How I Went from $20 to $75 an Hour on oDesk – in Under 2 Weeks

Note from Karen: This is a guest post (the first ever!) from my buddy Mike Harrington. He’s going to walk you through the exact steps he took to more than triple his rates with a client on oDesk. Now, normally I’m not a fan of freelancing marketplaces like oDesk, but if you can swing it like Mike can, fuck it — why not? Alright, here’s Mike:

I was running out of money. Fast.

This is what both my bank account and inbox looked like, even after weeks of relentlessly pitching new clients:

Screenshot 2015-05-07 19.12.42

Not good.

Something needed to happen, and it needed to happen now, or my fledgling business was going to come to an abrupt end and I’d find myself back in the clutches of Corporate America. Ready to blow my brains out.

Are you staring down the twin barrels of overdue bills and crippled self-confidence right now?

I have good news. Things are going to be okay.

I’m going to show you how I got myself up and running again on an easy-to-use freelance site called oDesk (now Upwork). This isn’t a story of how I became a millionaire. It’s the story of how I nearly went broke and decided to do something about it so I wouldn’t have to get another job.

Now I’m going to show you the exact steps I took to raise my copywriting rates from a paltry $20 per hour to $75 per hour. In under two weeks.

Interested? Here’s what you need to do.

Step 1: Create Your Account

Screenshot 2015-05-07 19.09.42

I created an account on oDesk. You could use Elance or Freelancer too. I just happened to hear of friends having more success on oDesk.

Step 2: Catch the Fish with an Irresistible Profile

I spent hours and hours writing and re-writing my profile page.

Here’s a glimpse. Notice that I start with how I can help the client. A novel concept!

Screenshot 2015-05-07 19.11.29

Who cares about a silly profile page, you ask?

Excuse me while I bitchslap you for thinking like 99% of starving freelancers trolling for work on the interwebs.

Think about it. If you’re selling copywriting and marketing expertise, shouldn’t you begin by showing people how well you write copy to sell yourself?

Here are some things to consider: Have you included a semi-professional photo of yourself? Did you write about yourself in the first person? Focus on what you can do for your clients? Or did you make the mistake of waxing lyrical about why you really need this gig and how impressive all your degrees are?

Step 3: Ignore the Bottom Feeders

You’ll likely notice that the majority of your competitors live in places where the cost of living is dirt-cheap, such as India and the Philippines. If you try to compete with these folks on price, you’re going to lose every time.

Believe me, when I tried to compete on price alone, I was ready to pull my hair out. Almost always, someone in another country was willing to do the same job as me for only $3.50 an hour. How can we compete with that?

If you and I charged those rates, we’d find ourselves living under a bridge faster than we could say ‘freelance’.

Nearly every client you could ever hope to work with has hired someone cheap in the past and lived to regret it. Why?

Well, many of those feisty writers charging $3.50 an hour have one thing on their minds: survival. They’d rather have twenty clients paying them $3.50 an hour than two or three paying them $75.

So they use a boilerplate pitch that they send out hundreds, if not thousands, of times per day on all the popular freelance marketplace websites.

They figure even if they get a 1 or 2% response rate, they’ll make the $3.50 an hour they need to keep the lights on and the family fed. Makes sense; if I could get away with billing $3.50 an hour and still have a decent lifestyle, I might just do the same.

No, I take that back.

I’m a pretty ambitious guy and I want to make my rates high — because I like the nicer things in life, like travelling, eating tasty meals and drinking ice-cold craft beer from the local pub. Hell, sometimes I’ve even been known to buy a round or two of said beer for my friends.

I’m guessing that’s the sort of stuff you’d like to be able to afford too, but it just isn’t going to happen while you’re still grappling with other freelancers for bargain-basement gigs.

Step 4: Making First Contact

Now, assuming you’re planning to sell your copywriting services, here are a few tips on what to look for (and what to avoid) in your quest for the holy grail of high-paying clients:

  1. The client must have positive feedback. If the client has no feedback or an inordinate amount of negative reviews, it’s time to move on.
  2. Their job posting must MAKE SENSE. How much time did they put into it? Does it look like someone with an actual command of the English language wrote it? If the client isn’t willing to invest any time into their job posting, how willing do you think they’ll be to invest money into hiring someone? No bueno.
  3. Recent activity on the account. Sites like oDesk show you the last time somebody logged in and interacted with a job posting. If the client’s last interaction was a week or more ago, this gig is about as high on their list of priorities as a rectal exam.

Great research makes a successful cover letter.

Go over your chosen job listing with a fine-tooth comb. Pay attention to the language the client uses. What industry are they in? What type of copywriting do they need? What’s their ultimate goal?

Do they need:

  • Email marketing to increase sales and customer loyalty?
  • Web copy to entice visitors to keep reading?
  • A landing page that grabs attention and collects email addresses?
  • A direct mail piece (physical mail) to send out to existing customers?

The more you know, the more accurately you can pitch them on how your writing is going to get the job done. This is what will make your pitch stand out from the unwashed masses in freelance-land.

Now you can write a knock-their-socks-off cover letter. It doesn’t need to be a novel – in fact it shouldn’t be – it just needs to get to the point and show ‘em what you can do and how exactly you’re going to help them.

Just like your profile page, make it about them.

Sure, go ahead and include your relevant experience, work ethic and even a relevant degree if you have it, but always remember to tie it back it to how you will solve their problems.

Good questions to ask a new client:

  • Who is your ideal client or customer?
  • What are your biggest challenges and fears?
  • What do you really want?
  • Who are your closest competitors?
  • What are you doing differently than the competition?
  • Where are you spending the most marketing money currently?
  • How is each tactic performing, assuming you’re tracking it?
  • Do you have a sales page? How is it converting?
  • How many click-throughs is your email newsletter generating?
  • How long do people typically stay on your site?
  • Have you ran any ads to generate paid traffic, including Google or Facebook ads?

You should never be afraid to ask your clients questions. If anything, asking questions make you seem like you’ve got your shit together and know what you’re doing.

The more you get a potential client talking about themselves the more they’ll warm up to you. ‘Finally,’ they’ll shout, ‘someone who listens to what I want!’

Step 5: The Response

Okay. Your sparkling new profile page is attracting prospects like moths to a flame. Your cover letter pulls them in with your personality, your research and the specific benefits you’ll provide.

They’re interested. They’ve responded to you.

Time to reel in the fish.

The next step should always be a Skype call.

When I get a prospect on the phone, my closing rate skyrockets to well over 80%.

Now, an important part of what closes the deal is my skillset and experience. But an even bigger part of what makes my prospects say yes is my ability to build rapport and ‘seduce them’. The better you know your target – because you did your homework – the easier it is to win them over. They’ll start to see you as a trusted ally who understands them. It’s actually a lot like dating. Dating is fun. Keep it fun.

You’ve scoured their website. You’ve poked around their LinkedIn profile. You’ve Googled the hell out of them. You’ve become a digital detective who leaves no stone unturned. You’ve done all of this in a non-creepy fashion, naturally.

You’ve made all communications 90% about them, 10% about you. Nobody wants to buy ‘you’ or even your excellent copywriting. People don’t care about you or your copywriting.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

People want to buy a solution to their problems. You need to be their lemonade on a scorching summer day.

Remember that little tidbit of advice and you’ll leave 90% of freelancers in the dust.

Step 6: The Big Call

You’ve built rapport. The client’s interest is piqued. They respect you and want to hear more. Nicely done!

You’re on the homestretch now. Here’s what you need to do to close the deal:

  • Set a time limit
    This sets expectations from the beginning. You’re there to help them, but you’re not desperate. Higher end clients respect freelancers that can set boundaries.
  • A written agenda
    Clients LOVE when you do this. The less they have to think and prepare, the better. It also puts some of the power back in your hands, as you’re the professional who is now directing the flow of the conversation.
  • Offer a trial run
    Now, notice I’m not saying to work for free. EVER. What I’m saying is in order to reduce the risk for both sides, offer to do a small piece of work first. Tell them that once they are 100% satisfied, you can talk about ongoing rates. They aren’t risking much, and you get the opportunity to blow them away with what you deliver.
  • Deliver your rate sheet
    Once they’re salivating over the bit of work you’ve shown them – which they will be because you always deliver the goods, right? – it’s time to talk money. It doesn’t matter what your original oDesk rate was. That was just a teaser to get them to take a risk-free trial run. Now that you’ve showed them value and established trust, they’ll be much more receptive to the prices you quote them.

In the end, you can charge what you want (within reason). I chose to notch things up to $75 an hour because I did my research and I knew the client had the budget. I simply asked how much he was already paying for marketing and what measurable results he was getting in return. This got him thinking in terms of the value I’d bring him, instead of my ‘cost’.

Your Turn

If you follow the steps I’ve given you, you’re going to have an unfair advantage on sites like oDesk. And, if you keep at it, you’ll make more money that 95% of freelancers on the internet.

I’ve given you everything I know about landing high-paying clients online. So close this tab and go set up your profile. Because it’s time to get out there and find your own big fish.

How did it go the last time you asked a client for more money? Or have you always been too scared to do it? And — most importantly — are you going to be brave enough to do it next time? Let us know in the comments down below!

Photo by Jez Arnold.

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      1. Thanks David.

        It’s nice to know I can always fall back on certain freelance skills I’ve honed over the last year and a half. It’s a great safety net, and a confidence boost to continue working on even bigger projects. ;)

    1. “The better you know your target – because you did your homework – the easier it is to win them over. They’ll start to see you as a trusted ally who understands them.”

      Of course, it’s important to actually be a trusted ally who understands them. Many would-be copywriters miss one of these points and either are untrustworthy OR they don’t understand their client. One time a writer did a page for me, completely missing my tone and intent. They pulled in tiny scraps of info about me, and left out key details.

      To clarify, when you pitch a job on Odesk, are you setting the pitch rate at $20? Then you do a small job at that rate, then move off Odesk at your actual rate?

      1. Good points, missy. Especially if they’re taking a shotgun approach, it’s nearly impossible to gain the trust and insight needed to be that expert advisor clients pay more money for.

        To clarify: I pitched at $15 – $20 initially as I had no feedback or rating on the site. I did 4 or 5 quick jobs at that rate to have a well rounded upwork profile. The one I raised to $75 I actually landed with a $15/ hour profile. And since he loved my copy, he asked why I charged so low. I told him

        A) to get quicker feedback and experience
        B) in order to give clients a less risky “trial run” with me. That my ongoing rates were higher, but this way they could see the value before ponying up too much cash out of the gate.

        Then I started raising the rate as I kept moving forward.

        Also, this is NOT my only source of income. But, I kind of wanted to make myself a case study, just to prove what was possible.

        Hope it helped.

      2. I think that’s the point Mike was making – you can’t know, understand and care about a prospect if you don’t do your homework. You have to see them as more than just a potential money-maker. And you start that process by finding out as much as you can about them.

      3. That does suck that you hired a writer who didn’t get you though! Looking back, do you think there were any clues that they weren’t going to be up to the task?

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