5 steps to enhance your chances of getting first job on Elance and oDesk


Lot of people I meet ask how did I get started with freelancing. Was it easy to get jobs initially? How long did it take to get the first project? What works and what doesn’t and so on. I keep getting requests to answer similar questions on Quora. So I thought of creating this post which systematically lists down simple steps to get projects and be successful on freelance website like Elance and oDesk.

There are many other popular freelance websites like Freelance.com, Guru etc but if you’re a freelancer or planning to be one then you simply can’t afford to ignore Elance and oDesk. On a side note, Elance and oDesk recently announced merger.

I joined both oDesk and Elance almost around same time and setup profiles on both sites by filling up information which was required and couldn’t be left blank. Then I spent couple of hours drafting a killer proposal (at least that’s what I thought) which was generic so I could use it over and over again with slight modifications as per project requirements. Using that proposal, I started bidding on a good number of projects everyday only to realize after few weeks that I was doing something terribly wrong since I couldn’t manage to get a single response from any client on any of the projects, let alone winning the project.

Some of you wouldn’t be surprised why I couldn’t manage to win any projects. I made some mistakes like I did like not spend enough time setting up my freelance profile and provide as much information about my skills and experience as I should have. I did not setup a portfolio of previous projects which highlight my experience and I was relying on a generic proposal template while applying to all projects though each project has different requirements.

So, were these the only mistakes or was there something else I should have known for increasing my chances to win projects on freelancing sites? Based on my experience at freelancing, I have listed down few simple steps below which would help increase your chances of getting your first project on freelancing websites.

1. Up to date Profile and Portfolio

The first thing you must do when you register on a freelance site is that spend enough time setting up your profile by providing as much details as possible about your skills and experience. Most of such sites have a profile completeness meter which shows how complete your profile is. If not 100%, ensure it’s as close to 100% as possible.

Portfolio is another very important thing. Populate the portfolio section with relevant projects you have done previously as a freelancer or as an employee in your past job(s). If you are just out of college and don’t have any production examples of your work to showcase in your portfolio then you can add academic projects done as part of your college or better any open source projects you are part of.

Use your profile and portfolio to market yourself well. If you are offering programming services and you maintain a blog with relevant posts or write guest posts on relevant topics then mention that on your profile. As part of your previous job(s), if you worked for some notable clients then mention about it. Think of anything which you feel might help you get noticed by buyers on freelance sites and add that information to your profile.

Apart from the profile on freelancing website, get a website done or develop yourself (if you are a web designer/developer) for listing your services. On the website, provide link(s) to your freelance profile(s) and vice versa.

Point is, you MUST have a complete profile and a good looking portfolio before you even start thinking about applying for jobs on freelance sites.

2. Take Skill Tests

Most of the freelancing websites, including Elance and oDesk, provide free online tests for freelancers to help their profile look credible if they score well. They even highlight the top ranking freelancers if the skills for which test(s) were taken are relevant to the project, e.g. this freelancer ranks in top 10% for skill X. Irrespective of what services you are offering, it’s good to take English language test in case you aren’t from a country where English is your native language.

There are hundreds of tests available for freelancers on such sites and they even provide you opportunity to retake the test if you didn’t perform well at first attempt. You can also choose to hide the score of a particular test if you didn’t fare well in a test. My advice is to first Google for sample questions to understand the format of these tests before you take the first test.

There are projects where it’s required for freelancers to have taken certain test(s) before you can apply for them. So taking tests and scoring well is not only a “nice to have” part of being a freelancer on these sites but is also a great opportunity to make yourself stand out. Further, if you have required skills for a project but haven’t taken the relevant test(s), you won’t be able to apply for the project in case it’s a mandatory requirement for the project to have taken the tests.

Prepare well, score great and use them to build a credible profile and for significantly increasing your chances to win a project.

3. Start Small

As a newbie on freelancing sites, one gets tempted to bid on big budget projects with matching skills but wait and keep your emotions in control 🙂 It’s very unlikely that, as a newcomer, you would get awarded one of those projects because projects with big budgets usually either go to freelancers and companies having a proven track record on the freelancing website with dozens and even hundreds of previously completed projects in their profile or to those whom the clients have previously worked with in past.

Instead of wasting your energies on such projects, your priority much be to get some projects in your kitty as soon as possible. The best way to get projects initially is to bid on small projects and underbid everyone. Initially your focus shouldn’t on making profits but on projecting yourself as a credible service provider with a history of projects even if there are only a few.

I still remember that after weeks of trying, I got my first project which was about fixing some CSS issues in a website. The average bid on the project was $75 USD when I noticed the project. I placed a bid of $50 USD for the project and voila … I got a confirmation within few minutes that client has awarded that project to me. Today I would charge 5-7 times more for the same work and I would probably even get the project. Why? Because I started by investing my efforts and energies in building a credible profile first instead of trying to make profits right away.

But this doesn’t mean that if you bid lowest, you’ll always get the project. I tried this strategy for many projects before I got the project. Most of the times their will be competitors bidding the lowest possible bid along with you. What to do in such case to increase your chances of winning the project? Well, that’s our next point.

4. Custom Proposal for each Project

Doesn’t matter how good your profile and portfolio looks and how low your bid on the project is, the factor which will most likely decide whether you will get the project or not is what you are offering to the client and how well you have drafted your proposal to address the project requirements.

Generally lot of freelancers, including some experienced ones, create one or more templates for proposals and reuse them while applying for jobs with minor changes, sometimes without any changes at all. Their idea is simple – apply for a good number of jobs, e.g. 20-30 jobs, everyday which is only possible with the help of a template and then hope that at least 3-4 of them will get back to them. This is poor strategy even though it may help them get attention of some prospective clients because of their portfolio and past work.

When a client posts a project requirements, (s)he is looking for the following in a freelancer.

  • How well does the freelancer understand the project requirements?
  • Has he done any similar projects in the past?
  • What extra value, if any, he can offer to the project?
  • Will he fit the bill?
  • Lastly – other things like portfolio, projects history on website, feedback received etc.

Now, this is where you can make a difference. Read through the project requirements in detail and draft the proposal. Your proposal should reflect that you understand the project very well and if any parts are unclear, ask questions about them in your proposal. Asking questions is a big positive because it shows you have gone through the requirements. Also, if you feel the client hasn’t considered something which might have an impact on the project then make sure you highlight it.

For example, many a times clients who post a project about website development do not mention anything about web hosting and domain registration. In such cases, you can ask them whether they have hosting and domain registered. If not, offer them to help in finding a suitable host for their website. I have also come across people who wanted a website but didn’t know anything about hosting and domain registration. Use this to your advantage but never ever make the prospective client feel stupid about not knowing such things.

Avoid using templates for bids and prepare a custom proposal for each and every project you bid on keeping all the things we discussed above in mind. Also, go the extra mile and offer something unique to the client which other probably won’t. For example, if it’s a website project, offer the client free SEO analysis of the website, free load speed optimization or something which which might catch attention of the client. There are hundreds of free and low cost tools available for providing such and a variety of other things. Client will always appreciate the value addition you bring on the table. Top up your solid proposal with a free and/or unique offering which client find hard to ignore.

5. Don’t Give up

This is probably the most important of all. As they say, all good things take time so do not expect to get your first freelancing project as soon as you have applied for one. It took me around 3-4 weeks to get the first freelancing project but who knows you might be luckier than me.

In any case, do not give up even if it take some time without any success. Perseverance is the key to success in freelancing so have patience and keep trying. Till you get your first project, do not slow down and if you’ll follow the steps above, your first freelancing job shouldn’t take much long.

All the best!

8 thoughts on “5 steps to enhance your chances of getting first job on Elance and oDesk

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! Despite how great my portfolio and resume looks like, I’ve never got a gig and always wondered why. I don’t give up tho, haha. Even tho i’ve always done 1, 4 and 5, i’ve always dismissed number 2 and 3. I’m thinking of opening new accounts as well on odesk and elance, hopefully i’ll get something.

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