The Subtle Art of Selling Out
A college student’s journey through the ups and downs of freelancing on Fiverr.
I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
I had a very specific vision of how this might go. Every morning I’d wake up, have breakfast, stroll down to my computer. For the whole day I would write effortlessly, and get paid for each word, pausing only for lunch because of my passion for my craft. Only after the sun went down and my kids came home from school would I rise from the computer and eat dinner with them.
Obviously there were a lot of real life elements that didn’t factor into my fantasy, like basic economics, reproduction, and my persistent inability to cook. Despite all that, the biggest blow to my dream (and self-esteem) was the realization that people wouldn’t just pay money for my writing.
I needed to actually prove myself and my work before I could hope for any enthusiasm from others.
After I came to college, I stopped writing for the sake of writing for a while.
Sure, college is a busy time. But other than that, I couldn’t justify all the time I was spending on writing and reading when I couldn’t even imagine how I might start to make a living off of words alone.
When you’re younger, it’s a lot easier to do something for passion’s sake.
But then you grow up. Reality ensues. And with the pressure to find your calling also comes the pressure to earn your worth in society.
Breaking into the market
Summer is a hard time for college students. For a liberal arts major, it’s far worse. Finding an internship isn’t the hard part, it’s finding one that will actually pay you.
In the summer of 2017, I had an unpaid internship in the heart of D.C.. One month into the internship, a glance at my bank account was enough motivation for me to navigate to Google and start looking up ways to earn money online.
My internship was 9 to 5, so I needed something that let me work flexible hours. I was still a sophomore in college, relatively unskilled and with few to no publications under my name, so I needed something that didn’t demand too many credentials.
I browsed subreddits like r/beermoney, r/HireaWriter, searching for advice and resources. I tried my hand at applying to subtitling and translation sites, refreshing my email frantically for projects assignments that never arrived. I even tried my hand at transcription on sites like Rev.com, which for the record I did pretty well at before completely abandoning my account because I was tired of my hands cramping all the time.
Around that time, I stumbled onto Fiverr.
For the uninitiated, Fiverr is a freelancing site that operates on the promise of helping “lean entrepreneurs” “focus on growth and create a successful business at affordable costs”.
Admittedly, I didn’t read the tagline. At the time I was mostly interested because you didn’t have to pay to bid on jobs or give up a compromising amount of personal data to create an account.
Of course, there was a part of me that liked the utopian premise of freelancing on a site like Fiverr. With the anonymity, you’re free to represent yourself without the baggage of inexperience. Oftentimes people abuse this by setting up accounts with fake photos, fake claims, or descriptions ripped straight from other people’s accounts.
I wasn’t interested in any of that. For a liberal arts major like me, this would be the ultimate proof if my work was worth anything. If my writing samples and descriptions weren’t enough to convince people to work with me, then I’d withdraw with the assurance that I just wasn’t cut out for working with words.
At the time, it seemed like a perfect idea. I could make money honing my skills, doing something I liked. What wasn’t to like about it?
I set up my account with gigs (aka services) for article writing, editing and proofreading, short story writing, and English/Chinese translation, and waited for the orders to roll in. When they didn’t roll in, I went to the Buyer Request section (aka the bidding zone) to bid on jobs.
It took me five days to get my two orders, which came on almost the same day. Both were incredibly cheap and quick, but I was new and desperate enough to work incredibly hard on both, earning myself my first two five star reviews.
With my foot in the door, I was eager for more. And that’s how it started.
The gig economy grind
The most exciting part of freelancing, analytics. Ask me about my cancellation rate.
Throughout the whole summer I worked a tiresome schedule. I woke up at 6:30 am, commuted an hour to work, worked from 9–5, commuted an hour home. After that I ate dinner, took a break, and started to work once again. Typically I worked on and off throughout the rest of the night, falling asleep at around 2–3 am. On the weekends I spent half of my day in bed, making up for lost sleep during the week.
The schedule itself wasn’t so bad, seeing as I come from a long line of night owls. What would have kept me awake if I hadn’t been so sleep deprived was the stress of pleasing my clients.
Something I discovered through Fiverr is that I’m great at customer service — especially if I don’t have to do it in person. Having time to think out my responses and fine-tune them with the perfect balance of concern and warmth made communication with my clients flow smoothly.
In a short matter of time, I’d managed to wrangle several consistent clients for editing, writing, and translating. This meant I had consistent work throughout the summer and into the semester.
What started as a summer side gig turned into a school year side enterprise. I was working on several orders a work alongside my regular schoolwork, earning a few hundred extra dollars a month depending on the ebb and flow of work.
For me, Fiverr worked well because I could work in small chunks of time. If I were sitting around waiting for class to start, I could start editing someone’s novel. When I didn’t feel like doing actual homework, I could always take some time to translate a heartfelt fan letter to a pop idol from English to Chinese.
In a way, the work was straightforward, ideal. I was doing the kind of work I wanted to do for pay.
But of course, it’s never that simple.
Earning money validated me. As a liberal arts major working toward an uncertain future, I felt the constant need to affirm my own ability to succeed in a capitalist society. I didn’t conserve the time or energy to make my own art, because the real value of my art was whether I could auction it off or not.
Some people might say that’s selling out. It wasn’t that I never considered it. It was that I didn’t want to.
More orders and more five-star reviews showed up on my profile. Business was booming, and I’d formed a reliable client base who vouched for my writing, translations, editing on a consistent basis. Even if I lost one or the other, I’d always manage to find new one-off clients with relative ease.
I worked through the school year, all the way through my internship during the next summer. While my roommate slept in the bed next to me, I worked on translations and stories late into the night.
By the end of the second summer, I had a little over 150 positive reviews, with more than $2000 in my account. (My average order was around $15.)
And then everything ground to a stop.
I never made a conscious decision to stop freelancing. Senior year of college hit, along with personal crisis. Instead of just trying to deal with all the work through sheer force of will, I put my entire Fiverr account on hold to focus on making it through the semester.
It wasn’t until I stopped that I really began to reflect on my time on Fiverr.
For all the orders I’d completed, all the writing and translation and editing that I had done for other people, I still felt woefully unprepared when it came to setting pen to paper and writing for myself.
It was true that I had started freelancing for the money, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t hope for more than just that. As much as the money, I wanted to learn and grow.
During my time on Fiverr I did learn a lot about the professional world outside of my small college bubble, with all the press releases, technical documents, Amazon product descriptions, and stories. But ultimately, I had developed myself into more of a ghostwriter than anything: writing in other people’s voices and editing other people’s passion projects without much consideration for all the ideas and personal projects I wanted to launch for myself.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. The easy thing about Fiverr is anonymity.
The hard thing about Fiverr is also anonymity.
For the supposedly loyal customer base I had built up, I never got the chance to interact with people in person. I exchanged polite texts with clients without the risky warmth of human connection. The first and last thing they’d know about me were numbers: ratings, reviews, levels.
The gig economy is just that. A marketplace where labor is detached from the person producing it.
Despite what I might have believed, on Fiverr I wasn’t a writer or a translator or an editor, or even a student. I was just some numbers on a profile, a few descriptions on a page. What I sold was a service, nothing more and nothing less.
For an artist, money does matter. But it’s not the only thing that matters.
As I’ve said before, having an audience is nice. Having a clientele is profitable. Writing weird, personal stuff promises me neither of those things.
But if I never write about the things I want to write about, then every single dollar I’ve made from my writing will be a complete waste.
I’d be lying if I said I would never go back to sites like Fiverr. I’m a liberal arts major and a very recent college graduate, and the convenience of the gig economy is unbeatable. That being said, I’m far more excited to move outside of the digital bubble of cheap gigs and profile badges, to work on projects that don’t even guarantee me the safety of a $5 return.
I doubt I’ll ever be the kind of writer I dreamed about when I was a kid. But if I know anything, it’s that sweating over Amazon product descriptions won’t be what brings me closer to doing what I love.
There’s nothing wrong with selling out for your art.
But if your art becomes nothing more than a sales number, then maybe it’s time to step back and reconsider.
Who knows. Maybe you’ll find something that feels so right, it doesn’t seem like you’re selling anything out anymore.
Originally published in The Startup, May 22, 2019.