Why I Hate the oDesk/Elance Model (And You Should, Too)

Today, oDesk and Elance announced a massive merger. As a freelancer, you’d think I’d be excited (or something).

I shrugged.

I’ve never grabbed work from either one – and I hope I’m never in the position I’d have to.

I hate oDesk’s model – and so should any talented, self-respecting writer.

Let’s drop the robe and let the truth squirm around naked for a bit: People who use oDesk are looking for just one thing: Cheap work.

That’s problematic for a few reasons:

1. Businesses come looking for lowest bidder who shows an ounce of talent.

You’re in a race to the bottom to see who can undercut themselves the most. Do you want to work with people who value your abilities, or just your price point?

The freelancers who make a great living have changed the conversation from, “Here’s how much we can pay you” to…

“Here’s my level. Want to be on it? Here’s what I cost.”

Being on oDesk or Elance sends the opposite message. You’re a faceless “producer”, despite what the fancy profile and rating system tell you – chosen for being the cheapest option that’s the least likely to screw things up. Needless to say, talented writers vacate the oDesk premises as soon as they possibly can, so the talent pool is shallow. 

2. Businesses on oDesk and Elance see content as a commodity. 

The businesses every writer should want to work with aren’t won’t make you cram “lawn mower repairs” into a guest blog as many times as possible.

Serious businesses won’t outsource their content to a massive puppy mill of cheap labourers. They value their content enough that they dare to invest in it, knowing that actual people might read it one day.

The idea that nobody is willing to pay well for strong content is a big, stinky lie. Far away from oDesk is a great big world of companies who see strong writing as a critical business asset and will pay top dollar for it. Those companies don’t visit Elance.

If you’re willing to work for such low payouts, then you’re guilty too! You confirm their belief that good writing just isn’t worth paying for.

3. Low price points create terrible incentives.

If I’m a writer who makes $5 for every 500 words, my incentive is to try and do as many jobs as is humanly possible in order to scrape together something I can buy groceries with. At such a woeful wage, the incentive is to write quickly, not effectively.

I don’t care about your brand.

I don’t care about your business.

I don’t care about your customers.

Your project doesn’t mean a damn thing to me other than the $5 I get at the end before I go fart out another word count for another cheapskate.

This creates an economy where businesses get EXACTLY what they pay for – rushed, plagiarized, spun, barely-English content from writers who have found ways to cut corners.

4. oDesk/Elance is for the terrified.

If you’re a career writer on oDesk (as in, it constitutes most of your work), it’s time you got the backbone to stand up for your talent. Instead of building something out of nothing, you’re rolling around in a big, mediocre safety net.

THAT is why so many freelancers are willing to work for pennies: fear. Fear that jobs won’t come. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of not knowing where to begin. Ahhhh! Scary! Oh no!

If you really believed you were talented, you’d take a risk and invest in yourself. Grow some balls, take a risk and build yourself into a business. Not knowing where to start is no excuse – there are mentors, resources and helpful guides at your fingertips, if only you’d go looking for them.

5. Low-paying jobs attract more low-paying jobs

Ok, but what about using these platforms to build up your portfolio? Unfortunately, if your portfolio is full of  crappy guest posts, you only attract more of the same.

Nobody is going to comb through your portfolio and think, “Yup, this is the person we want to hand the big bucks to for a mission-critical campaign!”

By accepting jobs below your value, you throw open the door to more projects below your value. It’s a vicious cycle. If you want to exit that cycle, you need to set your own (justified) rates and refuse to take on projects below that threshold.

Things may be especially tight for awhile during the transition, but it’s better than things being tight forever. The longer you hover around in the oDesk work, the harder it is to get out.

Yes, I know you need to pay your bills, but there are better ways to find work: Alliances with local consultants/agencies/web dev shops chief among them. And if you’re good at what you do but the kind of work you want isn’t coming in, create it.

Demonstrate your talent by marketing yourself.

 Want to succeed as a freelancer? Get off oDesk and Elance as quickly as you can.

Like I said, most talented writers stay far, far away from these platforms, opting instead to approach businesses directly and earn jobs through referrals. You won’t ever build a career on these platforms, make what you’re worth or get the projects you really want.

I can’t give you any greater incentive than that.

5 Responses to “Why I Hate the oDesk/Elance Model (And You Should, Too)”

  1. Saul says:

    Completely agree! I went there looking for a VA to outsource some work to for cheap around 2 years ago. I tried 3 or 4 people. None of them really worked out.
    Never went back there again…

  2. Brian says:

    People think they can win the race to the bottom, but it’s a dark and lonely place. It’s better to use that time to build a network.

    In the beginning though, you just have to pay the bills.

  3. It’s a trend that seems to replicate itself across all the freelancing websites now unfortunately. Low quality, unskilled freelancers scrapping over low quality and insulting/ridiculous jobs.

    Great summary on this Joel.

  4. Ben Maden says:

    Totally agree Joel but… when everyone is zigging you should zag.

    There is one huge upside to the power of buyers, the down-trodden “providers” and the lack of self-respect that has fostered. When you actually buy with respect and look for someone you can trust not to “jet-extra-time” as one ratbag did to us… you discover really valuable long term employees.

    We went on odesk specifically looking for someone to “join us” someone who isn’t just churning through junk, who can actually do something good. We hired a hardworking loyal employee who is now basically just part of the team. She isn’t a writer but she’s an excellent team member adding heaps of value and we all see this as a long term arrangement now.

  5. [...] look for love in all the wrong places. I make no secret of the fact that I hate oDesk. I think it’s bad for writers and bad for the writing industry. I also think it’s bad for your [...]

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