Web

Thinking of online freelancing for some spare cash? Be prepared to work for it

Freelance writing
When I fly, I often run into people I know – it’s a bit freakish. Big cities, commuter airports, connections in the midwest, the small city where I grew up … everywhere. I probably exchange at least a wave and a few words with someone I didn’t expect to meet on about half my trips. Spotting these people has turned into a bit of a game.

I recently bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in nine years: Sid Moradel. When I first met Sid, he’d been a not-so-skinny teenager who wanted to be a rock star. Now he was a trim, decorated U.S. Army vet who’d just moved to the eastern U.S. and was engaged to be married. Sid had used his military benefits to get a computer science degree but had struggled in the tough economy, despite some stints as a contractor for Microsoft and a couple startups. Then came the surprise: “Since I just moved, right now I’m kind of working full time off Guru.com.”

I was stunned: I knew about online freelancing sites, but didn’t think anyone worked off them full time. “I don’t think many people do that,” said Moradel. “But if you’re professional and have real skills, sure, there’s money to be made.”

That got me thinking: with things like the iPad Air, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One looking to put big dents in credit cards this holiday season, might online freelancing be a way to pay for a new gadget or two – or at least make downtime more productive or repair finances damaged in the Great Recession?

How it works

Online freelancing services try to match up freelancers with jobs or buyers who need to get something done – and, of course, they take a cut of the money. A few services are highly specialized, but the big four are Guru.com, Elance, Upwork (formerly oDesk), and Freelance.com, which acquired vWorker a year ago. (A related service is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – we’ll get to that in a minute.) The basic idea is that businesses can put their work out to freelancers from all over the world instead of dealing with want ads and local temporary agencies. Similarly, freelancers can cherrypick from hundreds or thousands of open jobs, all from the comfort of their Web browsers, without the hassles of a commute or a dress code. If you like working in sweatpants, online freelancing might be for you. The “big four” services handle almost any job that can be done via the Internet or off-site, from programming and accounting to translation and graphic design – even engineering projects.

“It’s been great,” said Andrea Salert, a community coordinator for a Seattle-area church. “We’ve hired off eLance and Freelancer.com for things like event posters, social media help, and outreach. We got someone great every time.”

Sounds like a win-win. However, most services run on a variation of a reverse auction process, where freelancers compete against each other for jobs – and, often, the most appealing bid has the lowest price. The global nature of the Internet comes into play: someone in Chicago might be willing to crop and color-correct photos for $20 an hour, but someone else might offer less than half that rate. Those “lowballers” might be in India or Brazil, but can come from anywhere. Not surprisingly, online freelancing has developed a reputation as a way for businesses find cheap – or easily-exploitable – workers.

Freelance website“Businesses or buyers are going to be able to find cheap labor if they want to – it’s not going to be quality cheap labor, because that doesn’t really happen,” said Lea Popielinski, who offers academic editing and proofing via eLance and Make Your Words Pop. “Some are just looking for lowballers, but others are looking for quality freelancers and they are willing to pay what it costs to take one on.”

Some posted jobs are unethical or even illegal. Occasionally students simply post school assignments, offering to pay someone to do their coursework. Other postings are scams or violate terms of service, such as copying articles or posting fake Yelp reviews. Some buyers never pay for completed work (leaving freelancers high and dry) and some buyers try to hire freelancers independently – maybe sidestepping a services’ overhead, but also avoiding payment escrows and other protections services offer that help make sure freelancers actually get paid.

“That’s a red flag for me,” said Popielinski. “If they’re trying to circumvent the policies, then how are they going to treat me as their freelancer?”

When will you be rolling in money?

Earning real money from online freelancing doesn’t happen overnight: to land anything but lowball work, freelancers need a positive reputation. All online freelancing services have feedback mechanisms where businesses and freelancers rate each other – and those ratings matter.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Moradel. “You gotta have a good rep get good work, but you gotta get good work to build your rep! My first jobs I did stupidly cheap proposals, then busted my ass to get good feedback.” Asked how that worked out financially, Moradel grimaced. “I think one of those came in under $2 an hour.” However, Moradel adds that he’s on track to earn about $45,000 this year doing freelance programming.

Even within fairly narrow work categories, most posted jobs don’t seem to be worth serious freelancers’ time.

“I can dismiss about 90 percent of [available jobs] offhand,” Popielinski said of eLance. “I screen out any with a budget too low, that have ridiculous parameters, that are clearly misfiled, or need to be in a language other than English. But even though I’m not even taking two glances at the vast majority of material, it still leaves enough to probably submit two or three proposals a day.”

Speaking about Guru.com, Moradel said he submits “maybe two or three proposals a week” but “almost never” scans all the listings. “It’s not worth the time, there’s so much crap.” Moradel adds that roughly half his business comes directly from past clients, so he doesn’t have to seek it out.

Salert confirms she tries to hire freelancers she’s used before. “I try to get the same people when I can,” said Salert. “Of course, sometimes they’re not available, so we start over.”

“Specialization is key,” said Moradel. “I focus on three or four things, and those seems to get my proposals in the door. If I just said ‘Hey, I can do Javascript,’ I don’t think I’d get much real work.”

“If you have a niche, you can definitely exploit that,” said Popielinski. “But if you are a generalist sending proposals out to everything and everybody, you might struggle and have a bit more difficulty.”

Then there’s turking…

If you don’t have a niche to exploit, another option is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – the name comes from famous chess-playing hoax from the 1700s. Instead of offering jobs, Mechanical Turk offers “Human Intelligence Tasks” or HITs: piecework humans can do easily but computers can’t. Most HITs are short, repetitive, and pay mere pennies. Examples might include matching keywords to a photo, spotting potholes in images of streets, or transcribing business cards for LinkedIn. Workers complete the HIT, and get paid if the requester likes the results.

Amazon mechanical turkThere are some gotchas – besides potentially being bored to death. First, only workers in the United States and India can get cash: everyone else earns Amazon gift certificates. (Maybe that’s OK, but they don’t pay rent.) Second, a 2010 academic analysis of “turking” calculated an effective wage of about $5/hour, and other estimates are as low as $1.50/hour, leading many to dismiss turking as an exploitative digital sweatshop. Third, not all HITs are available to everyone: some of the best tasks are open only to a select circle or “master” turkers.

Nonetheless, turking has its fans. Some people turk for entertainment and a little extra cash, and a handful claim to do it full time.

Yoonsuh Kim, an 18 year-old student in southern California, said she earned $50-80 per day this summer on Mechanical Turk. “I worked mornings then evenings, and watched my sister’s sons in the daytime. I wanted a summer job, but I had no car and [Mechanical Turk] paid more than anything close by.” Kim said she did two three-to-five hour sessions per day, and, curiously, focused on low-paying HITs. “I looked for HITs to speed up with AutoHotKey,” she wrote. “Sometimes I could do 0.05 HITs as fast as three or four a minute. It adds up.”

…and then there’s working

Folks with niche skills might be better off with a niche marketplace. One example is Visual.ly, which got started as a hub for infographics and recently launched an online marketplace to match up designers and creative professionals with clients looking to get visual work done. And it’s not just infographics: Visual.ly just announced they’re now handling jobs to create videos, presentations, and interactives, and hopes to expand into other areas soon.

“We realized we have designers capable of doing many more things,” said Visual.ly co-founder Tal Siach. “They can do videos, they can work with interactive design, and more, so we assembled a pool of creatives that have been certified by us. A lot of different roles can participate, between designers, animators, developers, journalists, researchers, and even project managers and creative directors. Some projects need just a designer, sometimes we get up to four people on a project.”

Visual.ly’s community of freelancers now totals about 100,000 –but Visual.ly has vetted and certified about 1,000 to work on more complex projects. And Visual.ly has been landing major clients, including companies like Nike, Cisco, Twitter, Verizon, and Nissan. Visual.ly’s idea is to shake up the marketing agency business by letting major clients tap into a worldwide pool of certified creatives without the overhead of a traditional creative agency – kind of the same way Uber is trying to disrupt taxi service by connecting riders with vetted drivers. Visual.ly says it’s paid out over $2 million to freelancers since launching its Project Center last June, and handles hundreds of projects per month.

“We make sure the creatives get projects they deserve,” said Saich, “and at the same time they will never do spec work.”

Bottom line

Picking up extra money via online freelancing is certainly do-able – but you have to put in the time and effort to develop a solid profile, submit job proposals, and figure out the in’s and out’s of the service(s) you use – and that’s all unpaid time. Folks who are most successful with online freelancing aren’t overnight successes, and – perhaps most importantly – seem to treat it like a real job.

So, it’s probably a little too late to look at online freelancing as a way to bolster your 2013 holiday gift budget. But if you’ve got solid skills in a good niche like the idea of being able to work from home in sweatpants, online freelancing might help you pay off that holiday credit card debt a little faster come 2014.

Web

Gmail adds lots of new functionality to its right-click menu

Right-click on an email in Gmail and the list of actions is pretty limited. That's about to change, though, as Google has just announced it's expanding the list of options to make its email client that little bit more useful.
Gaming

Here's our take on the best game-streaming services currently out there

You can still get your physical video game discs or cartridges at your local store or download games digitally, but another option is even more convenient: Game streaming. Here are the best game streaming services.
Smart Home

What exactly is Alexa? Where does she come from? And how does she work?

While "Alexa" has become synonymous with products like the Amazon Echo, you can't actually go out and buy an "Alexa." So what is Alexa? How does she work? Here's everything you need to know about Amazon's virtual assistant.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in December, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to 'Roma'

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Computing

Tired of paying a monthly fee for Word? The best Microsoft Office alternatives

Looking for a competent word processor that isn't Microsoft Word? Thankfully, the best alternatives to Microsoft Office offer robust features, expansive compatibility, and an all-too-familiar aesthetic. Here are our favorites.
Social Media

Instagram test reveals direct messages may be coming to browsers

Instagram for the web has always been a minimalist affair compared to the feature-rich smartphone app, but in the last few years that's started to change. The latest news is that Instagram is considering adding direct messages.
Computing

File Transfer Protocol explained: What FTP is and what it does

FTP stands for "File Transfer Protocol," and it's used to transfer files online. Most internet users don't need it, but web developers use it constantly. Here's what FTP is, how it works, and how you can get started using it.
Computing

Make a GIF of your favorite YouTube video with these great tools

Making a GIF from a YouTube video is easier today than ever, but choosing the right tool for the job isn't always so simple. In this guide, we'll teach you how to make a GIF from a YouTube video with our two favorite online tools.
Computing

Lose the key for your favorite software? These handy tools can find it for you

Missing product keys getting you down? We've chosen some of the best software license and product key finders in existence, so you can locate and document your precious keys on your Windows or MacOS machine.
Computing

From beautiful to downright weird, check out these great dual-monitor wallpapers

Multitasking with two monitors doesn't necessarily mean you need to split your screens with two separate wallpapers. From beautiful to downright weird, here are our top sites for finding the best dual-monitor wallpapers for you.
Computing

Miss Flash? It's not dead yet. Here's how to enable it in Chrome

Want to know how to enable Flash in Chrome? You need to jump through a couple of hoops but it's far from difficult. Just visit your favorite Flash site and follow these instructions and you'll be enjoying Flash content in no time.
Computing

Breaking: Amazon won’t build headquarters in New York in face of opposition

Amazon has canceled plans for a New York City headquarters afer citizens, civic groups, and politicians pushed back on Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's exclamation of economic joy over Amazon's earlier…
Web

Are you one of the billions who have watched these super-popular YouTube videos?

Viral videos can quickly garner millions upon millions of views, but even they fall well behind the view counts on the most watched YouTube videos ever. Those have been watched billions of times.