Online Work Tips & Best Practices

How can a few entrepreneurial friends—each doing their own thing—take a leap and launch a digital agency together?

Making such a big change is a lot easier when you already have paying clients and a full pipeline of leads. When it came to getting Matchnode, our Chicago-based digital marketing agency, off the ground, we already had both—thanks in large part to Upwork.

Matchnode’s evolution from an idea among friends to a viable business followed these four phases.

Phase 1: Get your first client and help them achieve their business goals

Creating our profile on Upwork turned out to be one of those rare moments in which a couple hours of work paid off in a big way. When we added our first Upwork clients to others we’d found through existing networks, we were soon too busy to handle all the work ourselves.

How do you make your Upwork profile work for you? Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Take as many Upwork tests as possible, getting high marks to prove your skills.
  2. Make communication a priority. Actively listen to ensure you clearly understand their needs, respond quickly, and when in doubt, let them know!
  3. Consider charging less to your first Upwork client; your priority is to start building your profile.

Phase 2: Formalize your new agency and use Upwork to build your new business pipeline

We officially launched Matchnode in August of 2013 and vowed to focus on our big-picture goal—helping as many small businesses as possible—rather than getting lost in day-to-day tasks or constantly putting out mini-fires. Easier said than done!

Upwork has helped us balance our priorities, not just contributing to our client pipeline but also allowing us to efficiently find contractors who can manage things like small design projects, posting to our Twitter account, and keeping our financial books up to date.

A couple strategies have helped us focus our efforts:

  1. Align your first possible pieces of infrastructure—like office space, team members, website development, and accounting tools—with your goal and vision, and prioritize them.
  2. Save your Upwork job searches and check them twice daily for new opportunities. Responding quickly (i.e. within two hours) has had a disproportionate impact on our success rate.

Phase 3: Use freelancers to support your growing client base

Beyond building our business, we also wanted to create jobs and develop people—whether they were working with us in Chicago or as a virtual teammate. As our workload expanded, it became clear that finding people who are a good fit is extremely important.

We’ve had a lot of success following Upwork’s test hiring practice; the unexpected benefit isn’t just that we quickly see which freelancers are a good match, but that we’ve been able to develop a profile to help us improve the screening process for future hires.

How can you build a better profile for your own team?

  1. Expose your business to multiple freelancers by hiring them for short-term jobs, to increase the chances of finding a great long-term fit. This will help you add a great variety of freelancers to your network, but you can also note which features mark a successful hire.
  2. Building on that experience, create a list of characteristics that you value within your team. Make these general; for example, we’ve founding hiring for attitude and lifestyle works well for us. If you hire the right people, you can train for specific skills.

Phase 4: Learn and cycle

Our business continues to grow, and oDesk has allowed us to scale our capacity at the same time. We continue to question all our assumptions and learn more about our craft every day—something our contractors are also part of.

For example, our existing team is highly knowledgeable about Google AdWords, a nuanced and robust platform that changes regularly. When we hired Harshal, an Indian freelancer, to analyze and expand a client’s AdWords account, we had a “hockey stick” learning moment: He taught us many things we hadn’t tried, deepening our knowledge and providing insights that we now apply to other clients.

Running a digital agency is an ongoing learning experience, one that will evolve as we continue to grow our client base, expand our team, and adjust to the always-changing marketplace.  Upwork will continue to be a big part of that success because of its practicality, cost-effective hiring, and opportunities for human development.

What are your strategies for using Upwork to grow your business? Share them in the comments section below!

Chris Madden

Co-founder and digital marketer at Matchnode

Chris Madden is a co-founder and digital marketer at Matchnode—a full service Chicago Digital Marketing Agency. Matchnode specializes in digital strategy, traffic generation and conversion optimization.