More Writing, Less Repossessing

Since the day I started freelancing, my payment policy has been half upfront and half at the completion of the project. I did that because that’s how I prefer to pay for things I’ve commissioned for myself. I hate to give someone a buttload of money before the work has been done because I have no idea if they will die, get arrested for selling meth, or just move to Shanghai while I’m waiting for the work to get done.

(This sounds like I hire really flaky people. I don’t think that’s true. I just think stuff happens…especially when I’m involved.)

But here’s the thing: I pay my bills. I would never try to contract someone for a $1200 job, pay them $600, and then not have the other $600 when the job was done. I would be so embarrassed that I didn’t have the money and was inconveniencing someone else. I would probably die from the embarassment so I’d rather just have the money. I’m sure everyone has the best of intentions but good intentions and a $1 won’t even buy you a decent cupcake in some places. And I NEED my cupcakes, people.

Let me give you an example here.

I had a recent client who wasn’t very web savvy and contracted me to write some webcopy for her new website. She paid me half upfront. I wrote the copy. She asked me to put it directly into WordPress because she wasn’t very familiar with the interface. So I did. She loved it, we were done, and I invoiced her for the rest of the payment.

And then she didn’t pay me.

Which I thought was weird because she raved about it. I sent her a little reminder nudge by email a week later. No answer. Then I sent her another one at 10 days reminding her that she now had a late fee on top of the remaining balance. Still no answer.

Now that pissed me off because I’d been talking to her for weeks up until this point and I knew for a fact her BlackBerry was glued to her hand. She saw those emails. She just chose to ignore them. Honestly, the amount was nominal. I could have lived without it and I was already onto another bigger project. But again, blatantly ignoring me makes me feel like you think you can do whatever you want to me. And that’s just not the case, my friend.

So I logged into her WordPress account and deleted all the copy I’d written for her. My contract says it’s mine until you pay me for it so I was repossessing it. I knew she didn’t really know how to restore the previous versions in WordPress. I also knew she didn’t know how to google for the cached version of the page, copy the copy, and paste it back into the site.

Later that day, she emailed me asking if I knew what was wrong with her website. I emailed her back that it was probably sad she didn’t pay me. It would cheer up after the invoice with the added late fee was paid.

I got an email from PayPal saying she’d paid me a few minutes later. But I took my sweet time restoring the site, just for poops and giggles.

I don’t want to do stuff like this.

I don’t have the time for this stuff. I can be downright dastardly if I have to be but it takes a lot of energy from me so I’d rather not call your website host and explain that you are violating my copyright by using content you haven’t paid for. (This works by the way. I got my payment 30 minutes after that client’s site was taken down for copyright infringement.) I would rather not come knocking on your office door and accompany you to the bank while you get my money. I would rather not sue you and then garnish your bank account. This is not good for anybody involved.

Personally, I have so many things on my plate right now that I sometimes don’t have time to breathe. (And yes, I’ve acknowledged that this is my fault. I’m working on it, ok?) So I have to schedule nearly every moment of my day. No where on the schedule does it say “Go explain to this grown woman that you have to pay your bills.”

And no, I have no intention of moving back my video game session so I can call you again and ask for money you should have already paid me.

So early this year, I went to upfront payments only. I had a few clients (including this particular one) who were still going to get a half and half payment because those were the terms when we started discussing the project. I also have a couple of clients who are agencies or publications, so our payment schedule is a little different, something I’m willing to do for the steady work they throw me. But everyone else has to pay to even talk to me.

Do I make exceptions? Rarely but yes. But I really like the way this has been working out and I think it was the right move for me. Now I can focus on growing my business and I can leave the repo business to the experts.

What about you? What are your payment terms? And what do you do when someone doesn’t respect them?

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Princess Jones

Princess Jones is the mad scientist behind Diary of a Mad Freelancer. For more talk about freelancing, writing, and selling yourself for a living, follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Snickering over you taking control of the site. I have one client who now pays my fee in full at the start of the project. It was a mutual agreement as she recognized her accounting area was slooow to pay. It’s nice to have a supportive client like that.

    I have long-time clients who have gradually taken longer and longer to pay where I’ve been thinking of doing the same thing as you, Princess, and requiring the entire fee upfront.

    It boggles my mind how businesses just ignore the part of the contract they don’t want to comply with. *Sigh*
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Summer Posts in Friday Lite Review

  2. Oh, my goodness, I really dislike clients like that one! You did a good job of managing her. I subcontract some of my work one particular very big client takes FOREVER to pay me (it’s a big corporation) but I always pay my subcontractors myself within 30 days — more typically within 15 days if at all possible. I want my subcontractors to see me as the best person in the world to work for. They have always “paid me back” by being loyal, meeting all deadlines and working the occasional evening or weekend if required. What goes around, comes around, as they say!
    Daphne Gray-Grant recently posted..Reading mysteries is a “vice”

  3. Yes, this non-payment thing that seems to be happening to many freelancers lately must stop. I like the way you took control of the situation with the non-paying client by taking back YOUR content until you received payment. Genius.

    I’ve though about requiring full payment upfront for projects because of extremely slow paying clients. Right now my payment terms are 50%/50% over a certain dollar amount. Anything under that amount must be paid in full before the project begins. Large/long-term projects require 50% down and schedule milestone payments. Getting it all upfront would certainly make things easier.
    Kimberly recently posted..Welcome to My New Home

  4. I saw where this story was probably going and had to laugh that I’d guessed right. Excellent “case study” and advice.
    Claire Wagner recently posted..[Blog down! (Temporarily)]

  5. What timing – I’m in the middle of a big issue like this, but unfortunately, I can’t repo my stuff. I think your response to her was brilliant!

    I’ve been thinking about changing my terms (they’re currently 50/50, or 25/50/25 for really big ones) as a result, but I’m a little chicken. Shouldn’t be, but I am.

  6. I like the way you took control of the situation with the non-paying client by taking back YOUR content until you received payment. Genius.

  7. I love it, “the website was sad”. I bet you are wicked funny. That being said, it’s amazing what people will do in a case like this when they would never accept that kind of business when the case was reversed.
    I’ve just gotten a new gig today and I asked for a payment up front! Felt good. With my one big consistent client I don’t do that. It’s not problematic…until he gets busy and ‘forgets’ which has happened once or twice! sigh…
    Walker Thornton recently posted..Should You Give Your Work Away? The Free Sample Debate

  8. Excellent “case study” and advice…Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Just one point about your tactic of “repossessing” the written content from an online system. Today’s legal climate is very touchy about any actions that smack of “hacking”. Yeah, I know it’s stupid, but the law is inherently stupid, too.

    To a total know-nothing schmuck, content that disappears from a WP site may look like “hacking” to them, or they may present it as hacking when they call the authorities. Because … as impolitic as it sounds, they’re just plain stupid. If the person is stupid enough to not pay for a done deal then they may be stupid enough to blow the hacking whistle.

    And if the client is an ignoramus about the technical part of authoring under WordPress, she may well wind up complaining to law enforcement about someone “hacking” her web site. You could find yourself being visited by the cops over this, or worse.

    There have been some instances of software authors embedding “trap doors” or “fuses” in their delivered project code as a way to compel final payment. Once they get their final payment, they install a fix. Otherwise, the system goes down. For a B2B system the author may be looking at criminal penalties as well as a lawsuit over damages. Likewise, this is a high risk, high liability tactic.

    This is an “edge” case. Not real likely. But possible. Everyone today freaks over “cybercrime”. And it’s always “welcome” to make examples of a convenient scapegoat.

    Great post, as always. But be careful out there. The law very, very often just isn’t on the reasonable, ethical and logical person’s side.

  10. “I emailed her back that it was probably sad she didn’t pay me. It would cheer up after the invoice with the added late fee was paid.”

    I know you hated having to do this, but I loooove your response! I laughed out loud.

    Most of my clients are corporate, so fortunately, I haven’t had any problems with them not paying. However, I do have a couple that take forEVER to pay, despite my 30-day requirement. The problem is that their accounts payable does things the way they do them, and my little requirement isn’t going to change their rigid processes. But these clients tend to give me quite a few “big ticket” projects, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.
    Julie Nilson recently posted..The Art of the Cardigan: Lessons Learned at AWP



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