How to set up an Upwork Agency: Advice from a $2M Upwork freelancer


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Thinking about scaling your solo freelance act on Upwork to an Upwork Agency?

If so, I’ve got a major treat for you in store for you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that I am a huge Upwork fan. In fact, I’ve made over $600,000 working part-time on the platform just since 2017.

Read Also: Can you make good money on Upwork? How I made $600,000 in 5 years

It’s safe to say that I consider myself a bit of an Upwork pro.

But when it comes to the topic of Upwork Agencies, I must admit, I remain woefully ignorant, as it’s an entire side of the platform I’ve never personally explored.

That is until I ran across a story in Business Insider featuring Upwork superstar and Powerpoint wizard, Courtney Allen.

In the article “How a 32-year-old freelancer earned $1.3 million on Upwork designing presentations for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and Coca-Cola“, Allen shares the story of how she utilized the Upwork platform to jumpstart her freelancer career and launch her own presentation design agency, 16×9.

At the time of original publication, Allen had earned $1.3 million on Upwork.

At the time of this writing – only 5 months later – Allen’s earnings have jumped to over an impressive $2 million.

Naturally, I had to dig a bit deeper and find out how she did it.

In this interview, Allen touches on the following topics:

  • Background on Allen, her Upwork career and her agency
  • How to start and manage an Upwork Agency
  • Upwork Freelance vs Agency accounts (key differences)
  • Are Upwork Agencies right for everyone?
Courtney Allen’s Upwork freelancer profile

Allen’s background & career

Tell us a bit about yourself and your history on Upwork

I’m a bit of an OG, I first got my start on Elance in 2013 before it was acquired by Upwork. I started taking Upwork seriously in 2015 after I left my presentation design job at a Fortune 100 company.

By 2016 I was committed to freelancing full-time and carving out a new niche on the platform.

In 2017 I started 16X9, LLC and slowly grew my global team over the next five years to eight contractors and three full-time employees.

By early 2021 I had reached over $1M in total earnings and was featured on the first episode of Upwork’s Worked Unlocked Podcast and the book Mastering Upwork.

In 2022 I reached $2M in total earnings and was featured in various media publications such as Business Insider.

What made you decide to create an agency on Upwork?

I decided to create an agency on Upwork to reflect that I operate as a team, not just as an independent freelancer.

While I did subcontract under my personal profile with transparency and following Upwork’s Terms of Service, it still brought a bit of confusion to those initially expecting to work with just me from project beginning to end.

What kind of services does your agency offer?

We primarily offer presentation design services in PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides – specifically template creation, pitch decks, training modules, and company presentations. We also offer other graphic design and copywriting services.

What are your total Upwork earnings to date?

My total personal earnings are $1.95 million. My total agency earnings are $120,000.

Would you say that your Upwork Agency has played a role in that massive success?

Should I be so blunt and answer no? [laughs]

But in all seriousness, while it has been a challenge to rebuild our reputation on the platform, it has been very helpful in regard to the delegation and making the transition from being known as a solo freelancer to having a team.

Courtney Allen’s Upwork Agency profile

How to start and manage an Upwork Agency

How does one start an agency on Upwork?

Starting an agency on Upwork is pretty straightforward process, you can just to your Freelancer Account and click on Settings > Contact Info > Additional Accounts > New Agency Account.

Whichever freelancer account takes these steps is the agency owner. And each freelancer can be the owner of one agency. The only additional requirement is that you purchase the Agency Plus Plan ($20 USD/month).

How do you find freelancers to join your agency?

In regard to five of my designers, I was very lucky and worked with them at my previous corporate job.

I hired my first project manager after we worked together on a multi-year Upwork Enterprise Client contract. For the newer members of the team, I posted the job on LinkedIn and potential candidates went through a more traditional interview process.

Can you bring an already-established agency to Upwork?

Absolutely! I built my agency to handle direct clients before creating the agency page on Upwork earlier this year. Most of our internal programs and processes remain the same, but we utilize the Upwork platform for intake, communication, and billing.

In addition, your agency can be invited to Upwork by a client via the BYO (Bring Your Own) program. You can receive special benefits, such as a complimentary lifetime Agency Plus membership if invited by an Upwork Enterprise Client.

Courtney sits by a pool
(photo contributed by Courtney Allen)

Upwork Freelance vs Upwork Agency accounts

What are the key differences between a solo Freelancer Account and an Upwork Agency account?

There are four key differences between solo accounts on agency accounts on Upwork

  1. Exclusive and Non-Exclusive Accounts: When adding freelancers to the agency team roster, you have the option to make their accounts either exclusive or non-exclusive. If they are exclusive, they can’t take on additional work outside of the agency. Each member of the team can also have different hourly rates.
  2. Certifications: External certifications cannot be added to the agency profile. For example, 16X9 is Minority and Women-Owned business certified. I can add those certifications to my freelancer profile, but not the agency page.
  3. Profiles: In general, the agency profile setup and account menu are a bit different. Some unique aspects are the ability to add a customized header banner, an overview of office locations, minimum project size, etc.
  4. Proposals: When submitting a proposal through the agency profile, you have the ability to select which contractor applies. However, only the agency owner and business managers can accept offers. When applying for jobs on your non-exclusive freelancer account, you can select whether it’ll be through the agency profile or your personal profile.

How do agency owners and members bill for their time and get paid?

Although you can assign individual agency members to projects, all of the funds get pooled into the agency account. I disperse the money directly to the independent contractors and employees via Gusto.

Do standard Upwork fees still apply?

They do apply with the same fee structure. However, there is one important note (taken from Upwork article on the fee structure), in regards to calculating lifetime billings, the client contracts you had on your individual freelancer profile do not count towards the agency lifetime billings – i.e. if you shift an existing client to the agency, your fees will reset to 20%.

Do most of your jobs come from the Upwork job feed or invitations?

I would say 65% of our jobs on Upwork come from repeat clients, 35% from invitations from new clients, and 5% from the Upwork Job Feed. I will note that an overwhelming majority of Upwork job invitations come to my personal profile, not the agency profile.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to win jobs as an agency?

I believe that it is harder to secure new clients as an agency on Upwork, as some clients specifically are looking for individuals to work with.

However, I’ve found that for some clients they find more value in having a team of talent, especially in instances where there’s bulk, urgent work (i.e. a set of presentations for a conference, converting several decks into a new template, etc).

Also, I have found the agency’s client contracts have been $800 higher on average.

Does your agency impact your own personal Upwork stats?

Yes, it does. Reviews from agency projects that you manage appear on your personal profile as well. I recently tested this with a feedback removal request and it impacted the JSS on both.

Are Upwork Agencies right for everyone?

Who should consider starting an Upwork Agency?

I think you should consider starting an Upwork Agency if you are looking to expand from being a sole proprietor to having a team. It allows you to increase your bandwidth and to spread client communication across several team members.

To reiterate, having an agency page is challenging as you are starting over in regards to building up reviews and there is a smaller pool of clients looking for agencies versus individual freelancers.

Where can people learn more about you and your agency?

People can learn more about me and 16X9 at the following places:

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