The Evolution of E-Work: What’s Shaping the Online Freelance Revolution?

by Darwin on July 11, 2016

Ever wondered who writes all those articles online? Or, maybe you’ve wondered about how a large company like Uber or Lyft can afford to pay all those drivers, while maintaining a tiny headquarters. Welcome to the wonderful world of freelancing. From paying taxes, to record-keeping, to healthcare, to online writing and journalism, freelancers power our modern economy.

In the Beginning

Five years ago, finding good work online was fairly difficult. There were a few online freelancing sites, and many of the ones that existed had significant barriers to entry. Sure, you could sign up easy enough, but the implicit competition was fierce. And, the pay was paltry., oDesk, and Elance operated on a global scale. Freelancers working in Western economies would routinely find themselves undercut by workers in Asia or other countries where the cost of living was lower. With most sites operating on an open-bidding system, cost-conscious (read: cheap) clients would often choose the lowest-cost option.

And then came the days of the “content mill” companies. Companies like Demand Media pumped out pages upon pages of thin content by to attract the attention of major search engines, like Google. They did this primarily to sell ad space and make money.

As the quantity of work got to be more important than the quality, overseas freelancing took over. Many freelancer positions were terminated, accounts were limited, and they were prevented from claiming more content assignments.

Smaller content mills didn’t have to compete on the pay front once Demand Media started reducing its workforce. And, so, the price paid to freelancers plummeted.

Journalists and professional writers found themselves completely priced out of online markets. Over and over, writers found that no matter their credentials, clients would often take the lowest bidders because they could do the work cheaply. And, at the time, the goal was to create lots of content, and feed it to the search engines.

Quality almost didn’t matter.

These bidding systems were essentially a “race to the bottom” for pricing, which almost killed the freelance market.

New Companies Emerged

According to Umbrella Company UK, freelancing is still often preferred over a traditional job for many people. Why?

Because, even with all the pay problems, freelancing still offers you:


  • Full Statutory Employee Rights – You are entitled to a range of employee rights like holidays and holiday pay.
  • Full Insurance Cover – You get insurance cover, which includes liability insurance.
  • No More Admin – You don’t have to worry about billing and collecting payments. The umbrella company does this for you.
  • Your Time Becomes Your Own – Because you’re a freelancer, you have total control over your schedule.
  • Perfect for Temporary and Short-Term Contractors – If you want to work part-time, you can. If you want to work on a temporary basis, you can. It’s all up to you. And, you don’t have to worry about setting up a limited company, special bank accounts, and VAT.


In the last two years, a new breed of freelance site has come on the scene. It’s a fusion of two different roles: part marketplace and part recruitment agency, they promise to connect curated groups of high-quality freelancers to well-paying clients.

This translates to more fair pay for those in Western countries that can’t live on, for example, $200 per month in freelance earnings.

Most of these companies focus on skilled work, like design, writing, and coding. This work is easily completed remotely. And, for the most part, needs to be done by a competent individual.

As for quality control, these sites operate on invite-only status. Freelancers are allowed to access it only if they prove a minimum level of experience, can show a certain level of skill and talent, or are invited by other users.

However, they’re still small, and dwarfed by other more established companies, like Upwork. Compare this to OnSite, a curated digital job site for UK residents. Upwork posts jobs work $1 billion annually where Onsite has only billed £10 million during its 2 years of operation.

The Advantages
The advantages are clear: freelancers have the opportunity to earn significantly higher pay for their work. And, while there’s no guarantee of work, the work they do get is often from top-tier brands that the freelancer can be proud of. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook,  Airbnb, Kickstarter, and The New York Times.

Harriot Brookes is a writer based in the UK. She is featured on a number of blogs which help contractors and freelancers make better decisions running their business.

With these clients, you know you’ll be paid well, primarily because:


  • These companies have deep pockets and;
  • They have a good reputation in their respective industries.


Sites, like Contently, operate a curated freelancing platform for writers. According to Cofounder Dave Goldberg, “Our clients are marketers who don’t have time to sort through a ton of pitches that are poorly written or don’t make sense. The basic premise of Contently’s pricing is that creating content isn’t easy, and our contributors are skilled professionals. We have an in-house team that researches what top-tier media outlets around the world are paying and sets up benchmarks to offer competitive, industry-specific prices.”

Large marketplaces are still around, of course, but they’re more like the McDonald’s of freelancing work. These new curated content companies are more like artisanal shops that charge premium prices and offer superior quality.

For a certain kind of company, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

Apple, for example, wouldn’t bother hiring someone from Upwork or Textbroker if they could hire top-tier talent from a curated content company to do copywriting or graphic design for them.

But, it goes beyond creating a divide in the marketplace.

Paul Macgregor’s OnSite’s and Contently’s cofounders both hope that their respective brands can become a corrective market force in the freelance economy. More and more companies are starting to see that cheap labor rates aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. People want quality, and quality costs money.

And, while, Elance, and Upwork came to dominate the online freelancing market, sites like OnSite and Contently predict they can dig their heels in and become niche offerings, irreplaceable in the marketplace.

It’s unfortunate that not every company will see high-quality work as valuable. At the same time, at least there is now an option for freelancers.

Harriot Brookes is a writer based in the UK. She is featured on a number of blogs which help contractors and freelancers make better decisions running their business.

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