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The Strangest Invitations I Ever Got via Online Freelancing Sites, Part 2: The Shopper, The Lawyer, and The Googler

This is Part 2 of my attempt at revealing the funny and tragicomic side of online freelancing. Please take a look at the previous post about the categories of the strangest clients I have met online. Once I started reading old chat logs of the freelancing sites I joined years ago, I realized there’s more where they came from. Namely, I identified these categories:

  1. The Flash
  2. The Delegator
  3. Doctor Strange
  4. The Shopper
  5. The Lawyer
  6. The Googler
  7. The Scammer

Part 1 covered the first three. Now let’s cover client types 4-6, the clients who might send the funniest Upwork invitations. The last one on the list, The Scammer, deserves a complete story of its own for the protection of us all.

As this article series is intended to be educational for new freelancers, I decided to skip the introduction of the good clients. There are plenty of them! But it is the strange ones about whom you need to be careful.

Type 4: The Shopper

The Shopper exists only for the sole purpose of getting the best deal out of everything. In principle, that is what these freelance sites offer, actually. As a client, you’re free to pick the freelancer who suits your purpose best. Sometimes it is all about money, and sometimes it is a perfect match with the freelancer, too. It depends.

But, here is an example of The Shopper that I had to skip. This client seems to be one of those advertising agencies or event organizers … typically, a small business set up by a couple of people running their finances very close to their chests. Or inside their bras. Simply, there’s no way to get a reasonable deal at any level.

Here, the job description was very professionally made and it was clear from the beginning this client seems to know what is wanted. That part looked good. The type of application I’d need to develop is exactly what got us semi-famous in Japan: A fun Kinect-based game installation for a shopping mall. A PR event, roadshow, or some other such thing that is great for catching the eye of the public and getting them engaged in a fun experience that easily leads to a sales opportunity.

The client had an unusually clear specification that I had gone through and provided a proper quotation. Not a big thing to do, some thousands of dollars only.

  • Thanks for your approach, Mike. I do have some proposals for [the name of the shopping mall] but different style. The style I want is a Kinect based photo booth quite like this one with open and closed hand gestures, changing background scenes with a swipe of the hand. Photo, print and live share to social media. We realize much of this exists within the Kinect Unity framework. 2 weeks would be ample time based on all our expert feedback. Pricewise I am seeking lower cost as I feel a lot of the work is readily available for such development – which is under the price tag you wish to take on for projects. If you are able to take on this project for less, please see sample and let us know feedback [link to an existing commercial product very similar to what their spec is describing]. I have a set props list. Plus two other similar projects for clients. This photo booth budget, however, is spent from my own pocket to expand our product range. We have many photo/video products so we are seeking this Kinect style as an added one.
  • It seems a more cost-effective way for you is to buy in an existing product and assemble it yourself. In case you run into problems in your other Kinect projects, feel free to contact me then. Thanks.
  • No, not at all. I don’t want existing products. Just showed you a link so you had indicators. Anyway, your fees are higher than I can budget so thanks lots. All the best.
  • No problem. Let me know if you run into problems others cannot solve effectively.

That was it, this mini chat only. The client wants something that can almost be bought off-the-shelf, yet there should be something just a little bit different which would not cost more than $100. This happens a lot. It rarely leads to any long-term engagement or a reasonable financial deal to the freelancer.

If paying $0 is the ultimate aim, there’s no limit to ingenuity!

I’ve had many encounters with this type of client. There are numerous reasons for trying to shop around for someone who does things the cheapest. Some of them are:

  1. Genuinely there’s no money. The client’s business plan is not working or understanding of the basics of supply and value chains is fundamentally missing. As a freelancer, you’d never make a penny out of this … but it might buy you a nice lunch! Once.
  2. The client is actually another freelancer and trying to pipeline the whole project to someone and cut some margin for himself with minimal time spent. Nothing wrong with making money as a mere project manager, but working with a good expensive freelancer might be hard. So, they can only consider the cheapest one. No point asking experts from the beginning.
  3. There is money but the project is just a trial of some funny ideas. Whatever way is the cheapest, let’s give it a go, it doesn’t matter really. There’s no glory here. Nor money.

There can be more reasons, of course. We must note here that the first two options are not all bad, actually, for starting freelancers. It could turn out to be a pretty decent option for showing and demonstrating your talent for a cheap client who is looking for those either who cannot charge much yet or doing a project “under the wings” of more experienced freelancers; especially if it helps you to build your portfolio, reputation and online presence.

The first three little projects I did on freelance sites did not pay much at all. The fourth one was a bit better. And three out of those four made my online portfolio! … After which the snowball got rolling and growing very quickly… and the rest is history.

Type 5: The Lawyer

The Lawyer is that client who thinks he/she is working on something absolutely revolutionary, world-changing, and absolutely critical for the evolution of humanity. It can only become either the next Facebook or Google, nothing less. But the most important part is that it is TOP SECRET! Before you can get any information, you must sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I’ve never had a problem with those and, actually, if you have any background in the corporate world, it is rather a standard way to do things when big money is in question.

First is a simple example of how corporations do this. Some corporations hire freelancers for doing little jobs that are completely out of the competence of the company themselves. Such an example was a request from a pharmaceutical company that asked me to make an augmented reality advertising gimmick for some roadshow. The discussion started a few months before the event and my estimate for getting the job done was less than a week of actual workdays. I had a call with the client once and straight from the beginning an NDA was required. I signed it and snail-mailed it back to the client. And then … the project never happened! A simple message that there was a change of plan. The best part is I got an update on the NDA policy six months later because its policy had changed and all active NDAs had to be updated. Or something. Fantastic! I lost a few minutes on the discussion, five on reviewing the NDA, and the postage fee to send the signed NDA to whatever country the client was from (which is below $1 in Malaysia). But even that little work was all in vain.

I sign NDAs as part of every long-term contract. It is standard practice to guarantee that any intellectual property developed during the project (like patents) is the sole property of the client and any of the ideas should not be disclosed to the rest of the world. It’s perfectly fine since it is the client who owns the results. Usually, long-term contracts can have a non-competition clause, typically two years or just one. But these NDAs get in the way in the case of projects that are very small, in which case there isn’t enough time to invent or develop anything significant enough to be protected.

Most cases come and go quickly. Long-term projects are fine to come with NDA signing requirements. Short ones get strange. This is where The Lawyer believes every word spoken or written down could lead to a great invention, so everything must be protected. The real reason is the client has no clear idea of what the idea is, yet. Solution: lawyers.

Here’s a concrete example of The Lawyer whose idea was so great it cannot be told to anyone. Others might steal it! And sell it! And leave us with nothing! This was an invitation from a somewhat small company with all the professionalism in the right places. I talked/chatted with a few people and got absolutely nowhere despite the effort.

Here is how it went.

  • Thank you for your invitation. I’d be more than happy to discuss your project. Feel free to contact me on Skype. Our time zones are a slight inconvenience, though.
  • Mike, we can make that work. Would you be available your time on Saturday morning or Saturday night?

We agreed on the time of the call, but…

  • Mike, actually if you don’t mind to reschedule for next Wednesday, [the exact date], as the company director will be in your time zone at that time. Would you be available any time between 7:15 and 9:00 am?
  • 8 am works fine.
  • Great, it is on [the director’s name] schedule for 8 am. Please also send me your e-mail address. I had sent you a request on Skype. [The director’s name] is sending a request to you as well.

It appeared I was chatting with a secretary of sorts. We agreed to proceed by Skype and email, which gave me an opportunity to have a very brief call with their director. The call was so short and no details were given, but I got invited to their Slack channel and got a tiny nudge forward. Seemingly they had a fantastic idea for using Kinect’s infrared (IR) camera, or its IR beam array to be precise, for something completely different purposes. The IR beam should reveal some physical properties of a target object, which was loosely specified, which in my opinion lacked a scientific basis, and definitely, the job didn’t even belong to the software category in the first phase. Once the physical side of things has been established properly, something might work, so the first thing needed is a research tool.

A week later I got to chat with the director on Slack. It got clear the client had initial funding and at least some sort of an idea of what kind of research prototype it needed. So, I sketched up a draft proposal that started with a fixed-price research survey to pick the most suitable IR sensor (not necessarily a 3D camera like Kinect) where the price and form factor was the most important criteria. Fixed price because of my availability. Then I could develop the prototype for the firm so it could start the research and also demonstrate its concept to investors. My proposal made it clear that if the initial assumptions on the physical impact of using the IR beam turned out to be false, the project done on the software side would still be considered a success.

  • Hello and thanks for the call. Attached is my detailed proposal. I have only weekends left this month, so I just listed what I can do for you at that time. From next month on, we can extend the project as we see fit, depending on the results, of course. Please note the last slide and get back to me on how I can simulate [that physical setup they didn’t tell any details of yet] to build test cases. Here I assume it is rather straightforward for my part, so I can get some preliminary results in a mere 3 days.

I had a few interactions on Slack with the client. I constantly enquired about the test cases. I cannot build a research prototype unless I know what exactly it is supposed to do. All I got were some pointers to scientific articles talking about infrared light’s impact on certain materials. There was still nothing clear about the software’s specifications. Also, it turned out it already had the Kinect sensor and I, therefore, suggested that maybe you could just try to experiment with what you have. Point the sensor at your target object and try to measure the outcome. Start from the basics, bottom-up. But the IR signal bouncing back to Kinect would need to be read and visualized on-screen, somehow.

I kind of dropped the case as hopeless. Some experimenting needs to be done, but details could not be revealed. Three weeks after sending my draft proposal (in which I basically had promised just a certain amount of hours), I got a note that explained all this vagueness.

  • Hi Mike, need to sign the NDA. I sent it over to your e-mail address. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you.
  • Thanks [the secretary’s name]. Given your latest findings (you guys tested Kinect already, right?), what’s the scope of work for me exactly?

Only now did it become clear to me what it is. It is a secret! Others might steal it! And sell it! And leave us with nothing! Oh dear. That’s why I wasn’t getting any details on anything to be able to promise anything in real. No mention on the call, nothing essential on any chat channel, nothing. TOP SECRET. And probably inside the head of only one person. It would have been easier to state such things much earlier.

I hope the client got forward on a good path. But let’s all agree there isn’t any way to get good freelancers to work on something before they know what they need to do.

After five years of freelance success, I still haven’t seen any of these guys. Lucky me!

Let me finish introducing The Lawyer with general guidance to all freelancers and clients alike, from a person with a long list of patented solutions, novel scientific discoveries, and years of experience in helping a dozen startup companies on ideation and concept development on top of technical execution. If you have a truly great idea, there are few competitors in the world, because you and your team are the only ones with the capability of bringing the idea to life. NDAs only allows you to sue another person for spreading your idea. If your capability does not match what is needed to execute the idea, there isn’t much chance of benefitting from it anyway … Except through lawsuits. In that sense, the last people you need to worry about are good freelancers who are there only to get your idea out there in the world. I’ve never heard of a case in which it is the freelancer who steals the idea and starts implementing it on his/her own! It’s always more about the capability. And, of course, some part of the capability can come from a few good freelancers.

Usually, you just don’t need extra NDAs on an online freelance site.

Type 6: The Googler

The Googler is by far the funniest client type. They are not just clueless, but seemingly incapable of understanding that the world runs by certain rather simple rules, even if it is a digital online marketplace. They are yet to find out how things work. Also, the ability to read and understand written text would be most helpful. Every now and then I get some of these. Typically, translation jobs from my online profile contain keywords that might match with language skill searches, too. Mix-ups can happen if the potential is not reading the profile through before inviting freelancers. This has been my (overly long!) tagline since the beginning: “Quick deliveries of Kinect application development projects with guaranteed Finnish software quality and Japanese scientific precision.” I’ve only ever received just one Finnish translation request …  But many Japanese ones.

This is one of my all-time classics. I received a short two-row project description for conducting a fixed number of telephone interviews. The job title says nothing about the type of work, simply the location – Japan. Well, it’s better than nothing. Also, my native first name shown on the profile may look Japanese to some, so I can understand the misfire of the invitation. The announced budget here was a few hundred bucks to which my invited proposal replied with $3000 (my minimum by then). Some clients may put a random number, some announce the actual budget … you never know. But my proposed budget was ten-fold, so actually getting a reply from this client was a slight surprise.

I’m suspecting the worst from the beginning and only taking the time as I was wrapping up my last tasks on a Friday afternoon. Why not spend a few minutes improving the world by explaining how these things work?

I’m starting the discussion and trying to lead it directly to the services that my online profile mentions offering, but it’s all in vain.

  • Thank you for your invitation. I’m really interested in hearing what kind of virtual environment I could provide to help you to conduct your interviews.
  • Thanks for your response. We have a project in the Netherlands and Japan for which we would require your assistance to conduct 10 telephonic interviews with people responsible for [name of some technical domain I don’t even understand the words of]. The main objective of the study is to understand the current market situation of the [name of some technical products that I’d have to google to understand] so that the manufacturers and wholesalers can understand the requirements of the market and alter their products and services according to the current needs.
  • So how can I assist? Which of my previous works look most useful to you?
  • It’s a different kind of project. Do you speak Japanese or Dutch?
  • Yes, I do.

I wasn’t lying one bit. I speak Japanese (or at least the people there keep telling me, probably only because of being so polite and all) … but well enough to conduct phone interviews? Nope. Dutch: not a single word. I knew where this was going but I couldn’t stop myself. I was just trying to fabricate an experience that would stick in the client’s mind for a while so others in the freelancing community would not have to suffer from the same level of invitations. A search for market research with Dutch and then the same with Japanese would have given a good list of suitable freelancers.

  • That’s great. So we want you to call in Japan on our behalf and convince them to participate in this interview. We will provide you the data and the questionnaire will be in Dutch/Japanese Language. So, no translation needed.
  • So how long is one phone interview?
  • I would take about 15-20 Minutes.
  • So, I suppose it would be about 200 min per country, 400 min in total. Considering calling, re-calling and catching people, easily a full day’s work. Correct?
  • It totally depends on your ability.

This is where I totally dropped! We are indeed worlds apart in this discussion. But the client seemed so eager and serious I felt I had to find some positive and at the same time educational conclusion to this. Or die trying. The client was so serious that he wanted to give me a call straight away.

  • Can we discuss further over Skype?
  • First I’d like to know what in my previous work lead you to send me the invitation, if possible.

And after two minutes of silence for taking his first look at my portfolio, there seemed to be a sudden spark ignited in the client’s mind. I could almost see the light bulb through these few lines of text!

  • To be honest, I didn’t think any of your previous projects belongs to this category. I searched here for a Japanese freelancer and I got your name.
  • I’m not Japanese nor am I based in Japan.
  • So, I assume that you are not interested in this project.
  • I think you could just ask someone who does market research in Japan. Good luck.

I hoped how these freelancing sites actually work got a little tiny bit less obscure to this client.

Who reads instructions nowadays?

Afterward, I regretted that I didn’t take the Skype call. What a dynamite chance it would have been to show off my (elementary) Japanese speaking skills and probably to this person speaking German (badly) instead of Dutch would have gone through, too. I missed my opportunity to become the next multilingual phone interviewer rock star! It could have been great fun.

But, honestly, no regrets. I’d better stick with doing software stuff.

Yet, there is hope even with the funniest Upwork invitations… I hope!

By now, Part 1 and Part 2 have introduced some of the strangest cases of clients I’ve encountered on online freelancing sites. They are all interesting experiences in some way. In reality, of course, they were a big waste of time. But this kind of invitation keeps coming at a constant rate regardless of what hourly rate or minimum fee list in my online profile.

In conclusion, I still have to highlight that most clients on those online freelancing sites are quite fine. They are just normal people running their businesses and seeking efficiency or talent, or individuals having great ideas they want to try. Or, just individuals who don’t mind paying to get some small jobs off their desks. In my experience, perhaps 99% of the clients… no, let’s say 95%… no that’s not right either… 75%, hmm… OK, actually at least more than 50% of the clients you encounter are decent. Usually, it is very quick to see how serious the project is, but sometimes it takes a while to establish certainty. A tiny minority are total scams. On the other hand, some are absolutely fabulous (evidence here: TOP10 Invitations I Got on Upwork … and How You Can Get Them Too)!

I also have to mention that ever since my online profile started getting a lot of views, I reduced my time finding clients using the previous method I had. Simply, I stopped searching since the clients started to find me instead. This is absolutely great for efficiency and even better for getting quality projects. When five good, decent clients ask you to join their team, you find yourself in a very fortunate position of picking the best one and politely refusing the others. And, they might return to you later when the timing works out better!

But let’s say filtering the noise out of your invitations in an efficient way is a core skill for online freelancers. Your sixth sense will evolve over time, but it may get dangerous in the beginning if you yourself don’t yet know how things are supposed to work. There is a great chance to get into dangerous waters if both sides of the table (or chatbox) are amateurs who haven’t even read the official guidelines yet.

In case you’re starting on any of the freelance sites and doubt your ability to read what those first few lines of messages actually mean, you can always ask Dr. Mike for a “second opinion.”

That last and, definitely not the least, is the worst client type: The Scammer. Read on: Part 3.