Where’s the best place to hire a rockstar freelance virtual assistant?
Two of the largest platforms for online workers are Upwork and FreeeUp. Both of these sites have a deep talent pool and your diamond-in-the-rough virtual assistant is probably out there somewhere — it’s just a matter of finding them, or them finding you.
Note: This article focuses on the employer’s perspective. If you’re a freelancer looking for work, the information below will give you some insight into the hiring process, fees, and protections on each of the platforms, but doesn’t speak to how difficult securing work is or the types of clients you might encounter on either Upwork or FreeeUp.
For disclosure, links to FreeeUp are affiliate links.
Intro to Upwork and FreeeUp
While the two platforms share some similarities, there are a few key differences you should know about.
Upwork is the love child of Elance and oDesk, two Silicon Valley startups that helped pioneer the virtual freelance marketplace model, starting back in the late 1990s.
When these one-time competitors combined forces in 2015, they rebranded as “Upwork” and created the world’s largest freelance marketplace, with more than 12 million registered freelancers.
FreeeUp is the newcomer, the upstart rookie in this fight. They burst onto the scene in 2015, and have grown quickly to become a leading contender when it comes to hiring freelancers.
What started as a site almost exclusively for e-commerce support (that’s where the extra “e” in the name comes from), FreeeUp has expanded into a broad range of available skills and only lets in the “top 1%” of freelancers who apply.
Quick Upwork vs. FreeeUp Comparison Chart
What Roles Can You Hire For?
On both sites, you might be surprised at the breadth of skills and workers available for hire. If the role you’ve envisioned for your virtual assistant can be done remotely, you can find someone to do it on Upwork.
The site has several broad-strokes categories of remote work, including design and creative work, programming and development work, administrative support, marketing and sales work, and more. And of course beneath each of those are dozens of highly specialized areas of expertise.
For example, here are some of the skills listed under Sales and Marketing:
Once you click on any one of those skills, you’ll be presented with a pretty-looking grid of freelancers in that category. For example, when I click on SEO Specialists, this is what I see next:
These little profile previews will show you how many hours the freelancer has completed on Upwork, their hourly rate, where they’re located in the world, and an indicator of how well they’ve performed for past clients.
Once you create a free Upwork account, you can contact these professionals directly, or post your own job to see what kind of bids you get back.
Similarly, FreeeUp divides its workers into several high-level categories, with more specific skills under each of those.
For instance, you’ll find categories like:
- Business Operations
- Digital Marketing
- Web Development
Under Digital Marketing, the unique subject matter areas of expertise are shown:
When you click on one of those skills, like SEO & Adwords Expert, for example, you’re taken to this page which invites you to create a free account, submit a worker request, and “get introduced to a [qualified] freelancer within hours.”
Unlike Upwork, FreeeUp doesn’t show you the names, faces, or rates of their workers before you sign-up, and you can’t reach out to freelancers directly to invite them to your project.
How Upwork Works
How FreeeUp Works
Employer Protections in Place
Both platforms have a number of “safeguards” in place to protect both workers and employers. In this section I’ll walk through those and why they’re important.
The hallmark of many peer-to-peer platforms is a two-sided rating system, in which buyers rate sellers and sellers rate buyers — popularized by ebay in the mid-90s.
Upwork has been building its rating system for more than a decade, and you can see the feedback each worker has received from past clients.
Because workers tend to be hired for shorter-term projects, there is a lot of client turnover, which amounts to plenty of opportunity to collect positive (or negative) feedback.
One thing to be aware of, beyond the cumulative 5-star score, is the number of jobs completed with no feedback given. Many employers (myself included sometimes) subscribe to your mom’s old adage of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
(A $66 job still “in progress” from 2012 probably isn’t a good sign either.)
Upwork also shows you the “job success rate” of each freelancer, which measures the percentage of gigs they’ve done resulting in “a great client experience.” Naturally, the higher the percentage, the better.
Although I had a successful project with the developer shown, a 59% job success rate is pretty poor and I’d be hesitant to hire someone with that kind of track record.
On each freelancer’s profile page, you’ll also find a summary of their work history on the platform, which is meant to give you an indication of the “safety in numbers” of how many other people have hired them and how experienced they are.
In contrast, here’s an example of an excellent profile page. Her “in progress” jobs are hourly and have hundreds or thousands of hours completed, and she has a 99% job success rate:
Take all these metrics with a grain of salt. They’re here to help you with your hiring decision, but past performance is no guarantee of future results and every job is different. I’ve found great workers with almost no feedback or work history, and had horribly painful projects with contractors with glowing reviews.
On Upwork, freelancers also have the opportunity to review you, the employer. These metrics aren’t visible to you in aggregate, but you can view your client feedback on each contract.
When you post new jobs, potential candidates can see some of your employer metrics. For example, before people bid on your job or project, they’ll be able to see what previous hires said about you as well as how much money you’ve spent on the platform and the percentage of job postings you’ve made that have resulted in a hire.
These are designed to protect the freelancers; if you only hire for 1 out of every 5 job postings you make, it might not be worth their time to submit an application since your performance on the platform makes it look like you’re not that serious.
On the flip-side, if you’ve spent thousands of dollars on Upwork and each posting results in a hire, you’re a very attractive employer to apply with.
On FreeeUp, worker ratings and profiles are strangely non-existent.
Workers introduce themselves via an email cover letter, and they’re free to link to a portfolio or website of their own creation, but there’s no standard profile page on FreeeUp they can point to.
And unless workers have specifically collected testimonials and feedback from past clients (and included those in their self-created portfolio/website), there’s no rating system at all.
Where to see your applicants in one place? I found this under the “Ticket” tab in my account:
Here’s where the level of trust in FreeeUp’s “top 1%” pre-screening really comes into play. It’s like they’re saying, “Look, we’ve already done the vetting for you. Why are you stressing about it?”
They’re trying to make the process as seamless as possible by limiting the amount of information going into your decision, but part of me wanted a little more insight into who these people are!
Pro Tip: For quick, one-off, inexpensive projects, it probably isn’t a huge deal, but if you’re hiring for a long-term position on either platform, ask for references and actually call them.
Upwork historically has been a mostly open platform, allowing just about anyone to create a profile and begin bidding on work. Recently though, they’ve begun throttling that growth, at least in certain crowded categories, turning away freelancers where they already have enough supply.
Meanwhile, FreeeUp claims to only let the top 1% of applicants into their system. How does that work in practice?
Turns out, there is some science behind it, or at least a consistent process. They put every candidate through a 4-part interview process that was developed in part by founder and CEO Nathan Hirsch while hiring freelancers to help with his own booming e-commerce operation.
Step 1: Application
The first step is for workers to apply on FreeeUp.com. (Want to apply? Mention me, Nick Loper, to expedite your application.)
Workers submit a resume, portfolio, answer a few questions, and share some logistics information like their Internet speed and typing speed.
After that, the FreeeUp worker onboarding team makes a decision based off of strict marketplace standards if they will be given a skills interview.
Step 2: Skills Interview
The first FreeeUp interview (conducted over phone or Skype) is a skills interview. Candidates are expected to answer specific questions about their expertise and participate in role-playing scenarios to see how advanced their knowledge is.
Only those who can showcase “absolute expertise” make it through to the second segment of the interview.
Step 3: Attitude Interview
In this phase, workers are asked about how they solve problems, work with clients, and uphold strong communication.
I think this is an often over-looked segment of the hiring process, because I’ve seen firsthand how the most technically-proficient person isn’t always the best team member.
Step 4: FreeeUp Communication Guidelines
The fourth step is for the candidate to review and accept the FreeeUp Marketplace Guidelines and terms. In this 15-page rulebook is all the fine print about time off, emergencies, daily updates, using software, and communicating with clients.
Freelancer Tests and Self-Ratings
On FreeeUp, really on the tests on the front-end of the application process are the Internet Speed test and the typing speed test — not necessarily relevant to the skills you’re hiring for.
(Of course the “real” test is how well they can make their email cover letter stand out from the crowd.)
In contrast, Upwork gives workers a chance to beef up their profile by taking certain skills tests. For instance, here are the test scores of Marjorie, who we met above:
If you click on the Details link, it will show what specific subcategories were included on the test and how they performed on each of those.
As someone who was “an A-student” and a good test-taker in school, these tests and their results appeal to me as an employer, even though I know in real life I didn’t always make the best employee.
On Upwork, I might use these tests as a “tiebreaker” between two equally talented candidates, but wouldn’t necessarily rule someone out on the basis of their test result or their lack of taking the test in the first place.
Like some of the other metrics mentioned, it’s almost more of an indicator of how much effort they’re putting toward their online job search. Upwork gives them this extra opportunity to showcase their skills so it’s only natural the “hungriest” candidates will use that to their advantage.
Upwork provides a “Big Brother” work monitoring solution in the form of a screen capture software tool. They call this Work Diary, which takes screenshots of your virtual assistant’s screen at roughly 10 minute intervals while they’re on the clock.
On FreeeUp, workers are simply asked to “Punch In” to the system and “Punch Out” when they’re done with the project or done for the day. They’ll also be able to add notes of what they accomplished during that time, and Freeeup automatically bills clients the agreed-upon hourly rate each week.
In practice, you probably have better things to do than pore over these screenshots every day or every week, but they’re nice to have if you notice a dip in productivity or if things are just taking longer than you think they should.
Upwork offers escrow payments as a way to protect both you and the virtual assistant in the deal. For fixed-price projects, you’ll deposit the funds into an escrow account controlled by Upwork, and release payment to your freelancer when certain milestones are completed.
This shows the freelancer you’re serious about putting up the money and paying them, while still giving you some protection if they flake and don’t deliver the goods.
With FreeeUp, there’s no escrow payment option, but you’re paying hourly and on a weekly basis so there’s less risk for both parties.
One advantage of Upwork is their dispute resolution service. With FreeeUp, they say they help resolve disputes and payment conflicts between workers and employers but don’t really detail what that process looks like.
However, on Upwork, if you and your freelancer can’t come to terms on a particular project or you think they may be fudging their hours, you can file a dispute through the Upwork platform.
A mediator will review both sides of the story and potentially help you get some of your money back or stop payment altogether. One thing to note though is the mediator isn’t necessarily going to be a judge of the quality of the work, especially for hourly jobs. Instead, they’ll look at the Work Diary logs and make a decision accordingly.
FreeeUp Replacement Guarantee
One advantage of FreeeUp is their worker replacement program. If your assistant quits, moves on, or just isn’t a great fit, they’ll quickly find you a new qualified VA from their bench — at no charge.
Of course you have any specific processes they need to be trained on, that’ll be on you, but at least you’re not back starting at square one.
What Happens After You Hire?
When you hire a virtual assistant through Upwork or FreeeUp, you pay them through the respective platforms, and the companies take a cut for facilitating the connection. See below for more information on pricing.
For project-based work on Upwork, it’s standard to pre-pay a portion of the total project into an escrow account. With FreeeUp, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, you’ll get an invoice (and be automatically billed) each week for the hours your VA has worked.
My Interview with FreeeUp Founder Nathan Hirsch
Advantages of Upwork
- Wide global talent pool, and more control over the recruiting/screening process.
- Robust freelancer profiles and ratings.
- No upfront costs.
- Best for one-off projects or super-specialized support.
Advantages of FreeeUp
- Pre-screened workers — the “top 1%”.
- Quick and easy to hire.
- No upfront costs. (Other companies charge $500 to present you w/ a handful of “pre-screened VA candidates.)
- Better for ongoing hires or e-commerce work.
Both sites represent huge talent pools, and earn money by playing matchmaker by taking a fee on every payment processed through their system.
Upwork makes the bulk of its money by charging a fee on every project completed on its site. This fee ranges from 5-20%, depending on how much work (in dollars) a particular freelancer has done for you. This fee is baked into the price you pay, but comes out of your virtual assistant’s pocket.
Theoretically, they pass that cost on to you, the employee.
For instance, if you sign on for a $1000 engagement, the first $500 will have a 20% Upwork platform fee, netting the freelancer $400, and the next $500 will carry a 10% platform fee, leaving them with $450. In total, they’d earn $850 and Upwork would earn $150.
This graduated pricing structure makes sense, as it rewards Upwork early on in the relationship for making the connection, and rewards the freelancer with lower rates for continuing to run work through the platform (vs. “going rogue” and taking the relationship offline).
On top of your $1000 payment, Upwork will charge you 2.75% as a payment processing fee.
FreeeUp works similarly, taking a flat 15% fee (or a minimum of $2) on every hour worked. That means if you hire a worker at $20 an hour, they’re really pocketing $17.
Although this fee is somewhat invisible on the client side, it’s theoretically getting passed on to you in the quoted hourly rate from your freelancer.
If you really have a long-term hire in mind AND don’t mind doing more of the upfront screening/legwork, you’ll save money on a platform like OnlineJobs.ph (the largest job board in the Philippines).
They charge a $49/mo fee to post jobs and communicate with candidates, which you can cancel once you’ve made your hire, and after that you just pay them directly with no one else taking a percentage.
My Experience w/ Upwork
My most successful Upwork project hire was actually for the late-2012 redesign of this site. If you go to the Wayback Machine and check out the old version you’ll get an appreciation for how big an improvement it was.
The developer was awesome – super responsive on Skype, hammered out the changes really fast for what I thought was a very good price.
I re-hired him later for another small project, which was also very well done, but when I needed something else done a few months after that, I couldn’t find him. He’d disappeared. Poof.
I’ve also used Upwork for some low-cost web research, which was OK, but nothing like mind-blowingly amazing or anything.
For ongoing work, some of my best hires have come from Upwork (actually back when it was Elance). Even though it’s primarily a project-based platform, I found a couple long-term hires that worked out really well for almost full-time employment, including one virtual assistant I ended up working with for more than 2 years.
On the flip-side, I’ve also been burned for north of $10,000 on this platform for web development projects that never got fully completed. It was an incredibly painful, stressful, and expensive experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
In the first case, the dispute resolution safeguards didn’t apply because I foolishly agreed to work with the developer “off-platform.” In the second case, we agreed to end the contract after a few of the milestones were met (albeit not on time) but technical incompetence prevented the development company from finishing the job. It sucked.
Note: To check out what other users have to say, check out the other reviews here.
My Experience w/ FreeeUp
After reading the positive feedback on FreeeUp and starting to see the platform gain some traction on this site, I decided I better give it a shot myself.
If you’ve attempted to hire on any other platform that doesn’t pre-screen candidates, you have an immediate appreciation for the potential time-savings of FreeeUp’s “top 1%” promise.
One of my biggest hangups right out of the gate with FreeeUp is you’ll notice (at press time at least) it’s a very minimum-viable-product-style interface. Though comparing it with the robustness of Upwork is perhaps a little unfair since the two platforms have different aims — and Upwork has at least a 15-year head start.
Still, I was somewhat frustrated by the lack of worker profiles and feedback on the site, to the point I asked Nathan about it. His response was that they want to build a 5-star platform. If someone sucks, they get kicked off, he said.
To find out how the system worked and if FreeeUp could deliver on the promise of pre-vetted 5-star workers, I posted 3 jobs — roles I was actually looking to hire for — to see what came back.
The first was for a writing position and this was the one that generated the most matches. The hourly rates ranged from $18-30 an hour, which I thought was fair, but a couple of the cover letters stood out with the most relevant experience and writing style.
I hired the guy that looked like the best fit and gave him a couple articles to tackle. I provided him with:
- the proposed title
- a rough outline of where I wanted him to go
- a target word count
The articles came back both totally passable, but my control-freakness got the best of me and I heavily edited the second one. I should know better after dozens of attempts to outsource writing over the years that I have a hard time signing my name to something that’s clearly not in my voice.
In the end, the content was just fine, I edited, formatted, and added images to make them look nice for the blog. Because of FreeeUp’s hourly billing, they ended up costing around $60-70 each, which I thought was fair for articles in the 1500-2000 word range. It would be a great value if you’re not as picky as me!
I’ll probably use the guy again for similar projects in the future.
The next job posting was a dud. I was looking for someone with experience in creating awesome looking graphics specifically for Pinterest. I got only a couple applications, both with pretty weak cover letters, and no Pinterest-specific examples in the portfolio.
I’m sure they were talented graphic designers yes, but I didn’t feel like taking a chance on somebody who’d never done the exact thing I was looking for before. Hourly rates for that one were $12-19/hour.
The 3rd job was maybe the most interesting. I was looking for a dedicated Pinterest marketing specialist and actually got a couple really well-qualified candidates right away. I had a call with one and she was speaking my language, all up until I asked for an estimate or quote to manage my account on a monthly retainer basis.
She couldn’t tell me, and instead pointed to the quoted rate of $35/hr inside of FreeeUp. I was like OK, so how many hours do you think it would take? And she wouldn’t say, so we kind of just awkwardly left it there.
The other quote actually was for a monthly retainer, but it was $470 a month, which was over my budget.
In the end, there does appear to be a method to the 1% pre-vetting claim, as only one of the candidates was an immediate no-go in my book (a writer with 2 typos in the first line of her cover letter … oops!).
Compared to the percentage of candidates that immediately get round-filed on OnlineJobs for example, FreeeUp did a great job of weeding those out.
The other thing to note is that I found the rates generally a little higher than other platforms, which probably makes sense because if the people really are the top 1%, they probably expect to earn more too.
Note: To check out what other users have to say, check out the other reviews here.
Which Should You Choose?
For project work where you need a specific niche skill or a wider talent pool, probably Upwork.
For faster hires for smaller projects or ongoing work, or something specific to e-commerce probably FreeeUp.
What do you think? When hiring virtual assistants, do you prefer to work through Upwork or FreeeUp? Or another platform entirely?