Pay Up, Motherfucker! Or How Not to Get Ripped Off While Freelancing in Paradise

Money, Work| Views: 693

Right, so you’ve been doing this for a while. You know, the whole digital nomad thing. Living in exotic locations around the world soaking up coconuts, sunshine, and making your living through remote freelancing.

It’s cool right?

As with any adventure though, it doesn’t come without its challenges. They say you can’t have sunshine without the rain and for once they might be right.

If you want to continue enjoying the fruits of this lifestyle there are some practical things to take care of when it comes to your work. The most important of those is making sure that you consistently get paid by the clients you work with.

There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a client drop off the face of the earth when it’s time for them to pay up.

I’ve been in the game a while and I’ve seen my fair share of this. I’m sure you have as well, and it never takes more than a few incidences to motivate you to get some protective measures in place.

I’ve had a look around and haven’t seen anything comprehensive, so I figured I’d lay my strategies out step-by-step that ensure I get paid for every single project I do.

After all, who wants to leave paradise and move back into their parent’s basement?

Not me.

Think of these strategies as an insurance policy

I liken the strategies I employ to an emergency insurance policy that covers my ass if things get ugly. No one wants a working relationship to take a turn for the worst, but it happens enough that you’d be foolish to not have any protection.

Remember when you first stepped out into the real world and thought everyone cared about you as much as mommy?

For the most part people were friendly, but then it happened…you got your first taste of being taken advantage of.

It’d be great if we lived in a world where that didn’t happen, you know, utopian dreams and all that. But if you live your life in utopian fantasies you stand no chance of seeing the world as it is and playing the game at a high level.

Just like taxes, watching out for yourself is a necessary evil if you plan on making sure the money you worked so hard for makes its way into your bank account.

Keeping with the insurance analogy, sometimes you don’t need full coverage right? Sometimes partial coverage is enough. It’s the same with freelancing, and the factors that determine what kind of policy you need are two-fold:

  1. The amount of money on the table
  2. How comfortable you are with the client

From here on out I’ll use two fictional insurance policies in order to illustrate the strategies you can put into play depending on the above factors.

‘Basic Coverage’ is a situation where the amount of money at play isn’t much (< $1,000) and you’re comfortable with the client.

‘Advanced Coverage’ is a situation where there’s a good amount of money on the line and you don’t know the client that well.

As we move through the stages of the working relationship I’ll outline what I’ve found to be effective, and I’ll also give real-world examples of how I put these strategies into use for the article you’re reading right now (yes, I’m a freelance writer).

I’ll break it down into four parts:

  1. First Impressions
  2. Negotiations and Working Agreements
  3. Payment Timelines
  4. Contracts

Let’s do it.

 

1. Gut Instinct and First Impressions

Making sure you get paid starts from the very first time you come into contact with your client.

First impressions are powerful, and assuming you’ve got your part of the equation in order (i.e. you come off as a professional) the first thing to do is get an accurate impression of who the client is.

Some of the questions I ask myself are:

  • What’s the reputation of this client?
  • What do his peers and colleagues think of him?
  • How is his (or her, of course) initial communication?
  • Does he seem to know exactly what he wants?
  • Is he being unnecessarily vague?
  • How does he come off to me?
  • As someone respectable, or as someone to watch out for?

We have spent thousands of years honing the art of reading people. It was necessary back in our tribal days to know who you could trust and who you couldn’t. Screwing that up could often be the difference between life and death.

Nowadays we call it intuition, but whatever you call it I find that it’s accurate most of the time. And from painful personal experience I’ll tell you that it’s a mistake to ignore it in lust of having more money in your wallet.

All of this goes to say trust your gut, and if you get ‘bad vibes’ get out.

It’s impossible to know how much my intuition has saved me from potential disaster, but I’d bet heavy that it’s more than I care to know.

This process of vetting a potential client usually doesn’t take longer than 30 minutes. All we’re talking about is taking a look at Google and paying attention during your first conversations.

What you’re after is information about the potential client that’ll help you determine whether he’s likely to pay.

 

Basic Coverage

Emails and written communication in general give a good enough picture of the client if you’re looking at a small job. I’d also throw in a quick look around Google to see what pops up about him (and his company if relevant) and look for any potential red flags (e.g. complaints or negative ‘reviews’, poor quality of work, etc.)

 

Advanced Coverage

For advanced coverage I want to have a video chat with the client. This is hands down the best way to get a first impression of someone if you’re thousands of miles apart. Written communication doesn’t cut it when significant time and money are at stake. The closer to face-to-face communication you are the better you’ll be able to get an accurate first impression. I’ll also dive deeper into Google and spend as long as it takes to get to either, “yes I can trust this client”, or “I’d rather not risk it”.

 

Real-World Example

Jeremy is the owner of this site you’re on right now, and he made a job posting on ProBlogger saying that he was looking for a couple of freelance writers. Easy enough. I came across his post and it checked off most of my ‘first impression’ instincts:

  • his post was detailed
  • he knew what he wanted
  • he seemed engaged in the project

Based off of that I decided that I’d look into the opportunity more closely, so I hopped over to Google and searched for any other info I could find. I got my detective on in order to find his real name and where he hung out online, but eventually I stumbled upon a few articles and a website that looked like his.

I went through it all, and at this point I was only looking for yellow/red flags that might hint at something shady, but everything checked out so I decided to go all in and move to the pitching phase.

Throughout our initial conversations I had my eyes open for any signs that the job may not be worth my time, but things continued to check out:

  • his replies were quick
  • my questions were answered with clear and decisive answers
  • he wasted no time beating around the bush

These are all things I look for when talking with a client for the first time in order to predict how our project will go.

 

*Quick Bonus #1 – Take an extra 30 minutes after you’ve decided to go all in and see what else you can find out about the client. I promise you that digging deeper will give you some great inside information you can use to personalize your pitch and stand way above your competition. I did this with Jeremy by commenting on an article of I found of his and here were his exact words:

“FWIW, you were 1 of only 2 people out of a hundred or so that bothered to figure out who I was ;)”

 

2. Where the Magic Happens – A.K.A Negotiations and Agreements

This is the part of the process where it literally pays to reach clarity. You’ll be negotiating and eventually coming to agreements on things such as:

  • the total fee to be paid
  • deadlines
  • final deliverable
  • number of revisions
  • payment milestones

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that putting in the work up front to spell everything out goes a long way in eliminating headaches down the road. As a general rule, the more confusion there is on these fundamentals the more likely it is that you’ll end up with more work and less money than you planned on.

 

Exact Deliverable and Making Sure Your Client Knows What He Wants

The first thing to come to an agreement on with your new client is what exactly they can expect in their hands by project completion.

Vagueness in this step can result in the client trying to milk you for more than you had in mind at project outset, and that’s about as fun as having your flight delayed for the 3rd consecutive time.

This also protects you in case your client doesn’t realize he wants some ‘features’ until further down the road. If I’m working on a project that has the potential to balloon in complexity I’ll let the client know up front that they can only expect what we’ve outlined, and anything not covered will have to be discussed to determine any extra fees.

 

Basic Coverage

Let’s say you’re a freelance writer hired to write an article, you’ll define a rough expected length of the article and the topics that’ll be covered. If you’re building a basic website for a client you’ll determine how many pages the site will be, the functionality, what level of design the client can expect, etc.

 

Advanced Coverage

Here’s where it’s time to get pretty damn specific.

Let’s say you’re talking with a client about ghostwriting an e-book (bigger project = more protection), you’ll want to determine the entire outline of the book up front, a rough estimate of the length, whether you’ll be editing the book as well, whether you’ll be formatting for digital stores, whether you’re responsible for the cover design, etc.

Don’t assume that the client knows what you know or even knows what he wants. Even if you feel it’s unnecessary to lay everything out it’s generally worth your time to do it. Eliminate assumptions and take the time to think about what the client expects and then make sure you’re both in agreement on what that is.

 

Real-World Example

There usually isn’t much to figure out when it comes to the deliverable of an article apart from the topics to be covered, the angle to approach them from, and a rough word count. In the case of this article, Jeremy and I sent a few emails back and forth to choose and clarify one of the ideas I sent him in my proposal. I’ll show you the exact conversation we had so you can see the process we went through to reach clarity:

 

Jeremy (after reading my initial pitch which contained 5 article ideas):

I like your concepts that deal a bit more with the logistics of foreign work/life – I am trying to keep the site away from the “travel blog” space, although I am on board with personal narratives being used to bring the ideas to life. And I agree, personality and a bit of attitude are really important, nobody wants to read lifeless copy. Since we are new, I don’t really have a tone of voice in mind so I am open to trying out some edgier ones for sure.

I liked the “Pay up motherfucker. Or how not to get ripped off,” idea. I’d be curious to hear some of your strategies in that regard. So if you’re up for it, let me know how long you think it should be.

 

Me:

The strategy I’ll deploy depends entirely upon who you want to reach. The more precisely we can pinpoint this, the easier it’ll be to create content that serves them. In this regard, I have a couple of questions that’ll help me fine tune the strategy so we can craft the article into what’s needed:

  1. Is the site targeted at long-established freelancers living as expats, or at the newbies who have recently made the leap?
  2. Are you targeting expat freelancers in general, those in specific fields, or those in a specific income range?

I did create a basic outline(attached) for “Pay Up!…” to give you an idea of a path we could take.

It’s a ‘meat and potatoes’ outline aimed at freelancers who have recently become expats and need solid systems for end-to-end management of their client relationships.

 

Jeremy:

Thanks Austin, this looks great.

I would say for the audience in this case that it’s location independent / remote freelancers. Probably on the fresher side if they are looking at something like this, but not super fresh blood – that’s not really the target here – we want people who have already done a bunch of client projects and are perhaps running into a few issues like this. I would also like to keep this in the context of remote work – that’s not to say your outline content doesn’t apply, just that I would like it to be presented from that lens.

 

That initial communication in discovering what we were shooting for was crucial, and only after got clarity on that did we agree on the final terms of the project (e.g. deadline, price, etc.).

 

Deadlines

It’s human nature to underestimate how long it’ll take to finish a project. We’re notoriously bad at recognizing everything that goes into a finished project and estimating the complexity of each task.

Experience helps here, but I find it’s good advice to give yourself more cushion than you think you need (e.g. if you think the project will take you 10 days to complete give yourself 15). You never know what’ll happen in your day to day life, or what problems will arise that’ll set your schedule back.

No one likes to work with someone that is consistently behind on their commitments. It comes off as unprofessional, and it’s not unusual that repeated delays can cause the project to die in the water. Leaving you penniless, or at the very least with an unsatisfied client.

 

Basic Coverage

Take your cushion into consideration and estimate a soft deadline your client can expect the deliverable by. If it’s a straight-forward project, milestones aren’t typically necessary but it depends on the relationship between you and your client.

 

Advanced Coverage

I recommend breaking your project up into smaller chunks and setting time frames for each phase. The smaller your chunks, the more accurate the final deadline and the more peace of mind you’ll instill in your client.

 

Real-World Example

Coincidentally enough,6 I failed to take my own advice for this article.

We can’t all be perfect, hey? And it’s a perfect example of what not to do when it comes to deadlines.

For this article I was shooting for a 96 hour final deliverable time which is what went to the final agreement, and I overshot that by not giving myself a proper cushion. I underestimated the the length and got held up with a previous client which pushed everything back

It’s important to know that sometimes shit happens, and it happens on both ends of the relationship. Sometimes you get hung up and sometimes the client does when it comes time for payment. The takeaway is that communication is crucial, and if kept solid throughout the project (even with delays) then the relationship is still likely to end on a positive note.

 

*Quick Bonus #2 – I find that it’s typically much better to under-promise and over-deliver than it is to do the opposite. Everyone loves pleasant surprises and most everyone hates disappointments, so aim to keep your work on the side of ‘pleasant surprise’ and you’ll have plenty of repeat business

 

Number of Revisions

If you don’t get this sorted up front you can find yourself in a pile of complications. You think you’re done, the client doesn’t, but he’s the one paying so it’s his way or the highway.

How many times will you allow the client to say, “Oh, I forgot! Can you please add this? And this, and this…”?

I find that most of the time clients are reasonable when it comes to revising the original work sent to them. The problems come when a client wants additions that he didn’t know he wanted when the project began.

If you don’t have an agreement on the number of times you’ll make the additions he wants, you could end up with more work than you bargained for.

Ultimately, the number of revisions you choose to accommodate is a personal as well as a marketing and branding choice. You don’t want to be known as the airline freelancer that charges for an additional pack of peanuts, but you also want to protect your time.

It’s a good idea to limit the number of revisions the first time you work with a new client, and slowly raise them up after you become comfortable. At a certain point the repeat business is more valuable than an extra $50.

 

Basic Coverage

Come to an agreement up front that your client has x amount of opportunities to look through everything and request changes. I’ve used 1, 3, and 5 revisions in the past without a hitch.

 

Advanced Coverage

Here you’ll do the same thing as basic coverage, but also define which change requests you’ll accommodate and which ones you won’t. You’ll have to strike the fine balance of making sure your client gets a fair deal while making sure you don’t end up working for pennies.

Let’s take a website as an example. You could agree on 5 revisions, but those revisions have to be within the scope of the original agreement (e.g. you’ll edit the design and layout, content on the site, functionality, etc.). If your client wants to add a forum to the site and that wasn’t within the agreement, then you wouldn’t accommodate that unless the client was willing to pay extra.

 

Real-World Example

I told Jeremy that we’d work on this article until he was totally satisfied, so unlimited revisions. That’s a personal branding choice, but after talking with him I was also comfortable enough that he’d be reasonable when it came time for edits.

Here’s exactly what I said in one of my emails to him:

“Unlimited revisions and a money-back guarantee if for whatever reason you’re not satisfied with how things are going”

 

3. Payment Strategies and Timelines

Get this wrong and you’re out of luck if shit hits the fan and your client runs out on you.

Get this right, and you’ll always get paid at least something for the work you do.

I’ll start off with some sagely advice I received from the Enlightened Ones high in the Himalayas:

 

DON’T DO ANY WORK UNTIL YOU RECEIVE AT LEAST 25% OF YOUR TOTAL RATE

 

This is the easiest way to figure out if your client intends to pay you. If he balks at paying anything up front and won’t budge, it’s time for you to hit the road. You’ll be better off finding another client.

Different situations call for different strategies, but the principle is the same. Your client needs to put his money where his mouth is before you move forward.

 

Basic Coverage

If it’s a relatively small project I’ll split the payment in two. A percentage up front and a percentage upon final deliverable. It’s up to you, but you can do splits such as:

  • 75% up front and 25% upon deliverable
  • 50% up front and 50% upon deliverable
  • 25% up front and 75% upon deliverable

Remember, your client is taking a gamble on you as well if it’s your first time working together. He’s trusting that you’ll do the work and it’ll meet the expectations you set, so asking for too much up front could be deterring enough that he goes elsewhere.

 

Advanced Coverage

For bigger projects I’d use milestone payments. They’re effective at keeping everyone on track as the project evolves towards its final state. The timelines you use and the payments for each depend on what you’re doing, so you’ll have to use your intelligence to figure out what’ll work best. I tend to split the total fee into percentage chunks that are paid at natural ‘stopping’ points within the project.

Again, let’s take a website as an example:

  • 25% up front
  • 50% when the framework is complete
  • 25% upon final delivery

It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. The idea is that you never want to work too far ahead of what your client has paid you for in case he decides to take off for whatever reason. Worst case scenario, you lose a couple hours of uncompensated time but you still earn something. That’s a much better outcome than doing the entire project and then finding out that your client isn’t going to pay.

 

Real-World Example

For this article I went with 75% up front and 25% upon completion. I did that for a few reasons:

  1. The project was under $500 which is my threshold for when I’ll start breaking the payments into milestones
  2. The project was straightforward enough that no milestones were necessary
  3. Since this is the first time Jeremy and I have worked together I wanted a bit more insurance on my end

Jeremy agreed, I sent the initial invoice his way, and once that was paid I got to work.

 

Contracts

Setting up a contract is easy enough that it tends to be worth the effort if you want all of your bases covered. I don’t mess with it if the project I’m working on is sub $500, but once it goes above that I’ll whip one up and send it over to my client.

There are plenty of great templates online that you can customize for your particular project (here and here), but the option to hire a lawyer is always on the table if you want to be really sure that your covered.

Even if you don’t use a traditional contract, you’ll still want everything to be laid out in writing somewhere. It usually doesn’t take more than pointing to the previous agreement for your client to stick to their word and pay you if it gets to that point.

 

Basic Coverage

Make sure everything is crystal clear and in at least one of the emails you send to your client

 

Advanced Coverage

Use a contract template customized to the job you’ll be doing, or hire a lawyer to write one for you

 

Real-World Example

Since this project was small I didn’t use a formal contract, but I did outline our agreement clearly after we had decided on the final deliverable.

It looked like this:

  • My rate is $xxx for the final deliverable
  • 75% at onset and 25% upon completion
  • Unlimited revisions and a money-back guarantee
  • Final deliverable to be in your hands 96 hours after initial payment

There’s not much room for confusion there and that’s exactly what you’re aiming for. Get specific, get detailed, and communicate it plainly.

That’s all it takes to keep everyone accountable, and provides an easy reference if there’s ever confusion throughout the project.

 

***

Alright, you’ve made it this far (I know it was a long one) and hopefully you’ve picked up a few ideas that you’ll use in your next projects. Just know that they don’t work unless you apply them. The more detailed you are, the better the situation turns out for everyone involved.

The real-world examples might not apply to you if you’re taking on bigger projects, but they should be insightful enough to point you in an optimal direction.

I figured out these strategies by trial and error as I went along. Not just to make sure I was getting paid, but as a way to bring a higher level of professionalism to my working relationships. In the end, it was that professionalism that made the difference. The more professional and authentic I became with my clients, the more professional they became with me. That meant spending less time chasing down late payments, and more time enjoying the fruits

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