Freelancing Isn’t Free: Don’t Get Fucked Over

If you’re a new freelancer, be very careful because at some point, someone will try to convince you that they will pay you later. It happened to me a few years ago (twice; once for $10 and I wasn’t about to chase down $10…and once for $350 for a ghostwritten non-fiction book that I still own the rights on that Justice Legal Team before it became Justice Legal Team wrote a demand letter for payment and gave the publisher a certain number of days to pay or stated clearly that I would retain rights and sue their fucking pants off and own their company if they tried to use the book…clearly, I’m not quoting the letter verbatim).

And as I was having a nice little Skype chat with my VA this morning, she told me that some asshole took advantage of her. The conversation started because last night I found a website similar to Upwork that stated it doesn’t charge fees to freelancers. That sounds good except that Upwork provides something that most freelance sites don’t: payment protection for freelancers. They also offer dispute resolution. So, even if you want to bitch about their fees, you won’t get better tools, services, or access to better clients. We both agree that while it’s a neat option to have other sites around, Upwork is our favorite because of the protection it offers for freelancers. And, no, Upwork doesn’t give us shit for saying that. I’ll tweet them and tell them I sang their praises, but other than maybe a virtual high five, nothing comes of it (and I’m cool with that).

While Faiza and I both use Upwork separately, we did not meet on Upwork. I pay her before she starts any work for me because I know what it is like to get fucked over. I’m in the United States as everyone here knows. Faiza is not. Faiza told me her rate and I said okay. The only negotiation we did was a separate project that I had for my publishing company. It was just something I wanted to try. She said she’d be open to trying it. I paid her up front. She did it and gave it back to me completed. I asked if she enjoyed it. She said not really her wheelhouse. And that, too, was totally fine because I have plenty of other things I can use her for including helping me with filling my calendar with consultations as well as helping me with my new website.

Anyway, she told me that some dude wanted to hire her and promised to pay her after she did some work…and showed her his identification…because, you know, when you’re half a world away, that’s totally helpful. And, like the dishonorable bastard he was, he did not pay her.

Unfortunately, it is something that most of us go through at some point. And, honestly, it is even something that, to some degree, clients even go through: hiring freelancers and not getting what they paid for (but that’s a post for another day).

So, as a freelancer, what can you do to protect yourself and make sure you get paid?

  1. Get and use your Upwork account. Did you know that if you meet potential clients off the platform that you can invite them onto the platform to work with you? You’ll get payment protection and, at least from what I’ve been told, there is no fee if you are Top Rated. Also, if you meet clients on Upwork, you are required by ToS to remain with them on Upwork for a certain amount of time or one of you are required to buy out the contract. At least, that’s what it used to be like. I’m still with one of my original clients from five years ago. We fulfilled our two years on Upwork and them my client opted to take the contract off of the platform since I use Zoho.
  2. Always require a deposit up front for your services. This is especially important if you are working with someone who isn’t in your state or country. I’ve been screwed over preparing documents, writing a book, and a $10 article. I wasn’t about to chase someone down out of state. That’s a lot of fucking leg work. Going to small claims court would have cost me more than the document prep was worth. That is something you must always consider: will it cost me more to deal with than the money I should have made? And new freelancers are notoriously bad about not getting independent contractor agreements signed. You know, the ones that say you will pay me and if you don’t, here’s what happens, including the jurisdiction in which I will sue your ass. (Template coming soon to my premier online community, by the way…) Get the money up front. Depending on how much work it is and what you need to acquire to complete the job, get at least half. Depending on what you do, you really need some kind of agreement in writing. I’m not joking. Do not wait because you will get fucked over. And if they are a big company, don’t let them bully you and make you feel bad about asking for money up front. They should be willing to pay. They should be able to AFFORD to pay you up front and they should be willing to do it as a sign of goodwill.
  3. Be clear about your terms of payment. I discuss this upfront with every non-Upwork client. I discuss whether there is a deposit that must be paid (and confirm via email), whether the terms of payment are five days or day of, and whether the invoice will be sent weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. We also discuss how payments may be made. In short, I make sure there are no questions when it comes to terms of payment. I have Venmo, CashApp, Google Pay, Stripe, PayPal…there is no reason why they cannot pay their invoice and pay it on time. If you’re on Upwork, hourly contracts close on Sunday evenings (in the US) and you’ll get paid on Tuesday evenings after the pending period is over. You can also just wait and it auto-deposited or you can manually move it. For flat rate projects, you submit the project and request the milestone payment, but always get the milestone funded before you provide the deliverable. Always. And do not be afraid to use Upwork’s dispute resolution. They are good people. I’ve used them myself.
  4. Consider where your referral comes from. Most of my non-Upwork contracts come via referral. And by contracts, I don’t mean they must hire me for a certain amount of time. I mean clients. Depending on the scope of the project, I still charge some sort of upfront deposit. If it’s something like weekly social media work, but they limit it to say, four hours a week or something small, I might say okay to bi-weekly billing. But if they are late on that first payment, their account gets frozen. Most of my referrals come from my best clients, but it isn’t the fault of my best clients that some of their friends or colleagues are flighty and sometimes don’t know their heads from a hole in the ground. Their colleagues are looking to delegate and I understand that, but I do not fuck around when it comes to my money and you should not fuck around about it, either.
  5. Write and use a demand letter. Do not beg. It is a demand letter. You keep documentation about your work. You write a demand letter on letterhead. You print it to PDF. You attach a PDF invoice that shows they are past due and you send it. You keep notes. And whether you decide to take further action or not, you do not work with them anymore. It doesn’t mean you need to blast them on social media. It does mean that you’ve learned a valuable fucking lesson, though.

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