Recently I've seen some tweets from those curious about the presence of extremely low bids on oDesk.
My response is that it doesn't matter. Or at least, it shouldn't.
Face it, if the only thing that makes you a viable candidate for a project is your price, then you'll need to have the lowest bid. But is that the kind of freelance or contract work you want?
This isn't a groundbreaking thought, but perhaps I can offer the perspective of an active contractor and bring some of the philosophical arguments into the real world. I'm self-employed and manage the technology needs of small businesses, consult on various projects, and write software. I use oDesk to manage all of my contract web development work. In that field, you'll find some jobs with hourly rates of $10, $5, and even $3, yet I have active and ongoing projects at much higher rates.
Last November, in an interview with the BBC, I expressed that I was satisfied with the amount of work I had through oDesk, but was confident I could get more if I wanted. A little less than a year later, things have slowed down and I decided it was time to start bidding on work again. A few weeks ago I started actively bidding for new oDesk jobs. Here's how I view the process - in some admittedly broad strokes:
Understand that you're not going to get - or even be considered for - some jobs. Some buyers are looking for the lowest bid - and for some jobs that is fine. Other buyers won't be able to meet your rates, which may very well mean they can't afford what they say they want. Don't let a candidacy that ends with 'rate too high' shake you. Just as the buyer limits their potential providers by the constraints of their budget, your rate limits your potential jobs - and that's a good thing. It helps you weed out the jobs that aren't as valuable as the service you provide.
Don't let a low average bid affect your rate. oDesk recently changed how much information you are able to see about other candidates when you visit a job posting, but you'll still see how many people have applied to that job and the average bid. Don't use that to set your rate, though. Your rate should be determined by the value of your work, your skillset, your experience, and many other factors. It shouldn't determine the way others value their work, their skillset, or their experience. In the same way, remember that the kind of provider a buyer is looking for - and the budget they have - isn't tied to the average bid amount.
Forget where you live. If the only justification for your rate being higher than other providers is that "it's more expensive where I live", then you need to find a job in an office near your house. It doesn't matter what you think of tariffs and protectionism, oDesk is a global marketplace. You're competing with providers in different countries, as well as different economic areas in a single country. Your rate shouldn't be determined by the cost of your mortgage, or the price of your dinner, it should be determined by what your work is worth.
There's nothing wrong with starting slow. When you're starting out, it may take some time to figure out what your work is worth. To get your first few jobs, you may need to bid lower than what you want to be making in the long term. Then, once you gain experience and reputation on oDesk, you can increase your rates. While you shouldn't let the rates of others affect what you set as your own rate, you do have to be aware of what the market will accept. Keep in mind that you don't have to be competitive to the entire oDesk market, just enough to provide the amount of work you want. If you have a few jobs in progress, it may be a good time to increase your rates, start bidding jobs, and see if you can be successful with a higher rate.
Focus on the right jobs. Things like a good cover letter, examples of work, certifications, and oDesk groups can make you stand out from other providers. But after a while you get a feel for what jobs best fit your profile of skills and experience. Some jobs don't require the amount of experience you have, some jobs aren't the kind of work you find yourself getting hired to do. If you really want to stand out as the right provider for a job - focus on the type of job that consistently results in positive feedback.
Is it possible to get work on oDesk with a rate far above the average provider rate in your field, or for a specific job? Yes. It just may take some time, and a bit of determination.
When I started bidding for jobs on oDesk my rate was about a quarter of what it is today. Close to a thousand hours on oDesk means something - but it doesn't mean everything. Honestly, the biggest change in my rate came not because I felt I'd established a track record on oDesk, but because I realized that I didn't need to worry about what others were charging. I know what my time is worth outside oDesk and - since I've proven I can work just as effectively through oDesk - there is no reason for my time on oDesk to be worth any less.
Was my claim to BBC still accurate, as I started actively bidding on oDesk jobs? For the past month or so I reviewed each job that matched my (rather broad) search terms. I know that the jobs I get tend to be single-developer, long-term jobs, with a buyer who has some familiarity with web development, yet needs high-level requests to be understood and implemented. Those were the jobs I focused on. Even still, for most of the jobs I received no response. But one job - on which I bid my usual rate, even though the average bid was lower than the rate I started on oDesk with - has panned out. Now I have another ongoing contract job, at the rate I set, and feel is acceptable for the services I provide.
And yes, I'm confident that in the future, if I want the work, I can go to oDesk and find it.