Step-By-Step: How to Make the Move Off Upwork

How to build up your network and implement the systems you'll need to move your freelance business off Upwork.


Claire Glisson



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If you’re reading this, you’re likely convinced that you need to start making baby steps towards getting off freelancer marketplaces like Upwork, and Fiverr. Building your business is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect to quit your marketplace cold turkey. 

I’ve talked to a whole lot of freelancers who have made this move, and here’s how they did it:

1. Create a list of Upwork clients you trust.

If you’ve been in the game long enough, you likely have a handful of clients you’ve worked with multiple times. These are clients you know and trust, who would likely be delighted to take your working relationship to the next level.

2. Start by moving just one of two of them off Upwork.

You’re going to have to be a little careful as you make this move, because Upwork is constantly looking at your messages to look for people violating their “only contact in platform” rules. One way that’s worked for me is to have a clear reason to ask for an email address:

Given the volume of creative associated with this project, I’d love to add you to Dropbox 
Given the confidential nature of this project, I suggest we use Zoom to chat securely
In order to transfer your website to your for review, I will need an email address

Another tactic is to simply find their email address - most people have their business email shared somewhere online - be it LinkedIn or their business website. If you’ve already been working with this client for a while, it’s pretty likely that you’re communicating outside of Upwork – the project management UI leaves something to be desired, IMO, and I’ve had more than one client hunt me down outside of Upwork because they grew frustrated with the limitations of the platform, when it came to actually getting the work done.

If you really want to be completely above board about the whole thing, you can pay a conversion fee to move your relationship off of Upwork. The Upwork conversion fee is 13.5% of a freelancer’s hourly rate x 2,080 hours (52 wks x 40 hrs).

3. Have your administrative toolkit ready.

Upwork handles a lot of the administrative side of doing business, including contracts and payments. You’ll want to have your own administrative toolkit ready before asking clients to make the leap. This isn’t just about you - it’s also part of the reason many clients choose to work through Upwork – because they’re able to bring on a resource without having to jump through all kinds of hoops with the HR department. At the most basic level, you’ll need a plan for protecting yourself against anything that may go wrong in a project, and you’ll need a way to get yourself paid. 

For this, I recommend that you check out Ditto - it’s like an unbundled Upwork - without the marketplace or the exorbitant fees. Just like Upwork, it covers basic contract terms and project setup, and then takes payments from the client up front and holds them in escrow while you work. At tax time, Ditto issues you one 1099 for all the work you’ve done through the platform, and your clients don’t have to worry about sending tax forms at all. Thus, it provides the same protection (for both freelancers and clients) and conveniences as Upwork, but at a fraction of the cost.

Get our full list of free & paid software recommendations for freelancers here

4. As new projects come in via Upwork, move a large percentage of them off the platform.

I know some people who take all of their projects off the platform, but many freelancers choose to take the majority of projects off while keeping a small percentage of projects ON Upwork, for a few reasons: 

First, they feel that this is effectively “paying their dues” to Upwork. 
Second, it keeps their profile active, with new ratings coming in. This can be helpful if you’re still relying on Upwork to get much of your work. Essentially Upwork becomes your portfolio / professional profile, complete with testimonials in the form of reviews. (Side note: you probably know this already, but reviews are important! Make sure you’re following up with clients to get them!) 
Third, this makes it less likely that Upwork will become aware that you’re taking projects off the platform.

I’ve found that this “would you like to work outside of the Upwork platform” is actually a very easy conversation to have with clients. I never pressure them. I just lay out the facts and give them the choice. I explain that Upwork takes 20% of everything I earn (you’d be surprised how many clients aren’t aware of this!), and I say that while I’d be happy to work through Upwork, I will need to charge a higher price. I send along a proposal that outlines what the price will be if we work through Upwork and then what the price will be if we work outside of Upwork. I explain that because I use Ditto, they’ll have the same kind of protected payment structure and hiring convenience they’d have if we used Upwork, but that I’ve found the user experience of the platform to be better. Almost all of the clients I’ve worked with have opted to go this route. 

5. Start building your own network.

With your handful of trusted clients to get you started, start building processes to make your network stronger, and beef up your presence off of Upwork. Ask your clients for referrals, make sure to get reviews and case studies at opportune moments in your project flow, and market yourself. Consider starting a blog packed with keywords to enhance your discoverability. Build a SEO strategy so new clients can easily find you when looking for services. Position yourself as a thought leader, and make some noise on social media.

I also recommend that you join networks of professional level freelancers like A-Team and join online communities of like minded professionals like Freelancing Females or Freelancers Union. Joining spaces like this, with professionals who want to collaborate and grow together, will help you grow your business. You’ll start to learn new skills associated with your work, as well as important softer skills like how to more effectively communicate with clients, how to make the jump to values-based pricing, and more.

I’m a freelancer because I believe independent work is the way of the future. 

There’s a ton of money in the freelance economy, but, like any field, there’s science and art to understanding how to operate effectively. In my opinion, you can’t do that when you’re reliant on a marketplace platform to do business. It sucks away your autonomy and your ability to run your business on your own terms, according to your own rules.  And isn’t that why we got into freelancing in the first place?

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