is a good opportunity to bring a client (or friend letting you run a test job) onto the platform who is willing to pay you what you’re worth, because they already know you.

It’s essential that you control the title, description, and price of your first three gigs on Upwork. This is what I call the “Upwork Pricing Precedent.” Clients look at your past gigs for an idea of what they should offer you for private jobs. If you take bottom-barrel jobs, clients can see this — you’ll never escape the bottom of the barrel.

I know freelancers who have extended this logic to bring fake clients onto the platform, basically friends who they give cash to “hire” them for a “gig.” I don’t recommend this because it’s against Upwork’s terms of service, and you could get booted. Besides, you need to practice your skill in the real world before joining a platform anyway, to ensure that you are able to perform the task well.

Determining your Upwork pricing precedent

When you’re determining your pricing, be sure that the price per project times the number of projects you can handle per month meets your basic financial needs.

If you want to measure your projects in small chunks (e.g. per article, per illustration, etc) then set the prices on your precedent projects accordingly. This will show potential clients that you’re open to doing smaller per-project gigs.

If you want to concentrate on long, large projects (e.g. brand identity packages, website + CMS development) then set up your precedent projects to include longer jobs.

Make the scope of your projects similar

Avoid a variety of project scope on your Upwork projects.

The reason for this is twofold: one, you want to have a standardized service offering, so you’re not reinventing the wheel for each client. Second, you want to keep your pricing history consistent so they have a clear expectation about your prices.

Maintain consistent history

Your scores on Upwork regenerate on a two week basis. To get the best results, you should get your UPP reviews and projects completed in 1-2 week intervals if possible. However, this isn’t really important if you’re doing longer high-dollar projects, so long as the job is broken up into 1-2 week milestones.

How to write an UPP job listing

The job title is the most important element for your first three gigs. This is what will be in bold when potential on-platform clients look at your account:

Upwork job history section

New clients will never see the descriptions of your past jobs — just the title, star rating, success rating, price, and flat/hourly rate distinction.

Writing an UPP job listing

The job title should be optimized to:

  • include your core offering (e.g. “Tech content writer for fast-growing startup,” “web developer for WordPress e-commerce site,” etc.)
  • sound legitimate and signal high-quality buyer (e.g. “legal documentation writer for growing law firm,” “local SEO consultation for national lawn care company” etc. The formula is: “({your service} for {your ideal client type}.”)

How to see excellent UPP client feedback

Client feedback is second in importance only to the job title. This is where you show that you can complete similar gigs to a high degree of satisfaction.

When you’re working with clients you know, they’re generally happy to include a review you write for them, so long as they agree with it.

Things to include:

  • pain point you solved for them (e.g. “John Doe’s work on our marketing strategy is already bringing in new orders,” “Jane Doe’s icon designs look way better than our old ones and I expect they will help engage our users.”) Be sure the be REALISTIC in this section. Easy to smell an “off review,” especially as everyone gets more used to detecting that sort of thing on Amazon.
  • Indication that they will hire again

That’s it. You don’t want to go overboard on these — they should be positive, but not “perfect.”

My experience using the UPP method on Upwork

I started freelancing on online platforms back when “Upwork” was “Elance.” In fact, the transition over to Upwork was well timed as I had just gotten steam in Elance’s (extremely easy to game) internal ranking system, and the move over to Upwork plopped me right at the top of the results for my desired keywords and an undeserved “top freelancer” ranking even though I only had a handful of recent clients on my account. (My mistake was moving clients off the platform too soon).

Elance was easy to game — it favored specific intervals of job hires and completions, and had a more clear path for getting recommended to clients. Upwork is harder, but in some ways better because they’re invested so heavily in bringing bigger-spending and established companies onto the platform.

However, I’ve remained in touch with Upwork’s inner workings as a client and through managing projects for my employer (who, by the way, I originally connected with by ranking for a researched and targeted gig keyword phrase on Upwork.) I can confirm that many of these strategies still work, and I’ve walked several friends and hires through these methods for getting the best out of what Upwork has to offer.

Next steps: always be improving and expanding your service

A wise person I know once said that “your job isn’t to be good at what you do. It’s to do whatever you need to do to make your boss convinced that you’re irreplaceable, and then to continually lobby for more money.”

In freelancing, the grim truth is similar: your business relies on spending a large amount of your time managing your clients’ impressions of you, and maintaining systems that ensure they leave good reviews, keep hiring you, and refer friends with bigger wallets.

A sharp skillset is obviously important. But a sharp skillset is only half the battle: the other half is all about positioning, communication, and (painful but necessary) self-marketing. Best of luck.