Avoid bidding sites and build a freelance business you can be proud of

Be proud
If you’re a freelancer, chances are you’ve heard of freelance bidding sites. To name a few: oDesk, Elance, Guru, 99Designs, and even Craigslist. In a nutshell these type of sites connect client projects to freelancers. You set up an account and bid on or apply to the projects that appeal to you most. There are a plethora of different projects to choose from, making the concept very appealing for many freelance designers, developers, writers, and more.

Of course these sites seem pretty great, but in reality, they will only hinder your freelance business – especially for those just getting started.

These sites may appear to offer a lot of potential work, but unfortunately it’s a market driven by price – with freelancers competing for who can offer the cheapest service, rather than the best.

My intent is not to lead you away from these sites, but to share with you my personal experience, and that there are far better things you should spend your time on.

If you’re just getting started or are a seasonal freelancer, these job bidding sites may work well for you. However, if you plan on growing a successful freelance business, then avoid bidding sites and pay attention to what I have to share in this post.

Should freelancers use bidding sites?

I get it – it’s hard to build that initial client base when you’re getting started. And if work is slow, why not turn to a marketplace full of potential work?

When I started my freelance business before graduating high school, I bounced around a few of these sites, setting up my account and bidding on project after project.

After completing my first project I felt great! I made a little bit of money in a short amount of time, so now I just had to stick with it and turn this into steady income!

Oh was I wrong.

By spending so much time on these bidding sites, I was ultimately hindering my freelance business.

I was wasting too much time finding the right site, setting up an account and reaching “100%”, verifying my bank account, taking “skill” tests to prove my experience, trying to obtain good reviews, and the list could go on. It’s kind of ridiculous how these sites almost force you to spend so much time on them in order to “better” your chances at landing projects.

Of course these sites also take a percentage of everything you earn, but that’s not even the worst part. In the end, these “clients” aren’t even your clients. They’re customers to the site – prospects that know these sites are overpopulated with new and unqualified freelancers looking to underbid each other.

So, should freelancers use bidding sites? Absolutely not!

Any real client worth having should hire you based on your past work and the value you have to offer; not based on the lowest bid they receive. If you run your business efficiently, you should have no issues with finding real clients, getting referrals, and getting paid what you’re worth.

What successful freelancers do instead with their time

If you insist on using bidding sites, I at least advise you to try and limit your time there so you can focus on building a real platform for yourself and your freelance business.

You’re not a commodity, but a solution to your client’s problems. The sooner you start building and promoting your freelance business, the sooner clients will be knocking at your door looking to pay what you’re worth. If you keep going back to those bidding sites looking for poor quality work, you’ll fall into a rut, always depending on a intermediary. You should be driving your own sales, earning your own income, and growing real client relationships as any real business should.

Running a successful freelance business isn’t just about landing as many projects as possible. Rather, it’s about landing the right type of projects – the type of projects you can get that allow you to reach your goals and actually grow your freelance business.

If you can start marketing your freelance business sooner – the better! Marketing benefits your freelance brand, and you don’t want to miss out on the possible opportunities it will generate. Not only will your marketing efforts lead to new client work, but what you may do today could be what brings in a new freelance project that lasts for years.

Find what works best for you, what you like to do, and what yields the best results; and whatever it is, do it regularly, efficiently, and always keep your business standards.

So, would you rather spend hours bidding for numerous low compensating projects, or actually build a successful freelance business of your own that you can be proud of?

I want to hear from you

What’s your take on freelance bidding sites? Do you disagree and think they are a wonderful thing for freelancers?

Share your experience and thoughts in the comments below!


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  • Thanks for sharing!

    To be honest, I’ve been somewhat tempted to look into 99 Designs recently – since my workplace and a lot of others (agencies) are using it exclusively for web design. I’ve also been on the other end of it – having some part in the decision making process and instructing these freelancers what to do. It feels partly wrong, because I know they’re not being paid well. But I feel that good communication really factors into who gets chosen and that’s what has got me thinking about it. I feel my communication has always been one of my strongest assets.

    Part of me is wondering if it’s a good place to practice absorbing briefs en masse / getting better at interpreting instructions and delivering (under tight deadlines). On my own client projects (non-bid), I easily get caught up in them, and spend way more time than they’re worth. If I was doing them in larger numbers, this might help me with my speed.

    If I do go down that road, I’ll definitely let you know how it turns out. Although I do agree you have to sell your soul a bit.

    • Hey Mitch, I tried 99Designs years ago and I think it can be useful for practice. However, 100% of that time spent went unpaid. If you do give it a try, I’d absolutely love to hear about your experience.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! :)

  • I got my first ever client from the forhire subreddit. It’s slightly different from what you’re talking about, but it’s still very much a race to the bottom. I used to check the job marketplaces religiously, but I’ve found I can make more of my time in other ways like going to local networking events.

    That said, I have used boards like these to hire people. The key there for me is to be the change you want. Don’t post on oDesk looking for somebody to build a web page for $2/hour. Pay a decent wage and develop relationships with the people you work with.

    • I used to look for new clients on subreddits and Craigslist too years ago. (I feel like I’ve tried it all, haha.) I made a few connections, but nothing of high quality. And like you said, there are far better things you can be doing with your time to benefit your freelance business long-term.

      Great comment, Devon! Always love to hear from you! :)

  • Jeremy Thomas

    I new from the start that bidding sites and doing spec work was a lose lose situation. I’ve frequented blogs since I started my career that warned me about it. And With all that said, there were time’s I did try to use odesk and freelancer.com…to no avail.

    But I have had some success with craigslist. Can’t say I’ve found the best client pool, but it’s been good for one off’s and has led me to find a few clients that has stayed for awhile.

    The biggest issue I’ve run a crossed is finding “quality” or high paying clients. They seem to avoid craigslist like the plague. Probably because they know where to find their designers and developers. I’m in the stage where I want to find better clients.

    • I think many can relate to this. It’s how I felt last year – struggling to find quality projects. All it takes is one good project to kickstart everything. If you produce an awesome piece, that can generate more leads, and of course a referral from one quality client can lead to many others.

      Thanks for taking the time to share, Jeremy!

  • Gerald

    YEA.. so this is why i dont join any bidding sites.. im 19 year old graphic designer.. i got my own personal log, design brief, design category and terms and agreement. i also have a template for my receipt and invoice. because i want to have a real clients not in bidding sites. and i also have my great portfolio to show them. im also planning to start my own business. but what keeps me from making it is the language.. we just move to US from Philippines :) its hard for me to speak for now heheh.. i cant understand sometimes :) so got to have friends first to start my career :) Thanks !! :D

    • Sounds like you’re headed down the right path, Gerald. Keep up the work and stick with it! :)

  • I think for a freelancer starting out, these bidding sites are useful in the terms that it can build your initial portfolio for your actual freelance business. Many freelancers give the advice to complete free work of a fake company to use for your first portfolio if you have nothing, but why not get a few of these projects and get a little money for it (maybe money you can use for small marketing concepts for your real business), if you’re willing to do it for free anyway?

  • Thanks for confirming what I’ve been experiencing. I did much of the same when I first started out. I think it’s a great place to get started, get some projects under your belt, and get your face smashed in couple time with bad clients.

    After laying down the gauntlet to get work in my own hometown, rather than 500+ miles away, I came across a lot more work w/ better pay.

    I often flirt with Guru.com now and again (likely for nostalgia), but I put those thoughts on the backburner. Thanks to your post, I can now toss those feelings in the trashcan and be more confident that I’m not letting business gold slip through my fingers — I’m just using my time more wisely.

    I won’t be wasting any more time on those sites. However, there is one site I will suggest, because the business is done locally and you’re more likely to actually get the job at a fair price: http://www.thumbtack.com I’ve had a good experience.

    • Jeremy Thomas

      I thought thumbtack was going be something great. But it seemed like I would put more money into bidding on projects then anything else. Granted 1 or 2 dollar bids don’t amount to much, but if you bid high amounts and don’t get any leads (even if your work is good) it’s a waist of money.

      I haven’t been on it in a year or so, so maybe it has changed.

      • I’m gonna preface this with: You’re better off getting clients face-to-face and as a result of your own marketing.

        As far as thumbtack goes, I can’t only speak of my own experience. I do feel like Thumbtack made a concentrated marketing effort at the onset of this year which helped make the thumbtack community more viable. And I had moderate success getting work. Typically my portfolio/proposal offer won the project more than a bidding price. As most of my proposals I left the bidding price at “I’ll need more information” and encouraged them to give me a call and meet me in-person.

        My suggestion is: Use Thumbtack if you’re just starting out and you’re having trouble finding clients on your own. It will do two things for you. Get the ball rolling business-wise and will allow the beginner to develop portfolio pieces without doing things for “free”.

        • Jeremy Thomas

          That’s good that they have made some efforts to improve Thumbtack. I thought it was a great idea. Instead of doing spec work you are marketing yourself and that’s how you get win projects.

          Thanks for letting me know they improved. I may look into them again in the future.

  • Hey Brent – I’m not a big fan of bidding sites, or any freelance platforms to be honest, but I do really like Microlancer (well, Envato Studio) because of how your services are set out in advance and are just waiting to be ordered. In fact, I seem to remember you writing a post about it somewhere. Anyway, thought I’d just share that with you :-)

  • Lexy Le

    Hi Brent, it’s Lexy again.

    I do really like this article. I saw a lot of freelancers “running around” bidding sites to find some small pieces of cakes. I made a joke with my friend that it’s like a herd of hyenas chasing a little rabbit. The difference is only one can win.

    I think if we keep hoping and waiting for jobs from bidding sites, we re gonna lose our initiative and depend too much on those sites.

    Anyway, I love this article and look forward to reading more, Brent.

    Good job :)

  • nikiyo

    hey brent,i’m agree with your opinion.
    This is what I portrayal of the status quo.
    I am a full-time freelancer now, for this decision, I actually take a lot of risk, because I can no longer endure the nine to five office workers live, and then i quit without enough cash flow and any source of customers. Began to think of very simple, i just bidding online in month then i can slowly begin freelance life, but nearly a month after this period of time, I have yet to get any tender, I am beginning to fall into the fear, on the one hand i still did not want to go to work, on the one hand confused how to find the first customers started first project. My funds only support me up to three months now, so I am very nervous.

    At first I just want to accumulate time and cases through the bid net, but most of the time wasted, self-confidence is also frustrated.

    Everyday browse the bid network I’m actually more and more disappointed, full of low quality and low price, it’s simply a vicious cycle, I have begun to hate it, it is impossible to truly become my source of income, but the problem is , not through competitive bidding net so how to find the first item it?
    As a designer, how can I come to find customers through a network?
    I think i really need your suggestion.

  • Anthony Hugh

    I agree. eKast.co has been working on creating a safe and high value work place for freelancers (software, web development mainly). They submit blind quotes (no one else can see the quotes except the client). eKast also doesn’t allow any freelancer to sign up – they screen all new applicants and look at key metrics.

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  • Sarah

    We have used online bidding sites in the past. You dont want to get in the cycle of depending on another company to generate your sales. Also, the rates they charge are criminal. Trust me!

    • Gina

      This is so true very low bids and some want high quality work too. I am simultaneously marketing myself and looking at these sites.

  • bidding sites can be grate to those who understand it, for example i use odesk more regularly and recently awarded me to be among the top rated freelancers. I believe if you have skill that people want you can sell it at your price and still get clients.
    I have created a base of clients and even some we still working together two years down the line after i started freelancing.
    Building your business is the way to go for many but also you can do it in bidding site.
    I rarely bid for jobs but instead get invitations to apply for WordPress Gigs

  • Aubrey Barto

    I’m starting in Freelance Marketing and I joined ALL of those sites! I thought I was being proactive and trying to pull in work. I found one recurring client which is awesome but I feel like I am wasting money buying and placing these bids.

    After reading this I realize there is nothing wrong with me but my approach. I will be rethinking my approach to get my business out there.

    Thanks for this article!

  • Thanks so much for this article. I’m a 2nd-year graphic design student about to get my associate’s degree and start on my bachelor’s, so I’m really spreading my wings for the first time by networking on LinkedIn and such and doing solid hard research on what it’s going to take to make it in the design world—past my courses, past my internship, past my portfolio. I also feel I have a strong enough command of software, marketing, communication, and fundamentals of design, and have fulfilled a few jobs and projects, such that I feel ready to freelance more often. A friend in the industry fortunately advised me to avoid the freelancing sites because you’re generally undercompensated for the work you do and the value you’re actually delivering. It’s good to hear this from someone else, and at the same time, extremely uplifting to hear that part of being a freelancer is that you can expect reasonable compensation if you market yourself correctly and build and maintain your brand, and you don’t have to undersell yourself just to get paid. I’m going to check your other resources but would you happen to have a good pricing matrix for designers that are just starting out? Here’s some examples of my work, ranging from logos to various promotional print designs to fractals which I sell as large canvas prints at the gallery I belong to. http://katdesignstudio.deviantart.com/gallery/51597225/Portfolio

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