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I made almost $500,000 on Upwork last year as a freelance SEO consultant — here's how

PollyAnna Brown   

I made almost $500,000 on Upwork last year as a freelance SEO consultant — here's how
  • Sam Bazzi turned to Upwork full time in 2016 after health problems meant he needed more flexibility.
  • The SEO consultant, who's used the platform on and off since the late 2000s, now makes six figures.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sam Bazzi, a 42-year-old marketing expert from Michigan. Insider has verified Bazzi's income with documentation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I created my Upwork account as a freelance online-marketing consulting in 2008, but it was a side gig.

In 2016, my health was upended. I was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease, among other health concerns. At the time, I was a marketing consultant with a couple of local clients, but they often wanted me on-site some days.

When my health deteriorated, I went all in on Upwork. All my work on the platform was completely remote so I could still make an income around my doctor's appointments and from my bed, which wasn't an option with my other job.

My specialty is internet marketing. I help clients with pay-per-click landing pages, conversion-rate optimization, online ads, SEO, and more.

I started freelancing full time on Upwork in 2016

I began onboarding projects more aggressively in 2016. Clients list projects on Upwork they need help with and freelancers submit proposals to be hired.

I submitted more proposals and communicated my new availability to the clients I already worked with.

I was on eight to 10 sales calls a week; before I went full time, it would be one or two. I updated my profile and got every certification known to man when it comes to marketing, and the majority were free. Certifications show that you're up to date with all the new features of various marketing platforms.

I consider myself a "full-stack marketer," so I've worked with dozens of industries but I like to focus more on B2B.

My rate was $20 an hour when I first started. Now, I charge $200 an hour — the increase reflects a steady progression over the years.

I've worked with almost 500 clients on Upwork. I'll work with a client for a few months on average, but I've been working with a handful of clients for years.

My clients were understanding and kind while I got my health back on track. Doctor's appointments were demanding back then, so being able to work from home at any time was a game changer. I could keep up with my clients and deliver excellent work while still prioritizing my health. I was making $100,000 a year on average in 2016.

I built my success on Upwork over time using these key things

On Upwork, your reputation and project history are like a credit score. You have to stay on top of it, always improving your services, acquiring new clients, and keeping the current ones happy.

Keeping my profile updated and account active allowed my work to speak for itself. I've done 491 jobs with over 250 5-star reviews. In the past 12 months, I've made almost $500,000 by focusing on managing my reputation and work history.

My consistent positive feedback and ratings are how I've become successful on Upwork

Upwork is a feedback-driven platform, so I only submit proposals for jobs I'm qualified for and know I can do well to protect my reputation. I customize every proposal.

I submit proposals weekly to keep my sales pipeline full. How many I submit depends on the number of clients I'm currently working with. For every 100 proposals you submit, maybe 20 to 30 will be read, and from there, maybe four or five will interview you.

I have a sales call with possible clients to get clarity on their exact needs, timeline, expectations, and other details.

If we agree on the project, I close on a couple of those sales calls. The key is to have a full sales pipeline at all times. At times, I've worked with only three to five larger clients, and at other times, I'm working with 10 to 15 smaller clients a month.

Focus on longer-term client relationships

I prefer to take on long-term working relationships than short, one-time projects. While small clients are great, it keeps me on the sales hamster wheel. Every time I finish a project, I have to go get a new client instead of keeping an existing client with continuous income.

By focusing on long-term relationships, I can prioritize working billable hours with existing clients, rather than the unpaid work of sourcing clients.

I charge higher rates so I can give my clients the attention they need

My work with clients varies day-to-day. My clients can call me whenever with a problem.

I check in with my clients at least two to three times a week for 15 to 30 minutes. While I've had clients who take advantage of my time and ask for "free" work, they are the minority. Since I charge $200 an hour now, it does balance itself out.

Recently a client was struggling to make sales on Amazon. We worked together for about six hours over a couple of days getting him set up on Google and Bing ads. He started making sales and told me that that boost saved his business.

What sets me aside on Upwork is that I treat my customers as if they're family and I fight for their success. When I invest in a client, I become a partner in their journey. Building this relationship means they appreciate me more and give me more work.

I work extremely hard. I wake up at about 5 a.m., and I'm up until about 11 p.m. working. I work Sunday afternoon to Friday afternoon, and allow a couple hours for breaks every day. Friday evenings and Saturdays are strictly family time.

My goal is to help cure kidney disease

Many freelancers think 'I'm doing my work, who cares' — that's the wrong model. The best model for me is working remotely with someone who trusts you with their product or business, and you collaborate on the projects to get the greatest outcomes.

Even though I'm making more money now, I still live a simple life.

My goal is to help find a cure for kidney disease, so I put about 80% of the money I make into a nonprofit I launched called Moon Shot Cures. I hire all the employees that help me with the nonprofit from Upwork.