What you describe is nothing new. Clients go to Upwork to find the cheapest possible coders. By competing against them, you’re essentially saying “hi I’m a cheap coder too” and get sucked into a race to the bottom whether you like it or not.
If you want to stick with being independent, I would laser-focus on a particular niche and stick with it. A good example is @tnorthcutt’s MemberUp. Also note the heavy emphasis on value and benefits over features (i.e. not so much “I coded an integration for iThemes Exchange and Authorize.net once” but rather “I will help you decrease churn and increase your revenue”).
In short, you need to position yourself as a specialist in a particular niche and not be “just another coder.”
I know it’s kind of tough to hear. It took me a while to realize this myself. I’ve referred to myself as a “WordPress theme developer” for basically my whole career and constantly struggled to get good clients. It’s because the best clients very rarely need a WordPress theme coded, but they do need to improve some aspect of their business.
It also won’t be an overnight thing. It is probably still worth getting a remote job that is cool with “side gigs” until you can get established.
If you want to look for a remote job in the WordPress space, you can try looking on places like RemoteJobs.com or RemoteOK.io and searching for “WordPress,” but if I were you I’d target specific companies that are known to be remote-friendly. Some don’t even bother to post on these sites anymore because they get so many qualified candidates just because of this.
Just to name a few:
- Modern Tribe
I’m not super familiar with all of these companies but WordPress.com VIP partners tend to be remote-friendly. Some of them are already listed above: https://vip.wordpress.com/partners/agency-partners/