Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Job Bidding Sites: Love Them or Hate Them?

Cruising around Anne Wayman's About Freelancing forum the other day, I found a post from a new freelancer asking about Elance in particular and paid bidding sites in general: good idea, or not so good? Most of the responders said that paid bidding sites were the lowest of the low--"you should never pay for job listings," as one poster said. Most of those who responded agreed.

Occasionally I'm on the opposite side of the fence when it comes to advice that most people agree on--and bidding sites are one of those things. I got my first few paying jobs through Elance, and under certain circumstances I do recommend it. If you've been wondering whether or not to give bidding sites a try, here are my responses to some common objections. I can't really speak as an expert on all bidding sites--I'm just relaying my own experiences. Because I've only worked with Elance, most of my responses reference that site.

You should never pay for job listings. In general, I agree that you should never pay for anything you can get for free. However, I joined Elance when I was a beginning writer with a day job in an office. I didn't have much in the way of clips or experience, and I wasn't getting hired when I applied to traditional job listings.

This is probably because online job postings often get hundreds of responses within hours. When you're one out of a hundred, many of whom have samples and websites and a track record, it's tough to stand out. On Elance, most postings only attract around ten or twenty bids. It's a smaller pool, and it's a bit easier to compete if you're a rookie. Your off-Elance experience isn't as important as your feedback rating, and it only takes one or two high ratings to make you competitive. Some of the highest-earning providers on Elance only have two or three pieces in their portfolios.

I think that one reason why most writers believe that bidding sites aren't worth the money is that the up-front cost can be steep and the payback doesn't come right away. It takes time to build up a reputation that allows you to attract higher-paying work--and you have to underbid other people until you do it. It took me about three months of underbidding everyone else to get my first paying work on Elance, but after that I got jobs more often.

The bidding system drives prices down. This is true. But when everyone else is offering bargain-basement prices, you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself as the "high-quality alternative." I've made decent money on Elance by selling myself as high-priced and worth every penny. So far it's worked--my feedback is 100% positive, and I rarely compromise on my prices anymore. Of course, it does take time to build up the kind of reputation that allows you to do this.

You can only find lousy keyword-article jobs on bidding sites. Also not true. There is plenty of keyword article work on Elance--and I've gotten paid reasonable prices for articles there; not all keyword article work is underpaid. But if that's not your thing, there are plenty of other projects to bid on--including brochures and sales letters, ghostwriting and editing, web copy, print articles, newsletters, white papers, transcription and scripts.

When I started writing, I really hadn't done that much. I didn't know what I liked, where my talents lay, and how to sell myself as a writer. Elance allowed me to try many different types of copywriting and decide what I liked and where I should start to specialize.

Elance buyers are dishonest and shady. I've heard horror stories from writers who say their buyers never paid them, their feedback ratings were trashed unfairly, and so on. I'm not saying this never happens, but it's never happened to me. I've worked with hundreds of people on Elance and so far (knock on wood), nobody has failed to pay me.

I actually believe that in some cases, working through bidding sites can be safer than working solo. I don't get all my work via Elance now--I use them only rarely as a stopgap. But many of my clients are online--I find them all over the place. Some are in different countries. If my latest client, in South Africa, decided not to pay me, how would I drag him into small claims court? It can be difficult to extract payment out of online clients in far-flung locations.

Elance gives you some protection from no-pay clients. They have a dispute-resolution system in place, so as long as you document your agreement you have someone to back it up if it's broken. There's also the feedback system--you can leave feedback for buyers too. This is a powerful incentive to resolve disputes to everyone's satisfaction, because leaving negative feedback for a buyer can limit them from attracting the best providers for their projects in the future.

When to use Elance: I think that Elance is a good way to get a start in freelancing. It's pricey, but I've earned much more each year than the cost of my membership. If you have a day job and can afford to underbid to attract buyers while you work to accumulate feedback, it's not such a bad way to get started.

When not to use Elance: I don't think that Elance is such a great deal if you're already established, with a long list of satisfied clients and a website full of great-looking samples. You probably won't have much trouble getting work on free listings or by contacting potential clients directly.

Elance isn't a great idea if you're looking for an immediate payoff, either. It takes time to gather feedback, and you have to be willing to be the low-cost option for a while until you do get work. For a beginner with a day job and no immediate financial need, this isn't such a problem. But for an experienced professional with high rates, it's not the best option--everyone starts as a "beginner" on Elance, no matter how many years of experience they have outside of it.

I think the reason why I did well on Elance--and the reason I continue to use it--has to do with timing. I started using it at the right point in my career, when the benefits in experience and contacts outweighed the cost of earning feedback. Now, I've used it enough to build up a great rating, and I can earn decent prices there. I don't use it often anymore, and wouldn't recommend anyone use it as their sole method of doing business. But I do use it as a stopgap when other options aren't working, and so far it's worth it to me to hang onto my membership a little longer.

If you're wondering about bidding sites in general or Elance in particular, think about your particular position first. Weigh the costs and benefits for you. Contact people who already use the site, and ask them about the pros and cons. Conventional wisdom may be well-meaning, but only you can decide what opportunities are worth your time.


Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

I have a love-hate relationship with Elance. I was fortunate enough to have found the site and joined way back in its infancy, when joining and bidding were 100% free. Like you, I owe the beginnings of my success as a freelancer to that site, and my very first Elance client is still an on-and-off client to this day. That said, however, I agree with almost all of the objections surrounding freelance-bidding sites in general. You're one of the lucky ones; I think it's REALLY hard for a newbie to land a project through Elance without offering rock-bottom prices. If I were just starting out, it's highly unlikely I'd drop down the cash to get in on something like this. Even as a very established Elancer, I usually lose out to lower-priced competitors, which is why it's now only a fill-in-the-gap resource for me. My final assessment regarding these sites is they are what they are, but research them carefully before getting locked in.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Yeah, I totally agree with that. Elance was useful to me, and I would have had a much harder time getting started without them--but I think that bidding sites in general are definitely NOT the right thing for everyone.