Bidding for freelance work on websites. A mug's game?

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For the jobbing freelance there can only be one priority. Ahead of the bookkeeping, email answering, blog updating and business card ordering - there's nothing more important than bringing in the work. And, when the industry is buoyant, it's not too difficult. Call on a few contacts, send a few mailers, take a few meetings and, with a following wind, the bookings arrive.

But, as you may have noticed, these are not ordinary times. Agencies have been merging, slimming and folding with alarming regularity since  the crash of 2008 - and, five years on, the malaise is a long way from cure. Inevitably, with creative businesses  under pressure, costs are cut and that is never good news for freelances.

If you're lucky, you'll have one or two regular gigs to give you a 'baseline' income from which to build, but the building has rarely been tougher and even those frequent fixtures may look wobbly. Which is when the idea of an online marketplace for freelances starts to look appealing.
I'm sure you're familiar with these sites. Elance, Freelancer and People Per Hour seem to be the leading names, and their services follow more or less the same model. Clients post projects they need completing, freelances with the requisite skills then submit bids and proposals in order to win the work. The site retains a fee for matching the supplier with the client and offers tools to manage the deal. It's sort of like eBay for skills rather than cheap watches. Indeed, just like eBay, freelances can build good reputations through feedback and ratings given by clients. Simple, elegant, convenient and smart. Or so it would seem. In reality, the garden isn't quite as rosy as it would appear.

Now, I should be fair here. I have only participated in one of these sites, it was a while ago and it wasn't an entirely bad experience (that said, I swiftly departed when a client tried her damndest to stiff me for my fee on a pretty big project). But looking at these sites today, the flaws are rapidly obvious.

Firstly, it's all very cutthroat. If you imagine you'll be able to pick a couple of juicy looking jobs, cobble together a half-decent pitch and reasonable quote, then prepare for the clients to call, you'll be disappointed.  The process is largely a numbers game and you need to be chucking yourself at dozens of projects to make a dent. Cutting and pasting your proposal across the site isn't a short-cut either. Clients are looking for specific answers to their brief, so a bespoke response is generally required.

Then there's the massive problem of the 'phantom brief'. There is no mechanism to prevent a job being posted by a client with no intention of hiring anyone - either to 'test the water'  or just to be mischievous. It is highly possible the freelance will put time and effort into pitching for work which doesn't exist. And do so many times.

What's more, unlike Jessie J, it really is about the money - and this is where the model really breaks down.  While common sense dictates that any freelance web developer, copywriter, designer or photographer (and the projects aren't restricted to the creative arts) offering to work all week for £35.00 isn't going to deliver a great product, there's nothing to prevent them from doing so. None of these sites provide for a minimum rate, their markets are completely open. Unfortunately, far too many clients simply see ridiculously low bidding as 'fantastic value' and award the project to the cheapest supplier. Of course, not only does this mean the chances of securing a fair rate are massively reduced, it completely devalues the skills of freelances in general.

I dearly wish there was a place on the internet where experienced and adept creatives could bid on valid, credible projects which guaranteed a respectable rate to the successful supplier. However, this would appear to be too much to ask - particularly when these 'open' services continue to  drive down the value of the work.

Ultimately, the effort needed to win low-paid projects on these platforms makes them unviable to the serious freelance. Indeed, I feel sure that similar effort applied to marketing oneself  to clients directly, would undoubtedly produce more satisfying and lucrative results. 


Magnus Shaw is a freelance copywriter, blogger and consultant




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