Why serious freelances avoid online “marketplaces”

The best freelances are not on Upwork. Or Hopwork. Or Bipwork. Or Bopwork.

There’s a reason you went into business for yourself and it wasn’t to give away your margin, your terms, brand equity, story and client relationship to someone else. If you want to hang around passively waiting for the call so that someone else can decide your worth, get a job already.

But you knew that, so you’ll be as excited as I am by the latest news from the world of joyless commodity “freelancing”. The merged entity Elance-oDesk, the world’s number one place to source generic work for very little, has rebranded as Upwork. The rebadging is tacit admission that there was zero equity worth keeping in either brand. That’s amusing in itself.

“The word work can sound like a downer,” CEO Stephane Kasriel told Forbes. Really?

I don’t know about you,  but I actually love my work and nothing makes me feel more “up” than developing a direct and long-term dialogue with a client, who appreciates the unique set of skills and qualities that I bring to their business.

But anyone who has worked on oDesk will tell you what a downer that was. How, in a marketplace whose dynamics force you to undercut your competition to win a bid, the only outcome is a race to the bottom. And once the commission is taken, assuming you get paid at all, the only one to profit is the platform itself.

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I’m currently living in France, where oDesk copycat Hopwork has risen to prominence and presents its borrowed model as a market innovation worthy of airbnb. So far, Elance-oDesk has shown no interest in entering the challenging and bureaucratic French market, so Hopwork has had free reign. That may be about to change. Upwork’s CEO Stephane Kasriel is French himself, having obtained his MBA in Paris. The market may not present such a challenge for him and it’s hard to believe he was not aware of Hopwork when he chose the new name for Elance-oDesk. (As an added frisson, Upwork and Hopwork are pronounced the same way by French speakers.)

I would personally enjoy seeing Hopwork on the back foot, since I find the company’s approach and attitude appalling. To my mind, Hopwork’s initial marketing slogans worked very hard to undermine solo entrepreneurs. The company made an extremely aggressive market entrance, stating that the best freelances were on its platform and that all its freelances had been vetted to ensure they had the legal right to operate their business. From this pernicious phrasing it was easy to infer that a freelance operating outside of Hopwork’s portal could not, perhaps should not, be trusted to tell the truth about herself. In France, individuals have only been able to bill for services without a highly-taxed legal entity since 2009. Employing black-market labour carries seriously stiff penalties. It will have been easy to spook employers into trusting only Hopwork and ignoring individuals, thus forcing artisans into making a Faustian pact with the portal, which then took 10%.

Hopwork has since toned down both statements—perhaps on advice—opting for the less contentious “Find the best freelances” and “your business is within the law and protected”.

Meanwhile, the company has just trumpeted a new million-euro round of venture capital funding, to help it “attack” (yes, CEO Vincent Huguet used that word) France’s self-employed entrepreneur market.

But French freelancers have no need of this interloper. 

Sloganeering

Because the best freelances have no need of a middle man. The best freelances are forging direct and lasting relationships with their clients. The best freelances are building reputation for themselves, not for someone else. The best freelances are developing and creating new markets, not sitting around waiting for a call. The best freelances are not competing on price in a gladiators’ arena, but charging for the value they add to their clients’ business. The best freelances keep a tight control on their brand equity and their margin. The best freelances tell their own story like a boss. The best freelances, in short, are emphatically not on Hopwork, Upwork, or any other meatmarket.

But you know that. That’s why you’re one of the best.

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