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Mar 31, 2022
5½ Ways Upwork Helped Boost My Solopreneur Career: Part 1

2014 – the year I decided to make some big changes in my life – is the year I started my Upwork journey as a freelancer. It is also the year I founded my one-man show called Improventions as my personal launch pad for finding great entrepreneurs to work with and help them develop the core software for their startups.


And I haven’t looked back since! Would you like to know why? Let me tell you my story and how Upwork featured in the successful launch of my solopreneur career. I hope you pick up some good tips to help you along your own journey while you follow mine.


My starting point

In 2014, my startup in Singapore was history, and business partners were a thing of the past for me. Working for someone else didn’t seem attractive. Academia – nah, moved on. Being an ex-career rocket in the automation industry was past history too. With all that behind me, I packed up and moved to the land of beaches and coconut trees – Malaysia – to begin my freelancing journey.

I settled in with my coconut girl (wife) and decided to see if I could make this freelancer thing work out.


But things were moving along too slowly for me regarding the offline projects I got through ex-colleagues. I thought I should have been able to run faster. Was it the market, or was it me? I figured the bottleneck was my own inefficiency in reaching the right people who could hire me quickly. So, I decided to give Upwork a try at the end of 2014. I had previously hired some great freelancers here in my former startup CTO role.


I had no idea if it would get anywhere at that point. I just tried it out. At first, I didn’t put much effort into pushing myself forward on the platform as I was quite busy with some offline projects which kept me funded, and every now and then I had something new I could start.


Before venturing into freelancing, I had already accumulated a vast range of experience in my industry, which included, but was not limited to:

  • Building complicated technical products solo, from scratch
  • Virtual Reality (VR) scientific research
  • Applied research and patenting in a corporate setting
  • Project management
  • Running a startup as a technical cofounder

My programming timeline explains the length and width of what I knew I could make with various kinds of software development environments. The development wouldn’t become a bottleneck, for sure. It was the least of my worries.


From the early days, my business plan included offering one core service, product development for new businesses with a model called CTO-as-a-Service, fortified by my added-value services:

  1. Intellectual property generation (coming up with patentable ideas, making prototypes to implement the ideas, and writing initial patent descriptions)
  2. Strong project management with a special focus on identification and mitigation of all risks (not only the technical ones) involved in developing new products for new businesses
  3. Leadership for getting a full product invented, designed, developed, and launched.


So, against this background, I was determined to go where no (coconut) man had gone before.


Becoming a freelancer on Upwork

Given my background, I knew I would not need to start from the bottom. Yet, I wasn’t sure about my pricing. I knew exactly where my value was, though: new tech startups that focused on the technologies I excelled in – Microsoft Kinect 3D sensor.


My entire approach was the opposite of what others do. I waited patiently for the perfect opportunity, browsing jobs and sending out very few proposals, biding my time… like an alligator fully submerged except for the nostrils peeking out.


Finding the first dream client

Eventually, the first true opportunity arrived at the beginning of 2015. After 4 months of “gatoring”, (waiting) to meet the right client, a Palo Alto-based startup was seriously interested in buying my CTO-as-a-Service!


And after almost 4 months of hunting for a good project, it still took almost 3 more months to get it going! The whole process was slow since we had to align the approach, and I had to fully understand the aim of the first year of the client’s intended business before I could make realistic promises. I couldn’t possibly overpromise as any kind of under-delivering later would definitely kill my start on Upwork.


This client is probably still the most legendary one in my books; the project that enabled my Upwork breakthrough for good!


Building the initial Upwork clientele

During the 3 months before the Palo Alto project got going officially, I received an offer to do a small research prototyping project, so in a sense, my first client actually became my second client.


The prototyping project I did for the first official client paid $2,340, and I spent less than 2 weeks earning it. It was not a big fee but I thought it was a good enough start as a first official project, although it wouldn’t feed my family for long! But every Upwork “newbie” has to start somewhere, right?


Coincidentally, or perhaps there were higher powers involved, I also got a request from a very interesting Japanese design house. Not because of having contacts from my student days there, but randomly via Upwork.


That was my first fixed-price project, a whopping $300! But most importantly I got good contact with them and a great 5-star rating. They then hired me for their bigger project and released a video about it on YouTube. Another $2,500 earned and a great-looking reference with my name in the credits! I realized that many clients do small test projects with freelancer candidates first to get to know their capabilities and speed, before inviting them to work on the bigger project.


The Palo Alto startup’s project got serious at about the same time. I made a complicated demo system that included numerous design iterations. With three milestones the project had a budget of $8,000, so by the end of August 2015 (less than 4 months from the first project) my stats already started looking good. Earnings were well over $13,000, 5-star ratings on every project (hourly and fixed-price), and a pretty cool portfolio with that YouTube video made by my client in Japan.

And most importantly, no sign of ever working for peanuts!


Upwork enabled me to get to my business goal within mere months of starting here when I had an intelligent and efficient approach… although it took months of “gatoring” to find the best possible starting point.


Becoming Top Rated and getting to the top

What happened next was quite interesting. I completed all the first projects before September 2015, and at the end of the year, the Upwork merger and rebranding happened. I was invited to convert my profile to the new system. This worked out really well for me. I was “grandfathered” onto the new Upwork platform and became Top Rated from Day 1 of Upwork!


Becoming the No. 1 Microsoft Kinect application developer

Since I had a credible Upwork profile I didn’t need to hunt for projects anymore, it felt as if the tide had turned overnight! I continued with my offline projects, of course, but otherwise, I could fill my days by just going through project invitations and picking the reasonable ones for further discussion. Upwork did it all for me automatically. For most of 2016, I could already rely on getting projects just about whenever I liked.


This is the dream of every freelancer, isn’t it? No costs involved in finding projects (only the standard platform fee on each contract), freedom of choice of the type and timing of new engagements and I got everything in less than a year from the first Upwork project!


From this point on, I sat on my butt and let the system work for me. By April 2016, I had to start auto-rejecting all projects below $3,000 because I was drowning in invitations. My profile started to get a lot of hits and appear on page one with my one-and-only keyword: “Kinect.”


The most exclusive invitations are those that are not sent to anyone else. A typical case is, of course, repeat clients. They may send out a feeler invitation to an upcoming project to inquire about my availability, giving me enough lead time to wrap up my current projects. This kind of invitation is hard to refuse!


The ranking of my profile worked in two ways now:

  1. Within Upwork: My profile came up as number one in their keyword search.
  2. From outside Upwork: Clients found my website via Google search and the link to my Upwork profile which I sometimes use as the primary contact method for new projects.

I started getting projects with my name on them. Job descriptions started with “Dear Mikko, we need you to” or something similar.


Things were getting really sweet! And I’ve had a lot of fun with fantastic clients on Upwork ever since. Why? Probably because from the very start I have been highly selective. Remember all that ‘gatoring’? Well, it paid off!


A new niche

The market was now open for playing my new niche: VR training simulators. VR hardware was now better and cheaper, so I started doing VR on Upwork in 2017.  Again, I had a clear competitive edge against other VR developers. I was one of the few recognized true experts with several types of experience on the topic; patenting capability, Ph.D.-level skills for designing the learning support, and coding. The whole package built on all of my skills again. And my work history using similar technologies was understandable to any client. Perfect! As a result, I got to select the best projects such as building a new training simulator for the construction industry worth $21,000 and many other cool VR projects.


Raising my rates

Having the ability to pick and choose my projects, together with market demand, allowed me to yank up my rates. From the original $30/hour I moved quickly to $44, $55, $66, $77, $88 and $99. Eventually, I just started adding hundreds to my 99 bucks. I realized that after a certain point, clients don’t really care about the price when they know they are getting excellent value for their money.

At this point since money ceases to be an issue, the service needs to be great as well as the experience of working together. Throw in some unexpected benefits of working with you and the client will absolutely love you! So, I focused mainly on polishing my presentation, storytelling, and interviewing skills, nothing more.


Some invitations started to look really insane despite the ridiculous hourly rate I had on my profile. It started to feel like I climbed up Mount Everest on Upwork, I was way above the clouds (and definitely higher than the top of a coconut tree)!


From November 2019 I started focusing on lightweight consulting work because I had too many software development projects from other sources. For this type of work, it is easy to charge high rates because the impact on the client's business is critical. I started charging $199 for small precision strikes to tackle highly complicated technical problems of startups in my field and the price tag didn’t deter the best clients from hiring me.


Additionally, an Upwork Enterprise Client, one of the largest companies in the world, approached 40 other freelancers and picked me for the job before even having a call with me. They had two reasons for hiring me:

  1. My short proposal listed exactly the most relevant background I had since the last 10 years of my career (i.e., my value proposition was perfect)
  2. My hourly rate was much higher than everyone else’s (according to them)

This was a total surprise! Not only did I manage to get better clients but I also got a client of a completely new type! One that does not even ask about the cost, no less!


What I learned during my Upwork journey so far

I realized that there are elements that you need for building a good freelance online business where you don’t get stuck and where you don’t spend most of your time on finding work:

  1. Real skill set. You must have skills that can make a difference in other people’s businesses. That’s the core. The whole package of who you are, what you know, how you can help, makes your business. Because you are the business.
  2. Understanding your market. Know the people you intend to serve. I knew the startup scene well, so that’s exactly who became my main clientele.
  3. Profile. Your skills won’t help much unless others can perceive the results of using them. Making a good profile that speaks to the dream clients is mandatory. Informative, unique, and clickable.
  4. Proposals. For me this was the easy part because I had experience in writing, having written 55 science papers, and loads of academic funding applications. I made sure to know which string to pull in each proposal.
  5. Interviews. Even if all of the above works out but you’re not able to talk to people who might want to hire you, your chances are slim.
  6. Strategy. Make sure all your early projects feed into your portfolio in a way it grows your online credibility fast.


Basically, the above six bullets apply to pretty much every business, more or less, with 3 referred to as marketing and 4 and 5 combined into something called a sales process. The obvious part that I didn’t list is the operation, i.e., doing the core work. Not being good at the core work will never make you a good freelancer. Know your stuff first, then try to build a business around it. Even if your skill level is great, it might not work out if you lack a solid work process and other operational aspects of doing it as a one-person business.


And remember, you can’t fake it and you can’t copy it from others. Your chances of success do not depend on the number of proposals you send. They do not depend on the number of revisions you make to your profile. And they do not depend on the hours of interview practice in front of a mirror.


Your chances depend on your understanding of yourself and the very narrow niche market that needs you most: your skillset, your learning speed, and your sense of realism. Don’t forget the last part. Getting real, making calculations, weighing your odds… all that makes your chances of success higher than random trying.


And yet, this was just the start!

The story doesn’t end here, no. This all was just the beginning! Check back for Part 2 where I'll discuss my transition from a freelancer to a solopreneur and how I teamed up with a number of other freelancers on this platform to grow my business.