It’s every freelancer’s worst nightmare—you’ve done all the work for a big project, but instead of paying you, your client disappears into the night as soon as you hand it in.
Non-freelancers don’t have to worry about that. Every 2 weeks your company gives you your well-earned paycheck (whether a client backs out at the last minute or not) and that’s that.
But working for yourself is a bit different—in a perfect world, you could always depend on someone’s word and wouldn’t have to deal with pesky contracts. But given the reality of the world, it’s up to you to ensure that you’re rewarded for your hard work.
Here are 5 ways to protect yourself from those horrible (yet common) situations:
1. Have more than a single conversation
Before taking on a new client, feel them out. Do they sound committed? Are they organized? Do they have a good demeanor?
If possible, try to meet with them in person. While this won’t completely guarantee they’re good clients to work for, you can pay attention to body language and the way they carry themselves. Find a public place to introduce yourselves, like a coffee shop or restaurant.
However you decide to interact with this person, listen to your instincts. If you’re getting a bad vibe, don’t work with them, even if they pay well. The beauty of freelancing is choosing your customers. You’re not obligated to do business with anybody you don’t want to.
2. Write a contract (and get it signed)
Never, EVER do a single minute of work without a contract. Put the pencil down, your keyboard away, all your equipment aside until you get a piece of printed paper in your hands that outlines exactly what you’ll be doing and for how much.
At minimum, your contract should state what services will be performed, for how much, and when the payments will be due. You can also add clauses that talk about late fees, client confidentiality, and competing among other clients.
If you’re the one drafting the contract, take a look at several sample contracts (there are thousands free online) and then just pick and choose the sections you want to include in your own contract.
3. Ask for a deposit
A lot of people are afraid that asking clients to pay upfront will scare them away. But the truth is, it’s actually quite common to ask for 50% of your fee up-front, especially if the project is one that’s specifically commissioned for an individual.
Any percentage works, if 50% sounds too steep, but I wouldn’t recommend going lower than 25%. You want enough money in your hand so that if your client disappears with your project, it hasn’t been a total loss.
4. Invoice as soon as possible
The more time you leave between asking for final payment from your client and actually getting paid, the higher your risk of never getting paid. All too often, a client will forget that payment ever needed to be made. . . even if you’ve only delayed by 2 or 3 weeks.
In a perfect world? Send that invoice immediately after every project.
But of course, every situation is different. If you have repeat customers who frequently give you work, it may be easier to send one invoice for multiple items at the end of the month. Since you work together so often, they’ll have a harder time forgetting who you are, anyway.
5. Try every means possible to get your payment
Chasing clients for payment is never fun, but sometimes necessary. Be sure to give all sorts of notice by email, phone, or even stopping by their office if you can, and keep records of every conversation in case you wind up taking the matter to court.
On the rare chance you make some sort of agreement on the phone, be sure to follow up with an e-mail reiterating & confirming what was said (you always want a paper trail you can point to later).
And, if you continually need to light a fire under a client in order to get paid, you probably shouldn’t continue to work for them anymore. There are others out there who will respect your work and pay you accordingly.
6. Have a good lawyer in your contact list
Sometimes clients drop off the face of the earth never to be seen again. But if it’s a fairly large amount they owe you, there are plenty of advocates that specifically help freelancers and small business owners get the money they’re owed.
Depending on the state, if your vanishing client owes you less than about $3,000, you can’t sue them in small claims court. BUT, you have another option. You can simply write off the loss as a tax deduction at the end of the year.
If you know an accountant who specializes in working with independent contractors, they can probably find a tax break for you.
The sad truth is that freelancers get taken advantage of frequently—maybe because “free” is in the name. It seems to be even more common with creative professionals who tend to be more focused on their artwork than contracts.
So if you’re an artist, and you plan to make a living off of your work, don’t let those contracts slide! And when it comes time to get paid, remember that it’s OK to be assertive with your clients. It might not be much fun, but the “business” side of freelancing is what’s going to allow YOU to create for the rest of your life.
Special thanks to Alex Soare for sharing this article! Alex is a professional opera singer and writer who has worked in the online art space. His website can be found at alexsoare.com.
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