Despite my constant admonitions about blogging being a lousy way to earn money online, most digital nomad wannabes want to focus on starting a blog. A much faster and more reliable way of earning an online income is to freelance your skills. In this interview, top oDesk.com freelancer, Bernard Vukas shares his story about how he went from earning $10 an hour to $150 per hour in four years. His oDesk success has enabled him to live an idyllic digital nomad lifestyle, earning world-class wages while living in inexpensive countries.
I’ve been outsourcing work for close to a decade on sites like oDesk, eLance and GetaCoder. Like Bernard, oDesk has become my favourite site as well. Browsing through the job postings often scares freelancers off because the rates offered tend to be ridiculously low. However, I’ve seen great workers get rewarded with higher hourly wages over and over again. Bernard Vukas is a perfect example of this. It’s not uncommon to see quality freelancers increase their rates by more than a 1000% as they get more experience and positive ratings. It can be difficult to get started with freelancing, but the opportunities are definitely there. Enjoy the interview.
Please tell us about yourself?
I was born a Croat, and have been living in Croatia (Mediterranean) for roughly 30 years of my life. I was always interested in computers, and my earliest memories of me and a BASIC programming manual, punching in programs by hand on a “ZX Spectrum” computer, when I was less than 6 years old. At one day I remember watching a presentation on “Microsoft Windows” on television, and was really excited to try it out on a real PC, when I finally reached high-school. After finishing high-school, I enrolled in a Computer Science university, but ended up dropping out. Not something I’m particularly proud of, but nowadays I’m in my fifth year of working online as a software developer using oDesk. I don’t miss the formal education, as I invest in regular learning online, and most of my day goes into working on new projects and making clients happy!
Please tell us about your travels?
I started traveling in 2008., and my first trip was to Thailand. After 6 months of CouchSurfing, I returned to Croatia and packed my stuff, canceled the apartment, and decided it was time to do more traveling. After a short “Freelancers Conference” on outsourcing in Bangladesh, I moved to the Philippines — the #1 country for outsourcing.
While in the Philippines, it was particularly exciting to be part of the oDesk freelancing event in Manila, where I received an award as one of top 20 contractors, honored by the CEO of oDesk. I lived in several cities, and after 16 months, I moved back to Thailand. After almost a year in Boracay Island, Philippines, I’m living on the island of Koh Samui. My future travel plans include USA, South America, Europe, and everything in between.
How do you make money?
For over last five years, I work as a software developer using oDesk. The work is completely done online, using modern collaboration tools, and I’ve never met any of the clients face to face. I’m getting close to 100 completed projects, mostly using Microsoft Office (Excel, Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, Visio, etc.) and Microsoft Visual Studio. Freelancing is my only source of income, and I’m not looking for a job in a traditional sense.
Can you give a specific example of a business application you did?
Currently I’m working on an Outlook add-in for Highrise, from the makers of Basecamp. I’ve also worked with SugarCRM to help them deliver their Outlook add-in on Microsoft Office 2013..
I’ve also worked on a marketing analytics add-in for Excel, charting add-in for PowerPoint, document management add-in for Word, and many others. I’ve worked with companies such as Oracle, oDesk and SugarCRM. You can take a look at my portfolio if you’re interested in seeing more of my projects.
How do you find your clients?
85% of my work comes through oDesk, and the rest through Elance. I also tried Guru, but it didn’t work for me. I first started with oDesk in April of 2008, and got my first project within days of registering. It continued rapidly since then, and I was able to increase my hourly rate from $11.11/hr to $150/hr in roughly four years. Sometimes clients contact me directly, because of the profile I’ve built up; other times I apply to jobs. I prefer oDesk over anything else because they’re the biggest marketplace. Also, I believe their business model is better than anyone else’s because they don’t charge for a monthly subscription. However, Elance is my second choice, because the monthly fee is a barrier of entry to most unqualified workers. It’s got a slightly more complicated billing model, but it’s worth it, because the marketplace size is second, right after oDesk.
Most jobs on oDesk seem to pay very low rates, can you give some advice to finding well paid jobs?
Just as clients are qualifying potential contractors, so you, as a contractor, need to qualify clients. With experience, you’ll get a clear picture of what your perfect client looks like. After that, it’s easy to use a marketplace like oDesk, fill up your funnel, and get a relationship going. It might be true that, when starting out, you need to take any jobs in your niche. That’s not bad, as long as you end up with a 5.0 satisfaction rating. As time goes on, working online is better than working in an office at any company!
Is focusing on Microsoft Office add-ons still a good business opportunity?
For me personally it’s working well, because there are less experts in this area, then (say), PHP, WordPress, or similar. On the other hand, it’s broad enough, so that when there’s less demand for Excel add-ins, I can focus on Outlook and PowerPoint, etc. I’m not sure if this is a good opportunity for new contractors, as this category is also getting saturated. Persistance is key, as well as quality.
Can you give some advice for others considering this field?
When starting out, you need to position yourself as an expert, and not as somebody working on a payroll. Start a project, end it as soon as you can, so you can earn that 5.0 ratings. Go onto new clients as soon as possible. Send proposals and apply to new jobs regularly, and make yourself visible, even if you’re full.
What’s next for you?
I started collaborating on a freelancing book, with few other high-paying oDesk contractors. We’re excited to share our experiences, because all we collectively charge in the range of $100-200/hour. Because of our experience, we have a lot to contribute to other freelancers looking to have a successful online career.
Follow Bernard Vukas on Twitter
Connect with Bernard on Linkedin
Thanks for the tips Bernard and congratulations. Any particular niches or directions you think I should begin considering? What skills do you need to work on these add ons?
Great interview. He really worked his way up and that’s awesome! Now, how about some advice for those of us (the majority, probably) who are not starting out with the high-tech skills he did. I don’t think you can reach the rates he’s now charging with non-tech (or low-tech) jobs. Most of them will always be at the $5-$10 range.
There are many non-technical jobs as well (marketing research, project management, writing white papers, copywriting, lead generation, graphic design, SEO, etc.) Most jobs start off at low rates, but good workers can earn higher rates once they have good reviews and prove they are reliable. Quite often the best workers start on a site like oDesk, then market their services directly through a website and their own direct sales. That is how you make the most money, but it requires good networking skills. There are many writers, designers, project managers, PPC specialists, social media managers, etc. that make much more than $5 – $10 per hour. People who deliver results can charge what they are worth.There is plenty of work for people who know how to solve business problems.
Great interview with Bernhard!
I had good luck with elance. After one year I worked my way up to 130 dollars / hour. I also scored a huge project with a major automobile company which is in the top 10 of their field. Now I just need to find regular clients like that!
Lots of people complain that these job boards are full with botoom feeders and low paying clients which is true. But there are also some gems to be found, you just have to sift through all the not so good ones.
Bernard is spot on when he says you need to qualify clients.After reading this interview I should propably give odesk a try as well.