And why we still love direct clients

October 12, 2020

Contented male freelancer in grey t-shirt sitting at the computer with hand poised over the mouse, in a light, airy working space.

Image by © fotofabrika on Adobe Stock Images

This year has been a wild ride for freelancers. Like millions of others, you may be registered on a freelance platform or considering joining one now. One question that arises repeatedly is whether it is better to use a platform or find direct clients. There are arguments for both methods, but freelance platforms tend to get a bad rap. They are easy targets because, with millions of contracts carried out on them, there are bound to be negative stories and experiences.

This year, after a long time spent in tech startups and digital agencies, I created my own digital publishing company, self-funding from the start with income from freelancing. I’ve learned a lot — you have to because everything keeps changing so quickly. I used to believe strongly that as a freelancer, it was better to find my own clients so that I could be in control of my business. Lately, though, I can see three reasons that freelance platforms will make you more money over time.

1. Consistent income: the “Holy Grail” for freelancers

The platforms are growing exponentially, and the vast number of active freelancers put me off at first because it is hard to stand out. It seems like you have to compete with a lower billing rate. So when I started as a copywriting freelancer, I went directly to clients to sell my service and charge a premium rate.

Experience has shown me how hard it is to stay consistently busy on your own. Clients go through ups and downs in their own business, and their need for work can change overnight. A freelance contract is often the first victim of cost-cutting. When you lose a client, replacing them with another customer is just as hard as getting one in the first place.

A freelancer on a platform goes through almost the opposite pattern. It’s tough to get the first recommendations, which are essential to be selected for jobs. It gets easier, though, as soon as you do get some reviews. And the more ratings you receive, the more clients will pay a higher price for your service.

I work with five freelancers across three different platforms for my own business, and the best people charge higher rates and are still busy all the time. They don’t go through the extreme revenue ups and downs of freelancers with direct client revenue streams.

2. The beauty of being able to pivot on a dime

When you become a freelancer, you’re creating a business, and things can change over time. You may want to change your service as you develop more skills and experience. Maybe you start as a virtual assistant, for example, but find you love working on social media management and want to focus on that.

Making this kind of transition will be almost as challenging and expensive as when you first set up. Changing your company name, logos, website, and social media takes time and effort. You will probably need to find different clients who need your new service. Sometimes that challenge is too much, and you might end up stuck delivering one service when you know you could be more successful doing something else.

Freelance platforms provide a low-cost way to set up a business, which also helps when you want to pivot. You can update, change your platform profile, or even move to a different platform that focuses on your new specialty. New niche companies are appearing all the time, including specialist and expert options like Expert 360. Making a transition quickly and without much additional cost is a value that freelancers don’t always consider when deciding between platform or client direct.

3. The only thing worse than getting paid late….

You need to include the time it takes to bid for and win a client when comparing direct client work to freelance platforms. I have always had to invest time with a client before they selected me to do a project. Some clients assume all freelancers are so hungry for work that it’s okay to spend time before committing. I even know businesspeople who take advantage of this to get ideas and work done for free.

On freelance platforms, a typical assignment will start with a brief open to everyone. The process is competitive but, if you win, the clock is ticking from the start; by fixed fee or charge by the hour. There are milestones built into the payment systems, based on time or work delivered. The platforms are entirely aligned with freelancers to get paid as soon as possible because they earn money themselves. For fixed-fee projects, clients usually deposit into escrow accounts, and in some cases, a client has to complete payment before they can receive your work.

That is almost impossible to replicate in the “real world.” I have found that direct clients’ approach to paying freelancers is as diverse as people’s personalities. Getting paid on time is one of the biggest challenges to freelancers with direct clients, and in some cases, clients can default. This has to be the worst experience for a freelancer: losing your invested time and the anticipated income.

Follow the way the wind blows

I had a large network on LinkedIn before I started freelancing, making it easier for me to find direct clients. Even though I have been able to add value and have great feedback on the work I’ve done, I have experienced inconsistent income over the last 12 months. Sometimes the client was late starting their project, or there were gaps in between assignments. There have been times I found myself stuck in limbo, where I wasn’t sure if I needed to spend the time adding another client or not.

Having a good relationship with my clients is why I have continued to manage a direct client base. However, when I look at my revenue over a year or two and consider the ups and downs, I could have earned more by choosing to work on one of the leading freelance platforms.

Despite predictions that these companies won’t survive, they are thriving. This year Fiverr, an early mover in the space has seen 7x growth in its share price; a good sign the platform isn’t going away soon. Getting work done on a freelance platform is becoming a natural choice for most businesses, and if you are sitting on the fence right now, it’s probably the best choice for you as a freelancer too.

About the author 

Joe France

Author, entrepreneur, 20-year online tech veteran, helping others start an online business. Check out my new book “Independent Wealth”. https://amzn.to/2G9Jj47

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