Land of the freelancers, home of the brave: How to find your next freelance gig online

So you want to work on a new project or just want to make some extra money and you’re starting to think the freelancing life might be the one for you. Where to turn?

When you hop onto a popular site like Upwork,, Elance, and Guru, it’s overwhelming. It can seem like all the jobs pay $5 an hour or less, and there are 50 other people who’ve already bid on the job with more logged hours than you.

And the competition for junk jobs where the clients want lengthy articles in “perfect English” at a pay rate of $1 per story aren’t much better. So how do you avoid the programming jobs that want you to perfect a WordPress blog for a $10 flat rate?

The big clearinghouses for freelance writing and programming gigs feature thousands of jobs from around the world and also thousands of applicants. Rich Pearson, Chief Marketing Officer of Elance, says that 50 percent of their freelancers are full-time. However, many of those workers are based in countries where the cost of living is a lot lower.

All the primary sites offer promises of a payment guarantee – though the quality of escrow and payment dispute varies. Each service stresses the need for a full, typo-free profile with portfolio pieces and a full resume as the key to success. That sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, with over a million freelancers on each site, the competition can sometimes be brutal until you find a way to distinguish yourself on that stats-focused systems. A great resume and cover letter might get you the first job, but don’t hold your breath for a full time gig … at least, not a great one.

There are other options, and also how you can put in the elbow grease to make the big guys work for you:

The big dogs: Upwork, Guru,, and Elance


Elance shares its average hourly rates for a plethora of specialties from French translation to C++ programming. Most are around $20 an hour or more, which certainly isn’t a bad starting place. There are tests with the service so you can show off your coding skills – and yes, that is certainly a time investment, but it could end up saving you wasted moments on a dead end gig.

Pearson says that a third of freelancers get their jobs through invitations, not by applying directly to a post. This sounds great at first: Less time spent looking and more time getting paid!

elance examples

But it also means having to work a lot of crappy projects to get your stats up so you appear in searches. “Once you have some success, you are shown to more [people hiring] due to our levels system – this is a proprietary way of ranking our freelancers, based on earnings, timely project completion, skill tests taken and activity. As you achieve a higher level, you are presented to more clients and ranked higher on our freelancer search platform,” Pearson says. Another pro tip: Pearson strongly recommends including all the keywords you’re capable of (SEO writing on top of Search Engine Marketing) in order to be searchable.

Upwork (formerly oDesk

Upwork has a similar barrier to entry, requiring you to clock in some hours and receive some reviews first. Many clients hiring explicitly list needing at least one completed hour, and 100 hours isn’t uncommon. And their payment guarantee system doesn’t promise payment on fixed rate projects.


With a strangely similar interface to oDesk, Guru does pretty much the same as Elance and oDesk on a slightly smaller scale. It has received positive comparisons about its dispute and ratings systems compared to the big guns. 

Out of all the big companies, is built on a model of cheap work for clients. It’s homepage proclaims: “Only pay freelancers once you are happy with their work” and “Projects start at $30 and the average job is under $200” which are nice to hear if you’re hiring, but not quite as encouraging if you’re looking for a job.

The job boards


A massive bin of jobs which can be loosely interpreted as “flexible” (telecommuting, part-time, freelance, etc.), this service requires a subscription—pretty steep at $14.95 a month—for access to its troves of positions (in a board range of fields) and the ability to create a profile which allow you to be found. Their jobs are almost always legitimate companies but often can be found elsewhere for free with a little work.

Freelance Switch 

Heavy on the programming and tech blogging realms, this is a job board that requires an account, costing you $7 per month to apply to positions.


An extensive, easy to navigate job board for writers with mostly quality jobs … and some not so appealing ones.

The niche markets


Targeted at writers, this site offers a gated sign-up which means that the quality is high—both for jobs and concerning the competition. Still in beta-mode, this is one place where experienced writers can do really show their stuff (success stories include a Boston Globe stringer who turned Contently into a $50,000 a year full-time job with time to write a book) but there aren’t enough jobs for a newbie to push their way in.

“For entry- or mid-level freelance journalists, the best way to get noticed is to have great clips, stats, and logos next to your name. It’s tough for a newbie to break in, but all it takes is one clip at The Wall Street Journal for the WSJ logo to show up at the top of your portfolio,” says cofounder and Chief Creative Officer Shane Snow. However, job finding on the platform is in the hands of those doing the hiring – there’s no way to apply, you really just have to get noticed, so get those clips in.


makers row exampleTaking crowd-sourcing to the design and branding realms, this is a great site if you’re looking to build a design portfolio … not so much if you want to make money. Designs are submitted to each proposal and while payment for the design winner is guaranteed (and sometimes the runners-up get prizes too), with more than 100 entries on average for each project, competition is stiff.


Another source of more inspiration than a paycheck, this site is great if you’re looking to partner with someone on a project (mostly Internet startups). With success stories like Makers Row, a platform which allows designers to connect with American manufacturers that has gotten more than $75,000 in angel investing, there are plenty of great ideas floating around. However, the monetizing part is anything but guaranteed.

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