We live in a time of incredible opportunity for freelancers. Through the resources and networking opportunities available online, and the advent of talent marketplaces that connect workers with employers, anyone with a valuable skill can find work with ease.

But if you’re going to make a career of freelancing, you’ll want to establish a degree of consistency in how you manage it — which means you won’t want to be flitting back and forth between various freelancing marketplaces. You’ll want to choose one to be your primary focus.

So which one should you pick to help you reach your career goals? Upwork is the largest freelancer portal in the world today, hosting millions of job opportunities every year, but being popular doesn’t guarantee that something is worth considering. 

Let’s take a look at how well Upwork pays, and consider whether it’s really the top dog for freelancers.

The Upwork freelancing model

To begin with, Upwork invites employers to list their positions for free, then displays them in convenient searchable categories. Freelancers can then review those listings, decide which jobs interest them, and bid for anything they’d like to do: each bid will list (at a minimum) the freelancer’s rate, Upwork project history, and employer reviews.

As well as getting bids from assorted freelancers, employers can also get shortlists directly from Upwork to help them narrow things down. They can then select and interview the most suitable candidates before deciding who to hire, and even manage the chosen freelancers and their workloads — all without leaving the Upwork system.

From the freelancer’s perspective, this makes things fairly straightforward. You create your profile, then get started on searching through projects while the system gets to work providing some smart recommendations. Because everything (the work included) happens within the system, it’s easy to keep track of what’s happening, making your life easier.

How Upwork handles payments

Upwork draws revenue from both employers and freelancers. Employers have access to paid tiers (Upwork Pro and Upwork Enterprise) that provide additional features and services such as custom reporting or premium talent curation, so Upwork makes some money there, but the bulk of the money likely comes from the freelancer service charges.

All the freelancer payments are made through Upwork’s payment system (a licensed escrow service that supports various payment gateways and uses a protection system to ensure that freelancers are paid for the time they work), and every payment is subject to a charge. 

Notably, the percentage charged depends on how much work the freelancer has already done for the client, ensuring that long-term clients are more profitable for workers:

  • The first $500 billed for a client receives a 20% service charge
  • Anything between $500.01 and $10,000 billed for a client receives a 10% service charge
  • Anything after the first $10,000 billed for a client receives a 5% service charge

Having all the payments run through Upwork is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it guarantees that you’ll never get 100% of the fee you’re charging, which may require you to raise your prices compared to independent freelancers. On the other hand, that won’t be an issue when you’re bidding against other Upwork users, and it’s convenient to know that you’ll never have to manually mess around with invoices or charges.

In general, the system nicely incentivises lasting business relationships. It’s good for employers to have freelancers upon whom they know they can rely, and it’s good for freelancers to know that they’ll make more money working with long-term employers.

How Upwork compares to other services

Firstly, let’s review the advantages of Upwork: it provides a tightly-contained service with excellent support, attracts a lot of job listings (albeit largely due to its immense popularity), and provides your best chance of finding lengthy (and profitable) freelance affiliations. But it’s far from a flawless system, and it may not suit your purposes. So what are the alternatives?

Well, there’s obviously Fiverr, a platform that has gained a lot of attention in recent years. That said, there really isn’t a useful comparison between Upwork and Fiverr, because they have very distinct intentions. 

Upwork aims to bring employers and freelancers together for enduring collaboration, while Fiverr encourages jobs to be doled out on an ad-hoc basis, with the focus being on low cost and convenience. If you’re looking to improve your skills so you can pursue a new field, then give Fiverr a try — otherwise, stick with Upwork.

And then there are platforms that do much the same thing as Upwork, such as Guru, Freelancer, or PeoplePerHour. Each platform has some unique elements, but overall they’re very similar, and you may find that one has a more compelling set of features for you — however, the most significant factor is the sheer reach of Upwork. When you’re looking for freelance projects, you want as many options as possible, and it’s typically acknowledged that Upwork has far more users of all kinds than any comparable website.

In the end, the only consistent way to directly compare these platforms is by cost, so here’s what you can expect to be charged for each job as a freelancer:

Upwork20% initially, going down to 10% and then 5% depending on previous work for the client
FiverrA flat rate of 20%
Guru9% for the free plan, going down to 5% as the monthly cost increases
Freelancer10% for a project (or $5.00 for a fixed-term project, whichever is more), and 20% for a service
PeoplePerHour20% initially, then 7.5% yo to £5,000, then 3.5% for £5,000+

It isn’t much to go on, but that’s because they’re not very forthcoming with stats. The most widely-quoted figure for registered Fiverr users is 3 million, for instance, but that’s from 2013, so we really have no way of knowing how popular the platform is. And elements such as features are both relatively unimportant (having a handy search function means little if there’s little to find) and hard to reliably track (they’re updated or even replaced quite regularly).

For long-term big-money projects, though, it’s easy to see the appeal of Upwork. The cost will eventually dip way below what Fiverr, Freelancer or PeoplePerHour charge, and Guru can only reach a lower figure (4.95%) for those who pay almost $40 per month to use the service.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from signing up to each of these sites and using them in combination. It’s simply a matter of answering one question: if you could only use one freelance work website, which would it be? And Upwork is the logical answer.

Upwork prosUpwork cons
Attracts a LOT of employersSuits long-term employment
Rates go down for previous clientsNeatly categorised
Allows complex pitching
Saturated with freelancers
Not suited for quick projects
Initially charges more than comparable sites

So, in conclusion, is Upwork the best site for freelancers? 

I suppose it depends on what type of experience you’re looking for. If you’re hoping to pick up a lot of small jobs, then Fiverr may be a better option for you. But if you want your freelance career to achieve long-term stability (and profitability) and you don’t want to mess around with different platforms, then Upwork is the site for you.