Why Is Upwork Bad: A Letter to the Naysayers From a $600K Freelancer

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Three very interesting things happened to me in 2019:

  1. I hit the $200k milestone as a freelancer on Upwork (Update: Now $600k in 2023).
  2. My freelancing success story was published in both Business Insider and Refinery29.
  3. I received a ton of negative comments about Upwork.

In both of the above-mentioned articles, I talk about how I quit my salaried job and now make $200k a year as a full-time freelancer — and how a large part of that income comes from Upwork.

The response to these articles has been overwhelming. I’ve received an incredible amount of love from other freelancers who found my story inspiring. But I’ve also received some hate from (largely anonymous) naysayers online.

So today, I wanted to take a moment to respond to some of those naysayers, and explain in a bit more detail exactly HOW I found success on Upwork.

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

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Why is Upwork bad?

First, I know what you’re thinking: I thought this article was going to tell me why Upwork was bad?

And the answer is: Upwork isn’t bad, there’s just a bit of negative publicity out there from a handful of individuals who had bad limited experience on the platform.

And it is my aim to debunk that myth and be the voice of reason.

Clarifications about me before we begin

I want to begin with a few very important clarifications before I continue, as these are always sticking points for the critics. So let’s just get these out of the way:

  1. I’ve been a professional graphic designer for nearly 20 years
  2. I’ve been a full-time freelancer for 4 years
  3. My business currently grosses nearly $300k annually
  4. I’ve earned $600k on Upwork to date
Upwork $185k Earned in 12 Months

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business by addressing some of the comments that I received after the publications of my articles, and hopefully debunk a few negative myths about Upwork:

Four negative comments, brought to you by the internet

1. It’s fake news!

“I’ve never heard someone say they made their fortune … or even a reasonable salary, On Upwork. This smells like a fake ad… The over-the-top salary numbers just add to that feeling.”

A quick Google search debunks this one immediately.

The internet is chock-full of stories from other successful freelancers earning 6-figures on Upwork.

So if you’ve never heard of such a thing, something tells me you haven’t been looking very hard. I’d never heard of pickle-flavored cotton candy before I googled it. It’s also, apparently, a thing.

I was successful on Upwork because I have nearly 20 years of professional design experience, an amazing portfolio, nationally recognized clientele, an ability to sell and an incredible work ethic. 

When I first joined Upwork, I applied for roughly 5-10 jobs per day. And it took me nearly 2 weeks to get my first nibble (on a tiny $10 job). I started small, grew steadily and most importantly, I simply refused to quit.

2. Upwork is a race to the bottom

“People out of the country … charge a lot less. I don’t see [her $200k success] happening.”

I am just as worried about losing business to some dude on the internet charging $5 somewhere else in the world as Fleming’s is about McDonald’s putting them out of business for offering a hamburger on the dollar menu.

Flemings does not care about Mcdonalds

Truthfully, I also occasionally use Upwork to hire other freelancers. 

In my experience, I can not tell you how many proposals I receive that are poorly written, lack quality portfolio samples and seemingly haven’t even read (or perhaps don’t understand) my job posting.

And sure, those guys are often quite cheap. 

But for every 10 bad proposals you receive, you’ll also receive a couple of quality cover letters, written by professionals who understand your needs and are confident about their ability to get the job done. I can assure you those freelancers have no problems fetching rates of $50+/hour. 

Quality clients will always recognize quality work. 

3. Upwork fees are too high

“Morgan had to pay at least $10k in fees to Upwork! ”

This one is probably the most perplexing to me, simply because I, as a small business owner, incur expenses every day.

The expenses aren’t what’s important. It’s the return on investment (ROI). 

Yes, I likely incurred about $20k in fees over the course of my first two years on Upwork, and a $20,000 expense on $200,000 is what I would call an excellent ROI at a 90% profit margin.

Other industries would KILL for a 90% profit margin!

My Upwork Fees vs Other Business Expenses

Remember, there’s precedence for taking a commission when using a head hunter for finding freelance work. Agencies do it all of the time.

And Upwork fees are well below the average commissions of a recruitment agency and to me, well worth the value for service. 

I can assure you that I spend way more time worrying about my near 30% tax bill than my 10% Upwork fee

Upwork fees vs other business expenses

And sure, you can find clients on your own without the help of Upwork. It can be done, and if you’re able to do so, go for it! But for most of us, pounding that pavement and making cold calls can be a lot of work that doesn’t always pay off.

Upwork represents the largest freelance marketplace in the world. It’s like fishing in a pond where you know the fish are biting. They also handle the contracts, payments and serve as that all too important intermediary should a dispute arise. They are providing a crucially valuable service. 

To quote Danny Margulies, a fellow 6-figure Upwork freelancer, and owner of Freelance 2 Win, “It’s like being a hunter-gatherer, vs. picking up a bag of groceries at your local Whole Foods Market.“

And last but not least, we have my personal favorite:

4. I’m giving people false hope

“I just don’t wanna give our fellow freelancers a sense of false hope about Upwork. Let’s be real when it comes to expectations. I’ve never been like, I’m doing just fine and don’t care about others.” 

Ok so let’s look at some real numbers to debunk this one. 

People making money on Upwork

Sure, out of 2,362,423 searchable profiles currently on Upwork, 78,211 have earnings of over $10k.

But honestly, I am a “glass is half full” kind of person, so I see that number and think, wow, that’s nearly 80,000 people who are making REAL MONEY freelancing online with this single platform.

But I get it — overall, that’s a tiny percentage when compared to the total number of users (roughly 3.3%).

But I don’t blame Upwork. I believe that there are 3 main culprits for this low number: 

  • Most people on the site aren’t freelancing full time. I don’t have any actual statistics on this one, but I will tell you I’ve seen a HUGE difference in earnings between full time Upworkers and part time Upworkers. Before I went full time, I was also making less than $10k a year on my side hustle
  • People give up too quickly. I see this one all the time. People sign up for Upwork, apply for a handful of jobs and then declare it’s a failure. Every person I’ve coached who excelled at their respective skill and stuck with it was able to secure long-term, steady work on the platform. Persistence is key. Success isn’t an overnight thing.
  • Your profile/proposals/portfolio needs work. Freelancing is a serious career. It requires skill, patience and hard work. Poorly written cover letters, typos and amateur work run rampant on the site. If you’ve been at it for weeks and still aren’t seeing success, take a moment to self-reflect. Ask your peers for an honest critique of your work, your profile and your cover letters. Heck, hire a successful freelancer (like me!) to give you personalized advice. 

I care about other freelancers deeply. That’s why I’ve shared my success story in the first place.

If you’re stuck in a job that you hate like I was four years ago but are too afraid to cut the cord, I want to let you know that success is absolutely possible.

If I had listened to the naysayers years ago, I’d probably be stuck in the same dead-end job today. I’m glad I instead chose to ignore the naysayers and listen to other successful freelancers.

The question is, who will you listen to? 

Speaking of people you should listen to – don’t forget to connect with me on social using the links below!

PS: If you’ve found any of the above advice helpful, and you feel so inclined – buy me a coffee (leave a tip) on Kofi!

Photo of author


Morgan Overholt

Morgan has almost 20 years of professional experience in graphic design and a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. Her successful freelance business has been featured in articles that have appeared on Upwork.com, Refinery29 and Business Insider Prime.

3 thoughts on “Why Is Upwork Bad: A Letter to the Naysayers From a $600K Freelancer”

  1. “I likely incurred about $20k in fees over the course of my first two years on Upwork, and a $20,000 expense on $200,000 is what I would call an excellent ROI at a 90% profit margin.”

    I’m sure you had other expenses (ie overhead, cost of labor, etc), so your margin is not really 90%. If anything, you could probably look at Upwork as an advertising cost or cost of acquisition, which isn’t bad at 10%.

    The problem I had with Upwork is that I found a lot of people who wanted projects with large scope for not a lot of money (ie price shoppers.)

  2. I love the idea of looking at Upwork’s fee as a marketing cost!

    And I tend to just ignore the cheap clients. I treat Upwork a bit like a dating website. There are a lot of “players” out there. You just have to get good at spotting the red flags, and finding quality “dates”.

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