three freelancers working on a project in separate rooms

Once you’ve vetted and interviewed freelancers to a shortlist of just a few experts, a small initial paid project—aka a test project—gives you a chance to see each one of them in action. It’s an effective way to help you feel confident you’re working with the best freelancer for the project at hand.

A trial project can also help you:

  • Sharpen the focus of your project
  • Try different approaches, or
  • Confirm whether your timelines are realistic.

What makes a good freelancer starter project? In this post, we’ll look at ideas, payment structures, and what to look for.

“It’s time to stop hiring people based on what they say they can do. You should be hiring doers, not tellers. Moving beyond the resume is a critical first step in doing so.”

— Stephane Kasriel, CEO, Upwork
To Hire the Best, Companies Need to Move Beyond the Resume

1. Choose an appropriate project to start with

Find something similar to your main project. This type of activity is commonly used to see how freelancers with creative skills approach a project. For example, you could engage a copywriter to write a blog post or landing page.

Break your project into milestones and use the first one as an intro project. If you have a project with a predictable scope of work and clear milestones, you can use the initial phase of your project or pick a module to start with that’s similar in complexity to the rest of your project. This is an approach that can work well when considering developers.

Prepare a series of problems for them to solve. If you’d like to see how a freelancer might handle different challenges, consider challenging them with a set of problems. For example, if you know there will be tricky elements to your web design project, you can ask for a mockup of how they would handle each element–then pick your favorite web designer for the full design.

2. Decide between a fixed-price or hourly approach

When posting a project on the Upwork site, you can choose one of two pricing structures:

  • Fixed-price projects have a flat fee for a defined milestone or deliverable.
  • With hourly projects, you’re billed for the amount of time the freelancer works.

You and the freelancer can switch the project type if needed once you’ve found a freelancer to work with.

An initial project often works well as a fixed-price project: It typically has a narrow scope of work, and you and the freelancer can negotiate a short timeline and a set price. This helps make it easier to set expectations for the first work you do together.

But setting up an hourly project can also be informative. For example, if you and the freelancer aren’t sure how long it should take to do a particular type of work, an hourly project can help you get a sense of a reasonable baseline.

3. Know what to look for

You already know the people on your shortlist are the experts. So how can you evaluate the results? It often isn’t easy.

Consider not just the skill and project requirements but also the factors that will make your next project a success. For example:

  • How well did they meet or exceed your needs?
  • Did they give you feedback or ask for clarifications proactively?
  • How effectively did they communicate?
  • Does the final product reflect the attention to detail you’re looking for?

A paid starter project gives you a preview of how someone performs when they’re doing real work and creates an opportunity for you to see how well you work together. By making it part of your process, you can have peace of mind that your project has the talent involved to help ensure it’s a success.