Freelance Fails #1 – Working for an IOU

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#FreelanceFail.  Image from Pixabay.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” 

– Otto Van Bismarck*

It’s been just over three months since I gave up pretending to look for a real job, and decided to devote myself to freelancing full time.  Those three months have been exciting, scary and, like all new endeavours, full of mistakes.  Fellow freelancers: don’t make the same ones I did!  (It would be a shame to copy my pitfalls, you know, when there are so many other, more original pits to be fallen into).  Take a leaf from Otto van Bismarck’s book, and read on to learn (and laugh) at my freelance fails.

Freelance Fail #1- Working for an IOU

The other day on LinkedIn, I saw a post from freelance copywriter and social media manager Robyn Edwards that really resonated with me:

“I am really, really tired of working with people who don’t want to pay when the project is completed.”

It resonated, of course, because I experienced exactly this unwillingness to pay in one of my first ever gigs as a freelance proofreader and copy-editor.  My client, who we’ll call Sidney, was a student who wanted help editing an essay for his masters course.  I am not an expert in Sidney’s course subject, and I told him this.  I am, however, an expert in writing and editing great academic English.  And so, with that caveat, I expressed my willingness to help and accepted the job.

I talked with Sidney to go over his requirements, and asked him if he had any budgetary restrictions within which he’d like me to work.  His reply was that money was not important- he just wanted me to do the best job I could- so I went away and did just that, then sent Sidney an invoice for the work I’d done.  This was where the problems began.  Sidney dropped out of contact for a few days, then resurfaced to ask me for an extension on paying the invoice.  Now, I had had a very positive working relationship with Sidney up until this point, so I was happy to give him some more time: I trusted him to pay me what he owed me when he could.

Turns out, this was a mistake.  The extended payment date rolled around, and the money did not appear.  What did appear was an angry email in my inbox.  While Sidney had delayed paying me, his essay had been graded, and he wasn’t happy with the result.  It transpired that the essay had contained a number of inaccuracies about Sidney’s own subject, and that it had not met the tutor’s brief.  Sidney blamed me for this turn of events, and wanted to cut my fee almost in half as a result.  I replied to him as calmly as I could, pointing out that I had never claimed to be an expert in his subject, or to be able to advise him on the best way to get a good grade.  That is not an academic proofreader and copy-editor’s job.

Eventually, Sidney paid me two thirds of my agreed price.  Given that I had put a full-priced job’s worth of work into his essay, this was not a lot of comfort.  Nor was the money worth the stress, lost sleep and self doubt which had resulted from having my professional conduct questioned.  It took me a long time after my encounter with Sidney to recover my confidence when dealing with new clients, but in a way, I am glad that I ran into him so early in my career.  It taught me to be a little more cautious in the future, and to never, ever, work for an IOU.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Unless you’re working with a client you know and trust, always ask for a deposit up front.  You can also use an escrow service to provide you with extra security, if you feel it’s needed.
  2. Be clear about your invoice payment deadline, and stick to it. You wouldn’t ask for an extension on paying for a meal out or a grocery shop- and your clients shouldn’t put off paying for your work, either.
  3. Hammer out your payment expectations before you begin a job– statements like ‘money is no object’ or ‘any reasonable price is fine’ are vague and unhelpful. Establish what your price is, and make sure that it’s in line with your client’s expectations, before you proceed. That way, there will be no nasty surprises on either side.

To respect the privacy of my clients, I have not used any names- either of companies or of individuals- or any other identifying details, in this post.

* I totally thought that this quote was from Fullmetal Alchemist until about half an hour ago, and I am really, really glad that I googled it before writing this post.

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