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How Upwork Hobbled the Business Elance Started

Upwork was created from the merger and rebranding of Elance and Odesk, two remote-work behemoths. At the outset I was concerned. Part of it was just my usual aversion to change. Elance had allowed MassLandlords to be born and worked very well. Why change it? But now almost four years after the announcement, it’s clear that Upwork is standing in MassLandlords’ way. Here’s why I won’t send any more work to their platform.

A Business is Born

First the short history. MassLandlords was created out of a club of frugal (read: cheap) landlords. There were 20 such clubs in Massachusetts. We united the first third of them, and we have two-thirds to go.

Elance allowed us to hire our first staff position, a bookkeeper at 2 hrs/mo in April 2014. This role constituted a “micro hire” that was impossible to fill locally. Now as we’ve grown 20x, that role has grown 20x, and similarly with all our other hires. Elance was an entrepreneurial godsend. We had complete control over our hiring and selection process, our business methods, and our cost structure. We were as fast or as slow as we needed to be. We were scalable without investment. We could bootstrap. This was key for us.

Hiring Strategy and Brand

I once tried freelancing, and I found it brutally hard to compete. So MassLandlords took some steps that were unusual, that differentiated us and allowed us to find the best talent:

  1. We would hire for every posting. A 100% hire rate showed that we were no tire-kicker. We were serious, and worth taking the time to reply to.
  2. We would hire for the long-term. Every relationship we started was intended to be a permanent staff position.
  3. We would offer minimums. If the job didn’t provide enough work, we would pay up to some minimum because we wanted you to keep us in mind.
  4. We would hire slowly. Every hire would have multiple chances to correspond with us, either on or off-platform, in a real work setting, so that we could differentiate the flashy proposals from the real deals.

We followed this strategy as well as we could given the restrictions on Upwork’s platform. Much of this was stuff we handled manually. For instance the minimums when we started were accounted for in Excel and paid as bonuses.

The Last Straw

Fast forward to this spring, when Elance-turned-Upwork issued the latest in a long string of slights.

We had created a job posting for a developer. We received a lot of responses, both good and bad. Apparently Upwork or some algorithm thought we weren’t going to hire, so the posting was deactivated. Although we could still see all the proposals, we could no longer contact any of the freelancers. All of that hiring work on both sides, ours and the elancers, was trashed. Also, our reputation was permanently dinged, now less than 100% hire rate.

Big deal, right? Well, I tried to get Upwork to reactivate the posting or fix our hire rate. I was escalated a couple times. Without understanding our hiring strategy and brand, they eventually gave me a $50 credit. They didn’t give our proposal freelancers anything, despite the work they had put into applying. And they said that our 100% reputation was forever gone, completely unfixable, and that the developers wished they could help but couldn’t. I found their answer less than credible.

Here is the Last Thing I Wrote to the Highest Level of Upwork Support

Request #19039855


Very pleased to meet you and thank you for the detailed and thorough response.

Since Elance was converted into Upwork, I have been increasingly uncertain whether I can rely on Upwork to build our virtual business. Here are some comments from freelancers I have worked with on your platform:

  • “Upwork is a bit unpolished at the moment and seems too complicated”
  • “Upwork’s fees on new projects are ridiculous!”
  • “Upwork is deactivating freelancer accounts without talking to us.”

The experience from my point of view has been similar.

My first item of feedback to Upwork was, “Elance was an engineer with its sleeves rolled up. Upwork is a basset hound wearing a tie.” The site is all gloss and no guts.

Over the last 18 months, I have received 50 notification emails about idle contracts, all of which are long-term contracts that I wished to remain open. I have no ability to set a preference custom to my business. My freelancers work monthly, and every month their contracts fall idle. They are unable to log their time until I reactivate the contract.

When I log in, Upwork’s loading screen says something like, “It takes a client on average three days to hire via Upwork.” That does not describe my business. We hire slowly, for the long term. I cannot conceive of how we could make a hiring decision in so short a time. I have no ability to set a preference custom to my business.

A job posting which I specifically flagged as not to be indexed by google somehow resulted in a dozen out-of-Upwork communications, including one which was so base I reported it to the Attorney General of the State of New York. Clearly this person was not your responsibility, but the posting itself must have been seen and identified through some error.

And now, after a month’s calendar time of discussion on this one ticket:

— None of the freelancers who applied are being compensated for having to read our invite and re-submit a fresh proposal.

— Our reputation remains less than what it should be because of a unilateral decision by Upwork.

— Upwork remains presented as a finished product, for which there is no roadmap for improvement, no development, and certainly no interest in adapting to any customer’s needs.

You wrote, “I cannot imagine this would harm your ability to hire.” Well I cannot imagine why I _would_ hire on Upwork unless this issue is addressed. It is the final nuisance in a regrettably long list.

Where we might be business partners, growing MassLandlords together, I cannot help but feel expendable.

See what you can do with this. I will wait for the engineers.

Thank you for the time and effort.



I was hoping they would talk on their side and make an accommodation.

Here is what Upwork Said 30 Days Later

“I haven’t heard back from you in a few days, so I wanted to follow up to see how you’re doing with this issue. In the meantime, I’m going to mark this ticket as solved, but feel free to respond anytime if you need additional help, and this will re-open your ticket.”

Typical canned reply crap.

Alternatives to Upwork

Upwork may be huge, but fortunately, they don’t have the monopoly on finding talent. We’ve been very successful hiring remotely with craigslist, Harvest, and QuickBooks online to handle everything we valued in Upwork. Our hiring process runs the way we want it to. No one is deactivating our ability to contact our applicants.

Would I prefer to hire on Upwork again? Sure, because the truth is microhires are still harder on craigslist. But if the attitude Upwork has is “everyone should hire like we want to,” I think I’ll do my own thing. MassLandlords may have been temporarily hobbled by this issue, but it was only temporary. That developer we wanted to hire? We found them another way. It just took a little longer than we expected.