Updated: Sep 12
Everyone warns you that this might happen. They called it the freelancer’s right of passage. The creative’s christening. The extra-spicy burrito. I didn’t think it would happen to me. But, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, it did.
I’ve worked for a client who refused to pay me.
This is kind of embarrassing to admit (especially considering I run a professional services company). But it turns out, I’m not alone. Many freelancers I’ve talked to have had at least one instance like mine since COVID first began (and many of them are artists, many are women, and many are BIPOC, I may add). Maybe it’s because the virtual world is a less accountable one, maybe it’s because our clients didn’t realize how tight their belts were until it was too late, or maybe it’s because we’re all making it up as we go because none of us took Pandemic 101 (it probably would have been a one-credit elective anyway). But just because the world is a mess right now doesn’t make you, your work or your time any less valuable. So in an effort to help me process what went wrong, I’ve identified the three things I should have done differently:
I should have vetted my client carefully.
The person who enlisted my services told me upfront that they didn’t know where the money for their project was going to come from. No problem, that’s what I’m here to help you figure out, I said, and I put off compensation until later. In order to get paid, I depended on the competence and professionalism of a total stranger. Not to mention, I possessed an inflated sense of what I could accomplish. The worse off a project is, the more helpful I can be, right? And the more helpful I can be, the more valuable I am, right? And the more valuable I am, the more money I can make, right?
One idea on how to avoid mistake no. 1: create an intake form and empower yourself to choose carefully the projects you want to work on and the people you want to work with.
I shouldn’t have done a thing until we both signed a contract.
In most cases and in most states, verbal and email agreements are in fact binding. Getting a “Sounds good, thanks“ reply to an estimate isn’t as pretty as a signed dotted line if you were to go to court, but it is still considered sound (with some exceptions). However, that won’t stop someone who doesn’t know anything about the law from trying to claim that because they never got around to signing a contract (adjusts monocle), they are not obligated to pay you.
Although my client and I had a contract for this project, I did not actually make them sign it. We formed the document together, going back and forth and editing the terms, then revising it when the scope of the project changed. And it was as we were in the middle of these adjustments that they decided to cut ties. That way, they could claim nothing bound them to paying me.
Deep down, I also think that I was hedging my bets— in my mind, every hour I spent working on my client’s project would give them more proof of my competence, go-getter-ness, and general likability. So that when they finally did sit down to sign, they’d look back at all the great work I had already done and then under the compensation clause be like, “well, duh. Alex deserves all this and more because she’s the smartest, chill-est, most professional person ever and she’s got amazing hair.”
One idea on how to avoid mistake no. 2: even if you aren’t ready for an actual contract yet, document and consolidate e v e r y t h i n g. Put all the money talk in one email thread. Write up summaries of phone calls. CC all relevant parties. Pair the contract with a 50% deposit. And then staaahp.
Nice is different than good.
My client was a nice person. They were deferential to my advice, confided details to me about their personal life, and wanted to have lengthy conversations about all manner of irrelevant things. I took that to mean that they would never spy for loopholes to get out of their obligations, and wouldn’t dare cheat someone they had come to know and express appreciation for.
But especially in a time when almost all our social interactions take place on a screen, I should have remembered that nice is different than good. Niceness is indicated by the number of double-taps, swipe right’s and care emojis. But in our current reality, how do we identify, acknowledge and reward goodness?
Being buffeted senseless by months of virtual social interaction, I had forgotten that these things are different. And I think so did they.
One idea on how to avoid mistake no. 3: surround yourself with good people so you know how to spot ‘em.
As I write out this list and see the situation simplified, even I am shocked at my naïveté. How would any sane adult let any of these things happen, much less someone who started a company trying to empower and protect other artists?
The truth is, I wouldn’t have made any of these rookie mistakes if I weren’t insecure. Firstly, I was insecure in my own value. As a young woman of color, I’ve been dismissed for stating my needs and ignored when standing up for myself. No matter how many #bosslady podcasts I listen to on morning runs (sike, running is evil), I was more willing to prioritize someone else’s sense of security than I was to protect my own.
I was also insecure in my circumstances. Sure, when I met this person they didn’t fit exactly into my vision of a dream client. They’re new at this. They’re figuring it out as they go. They’re a cat person. But times is hard, COVID is real, and I should take what I can get, right? I believed in the scarcity of the present more than I believed in the abundance of the future.
So because the start of this working relationship wasn’t exactly auspicious, I tried not to spook my client with legal-ese. I made exceptions and cut corners on my own policies. I shrank my needs. I rolled over and wagged my tail and made myself small to make them think they could handle me.
But the fact of the matter is, you can’t be everything to all people all the time. You can’t play like a puppy and bite like a wolf. You can’t be a buddy and a boss. And you can’t be a version of yourself who is okay with shadowy grey area, while also being someone who needs to get paid and get paid on time and in full so you can afford rent, a full tank of gas, and a side of guac like a living, breathing human does.
So although I am ready to put this mortifying experience behind me, I know that my future self will thank me later. Because if you believe in your value and defend your worth, the only people who will fear you as a threat are the people on the lookout for one. And they should be afraid.
Alexandra, founder of The Hustling Creative, is a performer, composer, audiobook producer and business owner based in New York City. She holds a BM from the University of Delaware and professional certificates from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Harvard Business School. She has been engaged as a speaker at dozens of universities and conferences across the country. She works with artists to convert their craft into a meaningful and creative business. Contact her here.