Upwork for Beginners: How To Start Your Freelance Business

Upwork for Beginners: How To Start Your Freelance Business

Getting started as a beginner on Upwork lets you find new ways to reach your professional goals. Upwork is designed to help you connect with potential long-term clients who can help your freelance business grow.

And we’re committed to helping you succeed! We make it easier for you to promote your most in-demand services, showcase your best work, embrace new client relationships with confidence, and watch your consistent efforts pay off.

How can you leverage all of this to your advantage? In this article, we’ll share best practices and resources to help you build a solid foundation. We’ll look at:

We’ve also turned to two experienced business owners for their insights into what it takes to grow on Upwork:

  • Morgan Overholt, a freelance graphic designer, who is the owner of Morgan Media LLC, a freelance coach, and the co-founder of TheSmokies.com.
  • Peggy P., an editor and proofreader who had more than two decades of experience running her own business to draw on when she joined Upwork in 2019.

What you need to get started on Upwork

Your profile is key to connecting with opportunities on Upwork. The information you share isn’t just your introduction to potential new clients. It also helps Upwork determine which projects to show you and where your profile should show up in search results.

Micaela N

Before you can start submitting proposals for job posts on Upwork, you’ll need to complete at least 50% of your profile. This includes basic information about who you are and what you do, including:

  • A profile photo. You need to use a real photograph of yourself—not a group photo or a digitally altered image.
  • A profile title. A brief description of your experience and most important skills.
  • An overview. A few paragraphs to introduce your strengths and skills and explain why a potential client should engage you for their project
  • At least one highlight from your employment history. Emphasize your knowledge and expertise by highlighting the positions that are most relevant to the services you plan to offer on Upwork.
  • At least one skill tag. Help ensure you show up in appropriate search results by selecting the skills that directly impact your work.

Of course, we recommend completing 100% of your profile! But you don’t need to do it all right away. There are some elements of your profile, such as an intro video or a robust portfolio, that can take more time to prepare.

In fact, you’ll probably update your profile on a regular basis. “I’ve redone my profile more than 75 times!” Peggy said. “You have to be able to position yourself according to what your market needs and wants and cares about. That's why I keep editing my profile, even if I only change a sentence.”

How to create an Upwork account

As you create your profile, you may find it helpful to explore the Upwork website for inspiration. For example, you can browse:

  • Job posts. Current job posts can help you understand the skills and expertise that are more in demand for your industry.
  • Upwork profiles. Check out the profiles of other professionals in your industry to see how they present themselves. Here are Upwork profile examples to consider from top performers.
  • Learn from Upwork Academy. From courses to coaching, Upwork Academy is a rich source of information, whether you’re new to Upwork or want to learn more about growing your business. A good place to start: A learning path for people who are new to Upwork.
  • Read articles—like this one! There’s a lot of information from Upwork, with ideas and insights to help you build your business.

Ready to get your freelance business moving forward? Let’s start at the beginning.

1. Go to Upwork.com and click “Sign Up”

It’s easy to create an account and register on Upwork.com. Go to the website and click on the “Sign Up” button. Choose “I’m a freelancer, looking for work.”

Sign Up

2. Sign up using your work email address, Apple profile, or Google account

There are a few ways to sign up for your free account:

  • If you continue with Google or Apple, you’ll use your existing account to log in to the site. This means one less username and password to remember, and it extends any notifications you’ve turned on—like suspicious event detection—to your Upwork account.
  • You can also use your preferred email address to create a unique login that isn’t directly connected to other services.
Sign Up Work You Love

Finish creating your account by adding a few more details:

  • Your first and last name
  • A password for your account
  • Your location

Decide whether you want to subscribe to our top tips. Then hit the appropriate checkbox once you’ve reviewed the Upwork Terms of Service—including the User Agreement, and Privacy Policy.

We know: Reviewing the Terms of Service can be a lot to process. But it’sunderstanding these terms is also critically important to your business and your success on Upwork. Get to know some of the highlights here and check out the new starter's guide to being safe and successful on Upwork.

Once you’re ready, click on “Create my account” to move on to the next part, creating your Upwork profile.

3. Start your journey on Upwork with a few questions

Through this initial process, you’ll be prompted to answer a few questions about yourself, including:

  • Your experience as an independent professional. This won’t be shared with anyone but your answer will help us understand whether you might need some additional assistance as you get your Upwork profile set up.
  • Your biggest goal. Having a better understanding of what you’re aiming for helps us highlight the opportunities most likely to support your objectives.
Ready Next Opportunity

We also want to know about your work preferences. There are two ways to pitch your services to potential clients on Upwork:

  • They find you through your profile or an offer in Project Catalog (a marketplace for projects you’ve predefined)
  • You approach them by submitting a proposal for their job posting

There is no right or wrong answer—independent professionals often combine both strategies and you’ll be able to do the same. The response you give during the sign-up process just indicates how you think you’d like to start.

4. Tell us more about what you do

Your freelancer profile is an important part of your introduction to potential new clients. Its goal is to share who you are and the work you do, highlight your expertise, and capture attention. The Upwork Academy course on Creating Your Profile can give you an overview of the whole process.

Tell about yourself

First, give your profile a title:

  • Keep your title short but engaging. Get the most important information across as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that, on mobile search results, your title will trail off with a “...” after 35 characters or so.
  • Be specific and include keywords that potential clients may search for.

5. Summarize your past work experience

Your past work experience can help build credibility with a potential client—particularly when you’re new to Upwork. It can not only emphasize not just your level of expertise but also highlight industries or subject areas you may already be familiar with.

You may want to include:

  • Companies you’ve worked with in the past
  • Projects completed before joining Upwork
  • Projects you can share from other freelancing sites
Upwork add employment

6. Highlight your educational background

This section summarizes your formal education. If you choose to add entries here, all the details are optional except the institution.

We suggest including:

  • Any degrees you’ve earned or anticipate earning, even if you haven’t yet completed them
  • The area of study
  • Additional details, such as awards or recognitions received, or extracurricular activities (i.e. teams, clubs) you were involved in.
Upwork add education

7. Add your language proficiency

Upwork operates in English and you’re required to indicate your English proficiency in your profile. But clients on Upwork come from all over the world and often do business in other languages, so be sure to indicate any other languages you might speak.

While language skills are self-assessed, try to be as accurate as possible so you set the right expectations with potential clients.

8. List your skills and show potential clients what you have to offer

You can highlight as many as 15 skills from Upwork’s extensive list on your profile. As you start to type in a skill, Upwork will offer suggestions from a standardized list. These skills will show up on your profile—you can drag-and-drop them into the order you want—and help potential clients understand whether you have the skillset their project needs.

9. Polish your title and write your profile overview

A great title and overview can make a difference to the responses you get from clients since they’re among the first things they will see. Let’s start by thinking about what clients will see in search results; it’s basically an ad for your services.

What can you do to help entice potential clients to click through and look at your full freelancer profile? The profile title and first two lines of your overview will appear in search results, so you may want to focus your efforts there.

Pablo Web Engineer

Make your first sentence count. Your whole bio can be a critical tool to convert new clients, but the very beginning is the most visible. In fact, while your overview can be up to 5,000 characters, Overholt suggested keeping it to a few short paragraphs: “If the ‘read more’ option pops up, you’ve got too much,” she said.

“I’ve hired freelancers with zero experience on the platform just because I was impressed by their portfolio and their bio,” she explained.

“Your overview should be one or two short paragraphs: This is my profession, this is how much experience I have, these are the kinds of projects I want to take on, this is what I can do for you. Short, sweet, and done.”

Tell the world

10. Identify the main services that you offer

You can choose up to 10 work categories—your core services. We suggest picking the strongest, most specialized, and/or most in-demand. While the categories you select will impact how clients find your profile, you can submit proposals to job postings in any category.

11. Set your hourly rate

If the question about setting your rates sparks anxiety, keep these two things in mind:

  • You can adjust your overall rate at any time
  • You can customize your rate every time you submit a proposal

You can also learn best practices for setting your rate from Upwork Academy.

Set Hourly Rate

One mistake new freelancers on Upwork often make is to base their rate on their salary as an employee. While that may be a starting point, it doesn’t account for costs you’re now responsible for, such as equipment you rely on, your home office setup, taxes and professional fees, or ongoing skills training.

Learn more about how to set your freelance rate or take the course on setting your rate from Upwork Academy.

You may find it helpful to start at one rate, then adjust it as you build your reputation through completed projects and client feedback, improve your understanding of the value you offer to long-term clients, and get a better sense of the effort each project requires.

12. Add profile photo and a few last details

Businesses want to work with professionals they can trust with critical work. Does your profile photo inspire confidence?

Upwork has a few requirements for profile photos. For example, the photo must:

  • Clearly show your face
  • Be a real photo—and can’t be a group photo
  • Measure at least 250 x 250 pixels
  • Be in a .jpeg or .png format

Your photo doesn’t need to be professionally taken. But hHow can you ensure you have a high-quality profile image? Check out these tips for your Upwork profile picture to get suggestions and examples.

Upwork Profile Photo Tips

You’ll also be prompted to share your contact information, including your address and phone number. Only your city, state, and country will be shared with potential clients; the additional information is for Upwork’s administrative requirements.

And if you’re traveling or are otherwise not currently at home? Enter the address you use for tax purposes.

A few last details

13. Go for the bonus points!

You’re just about finished! Review your freelancer profile information one more time before submitting it for publication.

While you need to complete at least 50% of your profile before you can start submitting proposals to job posts, you can add optional items to get your profile to 100%. This may include:

  • At least one portfolio item
  • Any degrees and diplomas
  • A brief video introduction
  • Certifications you’ve earned
  • Other experiences that are relevant to your work
  • Additional skill tags or positions for your employment history

If you aren’t ready to add this additional information right away, don’t worry—you can always come back to add more information later.

Complete profile

14: Your freelance journey on Upwork has begun!

With your Upwork account set up, you’re ready to start working toward your first project.

In the next section, we’ll share best practices to help you find a great project and submit your first proposal.

The freelancing journey

Still haven’t signed up for Upwork? Take your career or business to new heights and get started now.

Finding your first project

Once you’ve added the required profile information, you can start to look for your first project on Upwork!

Explore job opportunities using the search bar at the top of any page. Optimize your search with keywords based on your skill set and the types of projects you want to work on. To avoid missing good opportunities, also think about the potential clients you want to work with: What language would they use to talk about their project or to describe the type of expertise they need?

For example, you may be a front-end developer, but someone who isn’t familiar with the industry might say they’re looking for a “web designer” or “web developer.” Add the terms you come up with to your existing search terms to capture a broader range of projects.

Then, use Upwork’s filters to narrow your search even further. These include:

  • Experience level. The depth of experience a client is looking for
  • Job type. Set parameters around the hourly rate or fixed-price budget  
  • Number of proposals. The number of proposals a potential client has already received for their project

Also, watch for the Featured Job banner. Featured Jobs are projects from highly motivated clients who have paid so their project will stand out.

Featured job post

Use Connects to submit a proposal

Connects are a valuable resource on Upwork; you can get them for free and by purchasing them. There are several ways to use Connects, including submitting proposals to a specific job post. To get the most out of your Connects, it helps to be strategic. For example, review each job post to ensure it’s a great fit for your skills and experience and double-check that it hasn’t already been filled.

Learn the ins and outs of the job search process:

Winning new clients with a stand-out proposal

A proposal is your chance to convince a potential client that you have the experience to fix their problem or help them reach their goals. While your proposal likely won’t clinch the job on its own, you want to capture a client’s attention and confidence so they’ll contact you in order to discuss next steps.

As part of your proposal, you can—and should—write a cover letter for Upwork. When a potential client receives your proposal, it’s likely the first thing they’ll see. Even then, a cover letter is your first chance to introduce yourself and you want to stand out.

“When I post a new project as a client, I can get anywhere from 10 to 50 submissions,” said Overholt. “Clients don’t have time to read through every proposal, they fly through them. You’re trying to quickly stand out in a pool of 50 other professionals and that can be intimidating!”

Be strategic with your efforts. Danny Margulies, a freelance copywriter and client on Upwork, recommends taking what he calls the “upside-down proposal” approach: If a client asks additional questions as part of their job post, your responses will actually be shown at the top of your submission instead of the cover letter.

“Answer the additional questions [first], put a lot of good, juicy nuggets in there, demonstrate your knowledge, demonstrate your caring to clients in those additional questions, and then move on to your cover letter,” he suggested:

Make it personal. Open with a friendly greeting that includes their name, if possible. And, if you use templates for your proposals, be sure to customize your cover letter to fit the project.

Be brief. Succinctly describe who you are, what you do, and how you can help their project succeed. Freelance SEO writer Sean Cope knows it’s tough to cut through the noise. “Clients don’t have the time to read lengthy proposals with details that are unrelated to their challenges,” he wrote in How To Create a Proposal That Wins Jobs. “Long proposals may not convince anyone, as almost no one will take the time to read them.”

Pay attention to the details. If the client is looking for specific skills, highlight your experience using those skills. If the job description includes a specific request, such as the client looking for a specific type of expertise, address it in your message.

Focus on the client. Peggy suggested putting the client rather than yourself at the center of your proposal. “One piece of advice I read is to use the word ‘you’ more than the word ‘I,’ and remembering that stops me,” she said. “In a cover letter, I’ll tell a prospective client that ‘your job caught my eye,’ rather than ‘I am this and I am that.’”

Be careful not to overpromise. Peggy learned that to help protect your reputation on Upwork, it’s important to set the right expectations. “You might read a proposal and think, ‘I can probably do that.’ Then you oversell yourself to the client to get the project,” she said. “If you can’t deliver, you could end up in a mess with a negative rating.”

Get help from ChatGPT. Leaning on ChatGPT to write a compelling cover letter can be a helpful starting point. But use AI carefully. Personality is an important part of a good cover letter and, especially in a competitive environment, relying on artificial intelligence to do the hard work is unlikely to stand out.

End with a clear call to action. Recommend a next step for the potential client to take. For example, you could ask them to reply and schedule an interview or encourage them to check out your Project Catalog offers.

For many projects, there will be several more steps—including an interview—before a potential client makes a decision. Think of your cover letter as the best way to start a conversation and take the first step toward a new working relationship.

Top tips when getting started as a freelancer on Upwork

Right now, your focus is getting your first job on Upwork—so let’s start there. In the next few sections, we’ll consider profiles, proposals, and interview preparation.

Then we’ll have a quick look at the long view: how to keep your skills sharp as your business grows.

Go beyond what’s required to create a profile that stands out

You pulled your initial profile together, but if you’ve only filled in the basics, make completing your profile a priority. Not only does a 100% completed profile help clients get a full picture of your experience, it also helps Upwork match you with more relevant projects.

A completed profile is required if you want to achieve a Rising Talent badge or become a Top Rated freelancer—both of which can help you build a stronger reputation on Upwork.

From the work category you choose to the overview section you write, use every part to emphasize your skills and position yourself as a professional. An intro video is a captivating way to make a connection with a potential client in 60 seconds or less.

And don’t overlook the importance of investing time into your online portfolio.

One of the first things Overholt said she looks at is a portfolio, particularly when it comes to creative skills, such as writing and design. She said that freelancer portfolios often include just a couple of work samples—and she doesn't think that's enough.

Upwork portfolio project

“I think I have something like 30 to 40 different examples available in my portfolio,” she said. This variety serves two purposes:

  • Clients want to see if you have experience in their industry or have worked on projects that are similar to theirs. More examples mean more opportunities for them to see this overlap.
  • It gives clients a better understanding of the variety of work you do. You may understand that logos and brochures take the same skill set—but a potential client may not.

“We all start somewhere, and you may need to fake it until you make it,” she said. “ I started with no portfolio. I did work for family and friends, I did work for myself. Those are the projects I used until I became a more seasoned freelancer.”

Want to learn more?

Be prepared for interviews

To ace your next client interview, think about a few key suggestions:

  • Be as professional as you would be in person, such as showing up on time and dressing appropriately
  • Study the job post and be prepared to ask thoughtful questions
  • Learn as much as possible about the client ahead of time

Researching the client can be tricky if they haven’t provided any information in their job post—but don’t give up too easily:

  • Look at feedback from other freelancers they’ve worked with. Does it include an individual’s name or mention anything about the business?
  • Does the job post mention the client’s industry or customer? Even if you don’t know who the client is, getting more context about the project can be an advantage.

The reality is, if you get your proposal, profile, and online portfolio right—or if you offer a packaged service on Project Catalog—you may not do an interview.

“My speciality is pretty unique and I’ve been hired many more times than I’ve been interviewed,” Peggy said. “From my experience, if a client has reached the point of sending me a message, they usually hire me.”

Stay patient when trying to land your first client

When you’re new to Upwork, two of the most important things you can do is get to know the rules of Upwork—so you don’t inadvertently break them—and to figure out how the work marketplace can work for you.

“When I first joined Upwork, I had a few people contact me with what I think were a scam—those are the kinds of things you avoid by following the rules and understanding why they’re in place,” Peggy said.

“It’s tempting to just jump in!” she added. “But if you’re new to Upwork and new to having your own business, there’s a whole world of stuff to learn, from marketing yourself to getting paid to paying taxes.”

Make use of the many resources available through Upwork, including:

  • Upwork Academy, which offers a wide range of courses, events, coaching, certificates, and an education library.
  • The TalentUpwork Resource Center, where you’ll find articles, videos, ebooks, and more to provide you with insights, information, and inspiration.
  • Upwork's Help Center, where you’ll find hundreds of how-to articles so you can navigate different features and functionalities.
  • The Upwork Community, where you can connect directly with other freelancers and clients from around the world.

“The thing that I did right when I first started? I paid attention to people who’d been in my shoes and succeeded, not the ones who tried and failed,” said Overholt.

“I found top-rated freelancers who’d earned $100k or $200k on Upwork and read their blogs and followed their advice,” she said. “There are so many people succeeding who are happy to share what they know. You just need to talk to us!”

Find more tips to help you grow your business in How to Get More Jobs on Upwork.

Continue updating and improving your skills

One thing you’ll quickly learn about running a business is that being proactive pays off, whether that’s thinking about your next project, following trends in your industry, or keeping your expertise sharp.

Independent talent has an edge over employees when it comes to up-to-date skills: They’re nearly twice as likely to have completed skills training in the last six months.

So, as you start to carve out your new routine as a business owner, consider including time for regular research and learning. Look at top upskilling tools that can help keep your skills fresh.

Next Steps

That’s a lot of information to take in! We hope it brings you more confidence as you start your freelance journey on Upwork and your new independent life.

Sign up for your account on Upwork.

Upwork is an OpenAI partner, giving OpenAI customers and other businesses direct access to trusted expert independent professionals experienced in working with OpenAI technologies.


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Author Spotlight

Upwork for Beginners: How To Start Your Freelance Business
Amy Sept
Writer & Editor

Amy Sept (@amysept) is an independent writer, editor, and content marketing strategist who’s dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes navigate the future of work. As a Canadian military spouse and slow traveller, she has a lot of hands-on experience with remote work, productivity hacks, and learning how to "go with the flow."

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