Should You Use Upwork or Cold Email as a Freelancer?

Freelancers face the same dilemma all the time — should you sign up for a freelance marketplace like Upwork or Fiverr, or make your own way by directly contacting business owners and offering your services?

Some freelance teachers swear by one approach. Some swear by the other.

I swear I will help you understand both approaches so you can make an informed decision.

Is the Upwork fee worth it?

Upwork will take 20% of your first $500 earned from a client, 10% from the next $9,500, and 5% for everything after that. When I do the math on my Upwork earnings, that’s a substantial amount.

So is it worth it? It depends on what your strengths are.

When you pay Upwork their fee you pay for the privilege of working with warm prospects instead of cold prospects.

To understand this and choose the best approach for you, we need to consider the pros and cons of each one.

Cold approach is hard

Have you ever tried selling a product or service to someone who isn’t explicitly shopping for that product or service?

If you have, you know just how challenging that is, and how much time it requires.

Let’s say you’re a WordPress developer. You are more likely to get hired if you contact ten people who posted an ad hiring WordPress developers than if you contact a hundred business owners with an offer to build a website for them.

First of all, they probably won’t even read your message. Second, they might not want a website. Third, they might not trust you — it’s exceedingly difficult to build trust through a cold approach. Fourth, even if they like your offer, they might decide to shop around for a better deal anyway.

You need to have solid marketing skills to ever get a foothold in the cold approach game.

Warm approach invites competition

Warm approach isn’t without its faults either. If you apply for a project on Upwork, you can bet that anywhere from 20 to 100 other people will apply to the same project.

If you’re a beginner on Upwork, this is daunting — standing out from the crowd is tricky.

Cold approach helps you escape competition.

The conversion rate and time burden are certainly negatives of the cold approach, but if you’re confident in your marketing skills then putting in extra effort to avoid competition can be worthwhile.

When you write Upwork job applications, marketing skills are still important, but the game is far simpler — you only need to convince the client that you are the best candidate for their project. In contrast, when you cold-email business owners, you first have to convince them that they need to do a project in the first place.

Upwork has built-in validation

If you can get past the first stage on Upwork and fight through the competition to your first 3–5 projects, things begin to become exponentially easier.

About 80% of freelancers never reach this level on the platform.

Once you’ve done a couple of projects and received good reviews from a couple of clients, your Upwork profile becomes a guarantee of quality for every future prospect to see.

The value of a great Upwork profile doesn’t stop with Upwork. It serves as a guarantee of quality that you can share with prospects outside Upwork as well.

Even though I haven’t used the platform for a couple of years, my profile still serves me well.

Of course, you can create your own portfolio on your own website, and show testimonials from previous clients. But who trusts the testimonials on personal websites? Not me. And not most online business owners.

Cold approach will make you improve

If you have to do everything yourself, guess what happens? You get better at everything or you fail.

Make your portfolio beautiful. Make your website copy persuasive. Make your emails persuasive. Improve your one-on-one sales skills. Improve your prospecting skills. Improve your time management because you’re gonna need it.

It’s the more difficult path, but difficult paths have the redeeming quality of toughening you up.

There’s a third way

If you’re a fellow writer, you’ve probably been wondering about the elephant in the room.

Yes, there’s a third (and, arguably the best) way to attract clients, and that’s through creating content. It’s what I’ve been doing myself for a while, and with reasonable success. The reason I don’t talk about it in this article is that it takes a long time.

If you need clients today or next week or even next month, content creation is highly unlikely to help you. It takes a lot of time to build an audience, a reputation, and a social media presence.

Whatever your situation, I recommend creating content in addition to actively seeking clients.

Quality is your top priority

At the end of the day, whichever approach you use, the outcome will depend on how well you do it.

So practice, learn from feedback, improve, and remain consistent until you find what works for you.

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