Should you join a premium freelance platform?

Are ‘premium’ freelance platforms worth the effort?

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in the number of premium freelance platforms. High-quality clients post work that pre-vetted freelancers apply for and everyone’s a winner...or are they?

These platforms are an attractive prospect for clients and freelancers alike. The theory is that clients are willing to spend more on guaranteed quality work and freelancers have access to a steady stream of well-paid opportunities.

This is the key differentiator between premium platforms and marketplaces like Upwork.

I’ve been accepted at two premium platforms. In both cases, it quickly became apparent that any hopes about a high quality experience were misplaced.

In one case, the platform’s application process was as follows:

  1. Application
  2. Coding task (about 1.5 days of work)
  3. Live interview
  4. Onboarding (a significant amount of reading)
  5. Probation period

I completed all of this only to discover that the platform did no client qualification, the rates were often much lower than the advertised ‘minimum’ and the process of applying for jobs had many flaws.

There’s no doubt that there’s a place for these platforms and they provide good work for some freelancers, but the devil is always in the detail. I much preferred my experience on Upwork to either of the platforms I joined.

The process of applying, completing trial tasks, and getting onboarded is time-consuming. I’m writing this piece to raise a few of the issues I came across so other freelancers can ask the questions I wish I had asked.

Ethical trials

As part of the application process to join these platforms, freelancers usually complete some sort of unpaid trial or task. Only those who pass will be onboarded.

Trials come in a range of formats and it’s not always clear to applicants what will be involved. With no guarantee of paid work or acceptance, it’s worth finding out exactly what the task is and the purpose of it.

It’s crucial that tasks are the same for each participant/specialism and not work that the company could use. Some platforms trial freelancers by asking them to provide work for the platform itself, which seems like a particularly exploitative practice.

Some types of trial might be ok – perhaps a short test of technical ability – but the application process should focus on your portfolio. If a platform needs to vet expertise further, they should chat to the applicant about previous projects.

Payments and fees

Payments and fees are another area to look out for. Some shout about it, some hide it in T&Cs, but others only reveal this once you’ve applied.

Watch out for double-dipping: I’ve seen platforms that charge clients 15-20% and then charge freelancers a percentage (10–20%) of their fees, too. Even though I don’t believe you should compete on price, if 30% of a project rate is platform fees, that quickly adds up.

Even Upwork’s fees seem moderate in comparison to those practices:

  • 20% on the first $500
  • 10% on $500–10,000
  • 5% over $10,000
  • Clients pay a 3% payment processing fee

This isn’t an advert for Upwork but, as a platform that doesn’t have a great reputation, the comparison shows how wide of the mark some of the fee structures are.

Another thing to check is whether there are fees to withdraw your earnings: some of these are unjustifiably high.

Clients

Platforms often use their application process to attract a different sort of client:

  • “We only accept a small percentage of applicants!”
  • “Our secret-sauce vetting procedure guarantees the best freelancers!”

That’s all well-and-good, but what client qualification do they do? In many cases, the answer is none.

If a platform is truly premium, clients will be onboarded manually, but this isn’t common. At a minimum, the onboarding should include a brief, budget (‘not sure’ is not a budget) and a timeframe.

If this isn’t mentioned, ask!

Protections

It’s not unusual for premium platforms to offer a guarantee on the work: perhaps money-back or fixes/revisions within a specified timeframe. This is to put clients’ minds at ease, but what protections are in place for freelancers?

Often one of the greatest strengths of freelancing platforms is the escrow services. Instead of a client paying a deposit directly to a freelancer, the platform receives the payment and holds it until the work – or a stage of work – is complete.

This gives peace of mind to both sides, but you should investigate what the dispute procedures are. You would hope not to have to use this, but you never know.

It’s also worth checking with your professional indemnity insurer if they would cover any cases of non-payment. If the platform’s contract is under the jurisdiction of another country – such as the US – you should also check that your professional indemnity insurance covers this location.

Rates and jobs

As an applicant, it’s important to know what you’re going to be paid. To understand this, you’ll need to know how the rates are set: does the platform set them or do you?

Some platforms advertise minimum rates. You might want to ask how that’s guaranteed, especially if you’re not solely responsible for setting the rate.

I’d also suggest digging into how you apply for jobs:

  • Are you in direct contact with the client or do you go through an intermediary?
  • Is the application a one-on-one process or are there multiple freelancers communicating at the same time?
  • How many typically apply for a job?

The final question is crucial: if there are more than two or three people applying for a job the hit rate is likely to be low. That means you’re likely to be spending a lot of time browsing and applying for jobs.

Onboarding and profile maintenance

Completing the application and trial is only the first part: there may be an onboarding process and probation period. See if you can dig out details on these next steps.

Some platforms require a level of profile maintenance to keep an account active. In extreme cases, that might involve further ‘tasks’ or continued professional development at regular intervals.

If it’s not clear, find out!

Scoping the landscape

There are a few other questions you should try to get the answer to:

What percentage of the platform’s freelances have actively applied for work in the last three months?

This is an indicator of one or two things, either:

  • The percentage of their freelancers who have enough work already
  • The number of freelancers who’ve given up on the platform

What percentage of these received a payment in the last month?

This gives a bit more context to the first question. Any freelancers still active on the platform but too busy to look for work are likely to have received a payment in the last month.

How many jobs were posted in the last three months? How many of these were in [insert your specialism here]?

These figures give you an idea of how frequently jobs are being posted and whether they’re relevant to you. If there are 1,000 developer jobs and you’re a copywriter, that wouldn’t be much use.

What percentage of these converted into funded jobs?

This isn’t an incredibly important stat, but it might give you an indication of how much client onboarding is happening. If the number is very low, it could show that the types of client the platform attracts isn’t right for the freelancers on there.

Are these figures available?

Some of these stats may be displayed on the site somewhere, others you might have to ask about. It’s perfectly possible – probable even – that a platform may not want to share this. If that’s the case, try to speak to freelancers who already work on the platform.

This might seem like a lot of effort, but these are all questions I wish I’d asked and thought about before applying.

One of the platforms I joined didn’t have a single project that was appropriate for me in six months. That same platform required over a day’s unpaid work as part of the onboarding process – work I thankfully didn’t undertake.

Ultimately, if a platform is truly premium and genuinely wants to attract quality freelancers, they should be willing to share this information. Otherwise, what incentive is there for you to go through their application procedure?

Are premium freelance platforms worth it?

I found that both of the platforms I joined required a significant and ongoing administrative effort. That included:

  • Searching and applying (read: competing) for lots of jobs
  • Unrealistic expectations on email reply times
  • Notification overload (email, Slack, etc)
  • Additional reporting on projects
  • Platform-specific tests to prove readiness (even after working on the platform)
  • Keeping up with the latest processes, workflows and ‘best-practices’

I felt like an employee in both experiences. An employee without the safety net of guaranteed work or other benefits.

It’s natural that platforms have systems to work through, but I found these became the overbearing part of the experience.

I don’t work for myself to permanently endure a platform’s systems or adjust to a pseudo-agency’s culture.

Both experiences showed that these platforms just aren’t for me. Having control over the project process has a massive impact on job satisfaction, for me at least.

I recognise that turning down these potential revenue streams is somewhat of a privilege. I had applied to both places hoping they would provide another avenue of decent work, but it just didn’t turn out that way.

By the time I’d accounted for the various fees and additional project overhead (e.g. platform admin), it didn’t make sense to sink any more time into them.

Who do these platforms benefit?

Some freelancers will do well on these platforms, but it’s difficult to overstate the tenacity required to succeed. In fact, many of the freelancers I saw doing well on these sites almost exclusively ran their businesses through them.

Premium platforms give the impression that they’re the future of freelancing, but that’s not the case.

The future of freelancing is broad and diverse. It’s not limited to a handful of companies that profit by charging platform fees to clients and/or the freelancers who work for them (not with them).

It’s notable that the time applicants spend on trial tasks far exceeds the investment a platform makes in assessing them. Trials of this length may be normal in an employer/employee interview situation, but these are platforms where there’s no guarantee of paid work.

For these sites to succeed, they need a large pool of applicants so they can pick freelancers with the skills and availability their clients require. It simply wouldn’t be feasible for them to spend half a day or more assessing each applicant, but that’s precisely why the application processes are unbalanced.

Is it reasonable or fair to demand freelancers spend so long on their application or unpaid trial tasks? I don’t think so.

There maybe a premium platform that’s perfect for you and the work you do. Ultimately, your tolerance of the application process, fees and platform red tape will vary.

I hope this article helps you narrow down the options and ask the questions you need to make an informed decision about applying.

Related

  • Social media for freelancers

    Getting involved in freelancer-focused social media groups is one of the best decisions I’ve made since going freelance.

    Read
  • Are you sure you want to go freelance?

    Freelancing is no panacea for employment problems.

    Read
  • Useful stuff for freelancers

    There are millions of articles about how to become a freelancer online – here are some standout reads.

    Read