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Help Wanted:  the Internet Can Give Freelancers a Boost

 by Amy S. Jorgensen (amyjorgensen@wwwiz.com)

Before the Internet, how did freelance workers ever find work?  Some may remember the days of scanning ads and sending query letters to earn projects, but not only was this method time-consuming, it was frequently unsuccessful.  The old way of looking for projects was limited for those outside the major metropolitan areas and those lacking the ``right" connections.  Thankfully, those days are over.

While the Internet gets a considerable amount of slack from the public for chat-room abductions, pornography and copyright infringement, it has done some truly wonderful things for the careers of talented freelancers.  Modern freelancers can browse job listings at a plethora of sites, apply online with samples and display their work all over the Web.  True, competition is fierce on the World Wide Web, but if you have what it takes you will succeed.

Should You Freelance Online?

Freelancers in all fields seem to be embracing the Internet, some more than others.  For those in creative or computer-related industries, the Internet provides a golden opportunity to expand or to begin a freelance career.  Before you decide whether working
online is for you, understand the positives and negatives of online freelancing..

Kim Pierson, a desktop publisher and data entry specialist located in Florida, has been freelancing for more than two years and began freelancing full-time last April.  While Pierson has earned work on the Web, she's had more luck with the traditional route.  ``There is so much competition on the Internet sites with underbidding and low balling that it is extremely difficult to gain an edge and get the assignments," Pierson explains. ``At this point, it is my opinion that you could not support a freelance business strictly via Internet sites." 

Holly Hicks disagrees.  As a freelance graphic designer and owner of Memca.com (www.memca.com), an online greeting card company, Hicks believes she has found her niche on the Internet.  ``When I was first opening my company, Memca.com, I was a novice to the Internet freelance world.  I struggled with finding and securing my `spot' in the market.  After trying to sell my services locally, and in my community, I learned more and more that my `spot' was to be found online," Hicks recalls. ``The few jobs I obtained by visiting small businesses and [sending] flyers were not going to get me anywhere."  In addition, she has had an opportunity to build her company's reputation
by using the talents of other freelancers–found and hired through the Internet–to help her offer more services to her clients, thus increasing her success in a highly competitive area.

Even traditional freelancers recognize the Internet's potential for boosting business.  Cheryl Hills, a graphic designer from Hamilton, Ontario, had been strictly earning jobs from the traditional word-of-mouth route until recently, but since she's excited about taking the leap into online freelancing.  ``The Internet will be good for me as a freelancer
because it gives me a chance to show my work to companies that otherwise would never be aware of my existence," Hills says. ``The Internet offers the advantage of reaching a greater audience and therefore [of earning] a greater income."

Some freelancers never use traditional approaches to landing a project. Tim Jurik relies solely on the Internet for his work supply.  Jurik develops software as a member of Open Cage Software (www.opencagesoftware.com/home.html), an Internet company of freelance developers.  Although he is aware of the drawbacks of Internet freelancing, he says he would not be freelancing without the Web.  ``I would have less of an opportunity to deal with customers and find clients.  The Internet has allowed me to work for geographically distributed clients," Jurik explains. ``It also makes searching for work easier."

The benefits of online freelancing have outweighed the disadvantages for many freelancers, including Jurik and Hicks.  The Internet may not provide your sole source of freelancing income, but it is an excellent way to find supplemental work and to market your services to clients worldwide.  Either way, creating a Web site for your services or portfolio and understanding the freelance marketplaces online are essential for success.

Building a Web Site

Web sites serve two vital functions for modern freelancers: displaying work and marketing services.  Without a well-designed site your online project hunt will be seriously hindered.

Displaying work has been a mandatory part of freelancing since the beginning.  Freelancers know that their work is like a set of building blocks, each new client, each new project lays the foundation for the next level of their career.  Hicks agrees: ``I
strongly feel that offering usual proof of my capabilities is imperative to obtaining new jobs in the freelance market." She uses her company's site to showcase her designs.  Kim Pierson and Cheryl Hills also display their work online.

Some freelancers cannot display their work on the Internet.  Software developers like Jurik, for example, might not use a site to display a portfolio, but still maintain a Web presence that showcases services they can provide.  Pierson's site (www.outsourceassistant.com) does double duty.

Developing a Web site is not a daunting chore requiring years of training or even artistic aptitude. If you can afford to hire someone to design your site, you are more fortunate than most beginning freelancers.  An inexpensive solution is to barter your services for those of a Web designer or you may want to use the WYSISYG (What You See is What You Get) technology of sites such as Homestead (www.homestead.com) or Bigstep (www.bigstep.com ). 

Once you've designed a site, you may want to spend the money for Web hosting.  Free sites like Angelfire (www.angelfire.com) display ads of their choosing on your site which detracts from your professionalism.  Free hosting also burdens you with a
lengthy, easily forgettable URL. Hosting does not have to cost a fortune.  For example, Yahoo ( website.yahoo.com) will host your site and provide you with a domain name of your choosing.

Remember that the site you create will be judged as a piece of your portfolio.  For new clients, the site will probably be the first thing of yours they encounter.  You want to make sure they have no reason to hit the back button when they visit your site.  Your Web site gives you the opportunity to promote yourself and your services to potentially millions of people a day.  Make the most of the free advertising.

Entering the Online Freelancing Market

As the demand for freelance workers has soared in the last few years, it has also created a market for freelance job sites that specialize in hooking up clients and freelancers.  For many freelancers new to the Internet, these sites offer the first opportunity
for off-site project work.  Knowing how these sites operate puts you one step closer to landing a project.

One of the biggest of these sites is Elance (www.elance.com).  ``Elance has the most variety of clients and seems to have the most legitimate and stable source of jobs," explains Pierson, who uses Elance regularly.   Other popular sites, include Guru ( www.guru.com),Bullhorn (www.bullhorn.com) and Ants (www.ants.com).  While Bullhorn is geared towards designers and writers, the other sites host a wide variety of jobs, including software developers, computer programmers and business managers.

These sites (with the exception of Guru) work in a similar way.  The freelancer registers for free and completes a detailed profile, including education and work experience.  Freelancers then bid on the projects and clients contact them or award them the work based on those bids.  Guru operates a little differently.  Registered freelancers respond to job postings in a plethora of categories by creating a brief proposal.  The proposal is sent to the client, then he or she has the option of contacting the freelancer for more information.

It sounds easy, but it's not.  Competition is fierce.  For one proofreading project on Elance, the client received more than 130 bids. Standing out in the crowd requires experience, marketing and luck.

Even worse for freelancers is that a large amount of projects never go anywhere.  Jurik uses sites like Guru and Ants to find projects, but he isn't satisfied with their service. ``I have not found any really great ones," he says. ``Although some projects look promising, many potential clients fail to respond to queries." Less than half the projects posted at sites like Ants and Elance actually are awarded to freelance bidders.  Pierson had another complaint: too many scams. Most jobs posted are legitimate, but freelancers should be leery of schemes that require up-front cash, promise huge profits or sound too good to be true.

Even with these drawbacks, the sites do offer some valuable services.  Hicks prefers Elance. ``[It] seems to have evolved into a very efficient format since it began," she says.  ``The features it offers, as well as the higher traffic of users, keeps me coming back.  I
also appreciate the fact that I can utilize a rate system.  This helps me get more jobs based on my company and personal reputation . . ."

Besides the services mentioned by Hicks, Elance also allows you to verify credentials (for a fee), create a portfolio of work accessible by clients, and receive payment through their service.

Other sites provide similar services.  Bullhorn requires a portfolio containing at least three pieces of work before users may place a bid.  Artwork uploaded as .gif or .jpg can even be watermarked for copyright protection.  In addition, Bullhorn attempts
to protect freelancers through its payment service. If you utilize its service and upload your finished project to the site, Bullhorn will not release it to the client until payment has been made.

The sites (except for Guru) charge a transaction fee to freelancers of 5% to 10% of the accepted bid.  Freelancers will have to determine for themselves whether the benefits of using these sites outweigh the drawbacks and costs.

Final Words

 Although competition is tough on the World Wide Web, you will find your niche as long as you have the skills and the ability to sell yourself.  Once you land that first project through Elance or earn that first gig via your Web site, remember you and the project are synonymous.  Your professionalism is reflected in that finished product and in every aspect of your business relationship.  To make this relationship a positive one, maintain contact with clients throughout the project, provide the highest quality of work, and always meet your deadlines.  Satisfied clients are good for business no matter where you find them.

 Amy Jorgensen is the owner of the freelance writing firm, Writing the Right Way
(http://www.writingtherightway.com).  Based in Indiana, Ms. Jorgensen specializes in writing articles, press releases and Web content.

 

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