Five Commandments to Freelance on Upwork

Pen Magnet
Sep 27 · 6 min read
Photo by Chris Adamus on Unsplash

Every developer dreams of having parallel and passive income streams.

Their paths frequently cross online marketplaces. But every freelancer has mixed experiences of freelance platforms.

Fresher tech freelancers are more aware about Fiverr, but Upwork (formerly Elance + Odesk) has been the most popular marketplace for millennials.

Recently a public company, Upwork has successfully created a platform where a Graphic Designer can make up to $200K annually, sitting at home.

Time and again, notoriety attached with these platforms has been known to topple work-life balances for freelancers, and cause fraudulent situations for clients.

Here are five commandments to freelance on Upwork, to make lives easier for developers and their clients:

#1 - Apply to Clients with Known Payment History:

While this is a no-brainer, desperate programmers often spam 100 Upwork projects with boilerplate applications on Saturday night.

While boilerplate applications maybe justified given the ROA (return on application) and competition, it is advisable to chase tasks that are funded by credible entity.

The entire idea behind freelancer marketplace is trust. Escrow payment has been one of their USPs to freelancers and clients. Bidding for projects belonging to unknown buyers may not only be waste of time, but also potentially harmful.

Bad: They may not hire you

Worse: They may hire you, but run away with your work without paying

Worst: They may pay you little, and spoil your ratings and profile with bad feedback.

Upwork reveals clients’ work history stats, money spent, and whether their payment method is verified. Browsing multiple jobs will give you fairer idea of clients. You always want to work with better ones.

#2 - Do not Expect Interview for Every Upwork Application:

Most freelancers do not reach interview stage. This is due to the fact that many clients simply post the job to get the right estimates for a task.

They post a job, get their bids, take out its average, maximum and minimum. Then they go back to their paymaster, and demand what is suitable to them, showing them your bid as a benchmark.

It’s a complete waste of time, but you can’t avoid applying to them. It happens in real 9–5 job applications too.

#3 - Know Your Client During the Interview:

Many Upwork clients are full-time devs in western world who had a nasty Friday scrum. They got a deadline to deliver a feature on Monday.

I have personally worked for developers who worked full time at search engine startups, AAA game companies and NYC stock exchange.

Their strategy is clear: If they find a talented freelancer from Asia / Ukraine who would complete it over the weekend, costing them a bear party with 8 friends, they would be more than happy.

If they find people bidding to them for $1000, they will go back to their bosses, showing them the real complexity of their task. This would buy them more time from their bosses. And they will drop those 80 Upwork freelancer applications to return their office desks.

Advice to freelancers? Do not necessarily avoid working for them. But know their intentions early on. If delivering on Tuesday is No-No, let them say it upfront. Do not spoil your weekend over someone who is simply there to offload their burdens.

If your client seems sincere, there is much more to know and analyze during the interview.

Is Your Upwork Client a Developer?

If so, what kind of expectations he / she has with delivered code? Is it just a feature that is needed, or code quality matters too? Do they have access to your daily commits in a shared repo? If yes, would they be reviewing them regularly?

Robust, maintainable code is every product owners’ ideal dream. However, most projects outsourced on Freelancer websites are intended for demo / feasibility study purposes.

If code quality is not one of the objectives, and / or if your client is not tech savvy, you would do well by delivering the feature without worrying about certain aspects: Design patterns, Code segregation, Unit tests, UI sophistication.

There is an obvious exception to this: those are the intended requirements in project description.

Are They Providing the Specs?

If developing the spec is not your responsibility, it would be better to ask when you are going to receive one.

If they are rather mute about it, say them you will do it at the very beginning of the contract, or before the contract (depending upon your hunger for that work). Have them approve it beforehand, so your efforts will be well directed.

Above all, however childish it may sound, document each of your proposals / questions to them in Upwork messaging (“During interview, we have discussed that….”) if you ended up having voice calls regarding the requirements. This will protect you in case of payment conflicts and Upwork mediation.

Are They Paying You for Your Research Time?

This applies to time-bound projects where you have time tracker client to record your screen + mouse + keyboard activities.

While every client expects excellent hands-on, it is true that one can’t get such devs in $50 budget for back end development from scratch. Browsing code-forums such StackOverflow comes very natural for developers. If clients openly discourage this, one can always browse using separate machine — this practice is very common among freelancers.

However, too much screens in work diary showing StackOverflow can lead to conflicts with clients who take every word for granted in their project and your application. Be upfront about any task involving intense research possibilities.

If not, you will one day realize the hard way, that anything is better than have your conflict going to Upwork Conflict Resolution Center.

#4 - Be Ready to Get Upwork Fired:

At the end of the day, Upwork is like any buyer-seller service.

Your ratings matter. Reviews about your work matter. But even if you have competently and diligently maintained them around 5 stars, Upwork tries to keep its clients happy.

For most of the time since 2010, it had 1–2 clients who were responsible for 20% of its revenue. This puts enormous pressure on Upwork to keep them happy.

As a result, if you are overly reliant on Upwork for freelance revenue, think twice. Every day.

Nasty clients can drag you to Upwork conflict resolution. Judges sitting there may not understand the technical complexity that you undertake. Even when they understand you, they are more likely to favor people with cash in hand.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The wisest thing to do is to become a freelancer without a binding platform. Which brings us to our last commandment.

#5 - How to be Upwork Independent:

  • Know that it’s just a marketplace - not a country that expelled you.
  • Be on multiple freelance platforms simultaneously.
  • Do not violate their guidelines of taking current work outside Upwork.
  • But do not miss to smartly build your personal client base - by sharing with them your personal hangout places (Blog, Github, LinkedIn). Every successful programmer / founder / entrepreneur is entitled to build his / her personal brand, and there is nothing to feel ashamed about it.
  • Sell your code on component marketplaces like CodeCanyon and ThemeForest
  • Have a side project that you can always monetize when you are Upwork-Fired.


For many developers, Upwork has been place with mixed memories: Utter joy upon 5 star feedbacks to stressful nights with nasty clients + no payment. A platform could be unfair at times to its service providers.

While at Upwork, you are not always guaranteed the money you worked for. But clients there represent a very vivid range of software professionals you may never come across in your 9–5 hustle.

Those experiences will make you some day a successful entrepreneur.

Pen Magnet

Written by

Programmer, Writer, Education Engagement Enthusiast, Tech Career Blogger at

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