13 December 2007

Late payers and lazy freelances

Something that many people new to the world of freelancing run into problems with is money. Time and again, I see the subject of getting paid cropping up on forums and mailing lists, these days on an almost weekly basis.

Those taking the leap into self-employment need to learn many things – having a financial cushion when starting out, how to pitch and follow up, ways to find clients and keep them… these are just a few of the essentials. What very few realise is that freelancing is a business. Basically, that means that if you decide to work for yourself, it’s a very good idea to find out exactly what the business side entails. I did a course run by my local chamber of commerce before taking the plunge so I could learn about boring stuff like tax, terms & conditions, contracts, bookkeeping and a raft of other stuff. And I talked to people and read widely on the net.

So I get very fed up when I see freelances (some of whom apparently have years, decades even, of experience behind them) asking the most basic questions about extracting funds from late payers. My initial reaction is STFA* (my variant on RTFM**) because the answers are out there and you don’t need the IQ of Einstein to find them.

I’ve never yet been stiffed for money by a client because I treat my business as a business. I’ve had a couple of very late payers who I’ve come close to taking to court, but it so rarely needs to get that far. And here’s why.

1. If you take on an unknown client, have them sign a contract. I do this always when taking on editing work from private individuals or copywriting from small businesses, to protect myself. A contract need not be complex – mine usually consist of 2 or 3 sentences setting out what I undertake to do within an agreed timeframe at X price and that the client undertakes to pay within 30 days and abide by my terms & conditions. I make 2 copies, sign both and send them to the client, have them sign both and return 1 copy to me. So we both have a record.

2. Terms & conditions: I have these on my website, available for all to read, and they set out everything in stone (and in reasonably plain English). They cost nothing to draw up – a freelance colleague kindly let me borrow his and a lawyer friend tweaked them for English law and checked them over. Standard T&Cs can be found easily on the net. Alternatively, ask your professional body or union if they supply standard versions for members.

3. When I invoice, I make it a) very clear that my payment terms are 30 days and b) that failure to pay on time will result in the client being charged interest and compensation as is my right under the law. I don’t always get paid within 30 days because some companies have payment cycles or policies that may clash and sometimes it’s better to be patient and allow that extra 2 or 3 weeks rather than go in waving writs and losing an otherwise good client. Use your nous.

4. If you’ve not been paid within a further 30 days and emails and calls are being ignored, it’s time to take action. Don't wait till 9 months later (yes and I know of some who left it even longer!) It’s dead simple – you send a statement of account, setting out what they owe and giving them 7 days to pay. If that doesn’t work, you then send a letter before action, which is basically a statement of account plus a legal warning that failure to pay at this stage will result in legal action. And that’s step 3. Most companies cough up when they get a letter before action, but if not, you simply file your claim on the internet with the small claims court (and don’t forget to ask the court to include your own court fees in the sum you are asking your debtor to pay). I’ve never gone beyond step 2 (and that was only once) but I still know the rest because I took the time to learn how to run my business properly.

I really can’t be bothered any more to reply to lame freelances on the forums who run into these kinds of problems. I could spend an hour a week answering posts asking for help. I’m not being mean, just practical. The time I’ve spent in the past trying to help people is time I could have spent earning money. I will gladly help freelances with genuine problems the answers to which are not out there to be found easily. Need a contact at a magazine? No problem. Got a question on how to calculate an hourly rate or project fee? I’ll happily help – these things are never set in stone. But please don’t ask me to resolve your payment problems. Just STFA…

* search the fucking archive

** read the fucking manual


Anonymous said...

Contracts are great, and terms and conditions are useful, as are stating terms. I do all of that. But if you’re setting out as a freelancer, it’s worth noting that many large organisations don’t give a stuff about your payment terms, and the best advice is suck it up.

I’ve freelanced since 2001, and late payment is just part of the job. Sure, issue letters before action or invoice for interest charges, but accept those clients will never hire you again. And if the client is a major newspaper or the BBC, you have to balance the cost of being paid late against the cost of never working for that publication again. It’s not like we’re plumbers with an endless supply of new clients out there. For hacks, the majority of the work probably comes from half a dozen papers and a dozen magazine publishers.

This week, I’m waiting for a little over £4,000 in overdue invoices from three clients, but there’s just no point stamping my feet because the cash is owed by the BBC, a top 10 PR agency and an online magazine that generally gives me 2 or 3 features a month, and which has just upped my rates.

My advice is simply to be polite, to talk to accountants not editors, and to keep gently pushing people. And sometimes it pays off – the accounts lady at the online mag has agreed (after three days of me being incredibly polite and grateful for all her efforts, through gritted teeth), to send a cheque by recorded mail today for the late payment.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't actually disagree with a lot of what you are saying. On the journalism side, I accept late payment goes with the territory and that trying to push for prompt payment can result in being dropped. Which is why I emphasised that contracts and T&Cs are what I use for copywriting and editing clients. And that sometimes it's better to wait a couple of weeks until a payment cycle kicks in.

My gripe was twofold - firstly against lazy freelances who expect colleagues to repeatedly post info on forums about what to do if they need to take action because they can't be arsed to STFA. And secondly that they should take the time to learn that freelancing is a business, not a hobby, and should be treated as a business. Frankly, any business - whether it's a freelance hack, a plumber or a corner shop - does not deserve to survive if they wait 6 or 9 months or longer before deciding to ask around about what to do with a client who hasn't paid up yet. Except that plumbers and corner shop owners are probably way more sussed at getting paid.

Anonymous said...


Although I read them because I wish there *were* some tips I didn't know about on how to get the buggers to pay you on time.

I think yes, treat it as a business but go in with your eyes open and realise that most big publishing companies don't give a stuff that you have a mortgage to pay, if it doesn't fit with their cheque run or "pay on publication" policy.

Grrrr. Think I'm feeling grouchy this week, too!