A few years ago, one of my (at the time) favorite web comics ran a strip featuring a picture of Shakespeare and the punchline “Shakespeare’s got to get paid.” I definitely don’t claim to be Shakespeare, but as a freelance writer, I too, got to get paid. And for the majority of my career, that was the case. I’d do the work. The client would accept it. At some point, whether a week, a month, or that one time I agreed to a net-60 payment schedule, two months, the payment would arrive.
Except for that one time that it didn’t. A company that I’d been working with as a writer for hire for several years suddenly decided to switch from weekly payments (which is like manna to a freelancer, am I right?) to monthly payments. A few of my fellow freelancers saw the writing on the wall, got rightly annoyed, and jumped ship. I thought to myself, “I’ve got this. My cash flow is fine. I can handle monthly payments. It’s not a sign that the company is going under. We’ve been working together for years. I trust them.”
It wasn’t my worst mistake, but it was a mistake, because here I am months later, out $XXXX and the company’s long gone, having abandoned its building, let go of its employees, and filed for bankruptcy.
I’m chalking this one up to a learning experience, a rather unpleasant one, but an important one. Maybe what I want to say here is: Learn from me. Don’t do thousands of dollars worth of work for a company and let it all vanish into nothing.
I should have stopped doing any work for the company the instant I realized they weren’t going to pay on time. The structure of the 30-day payment schedule made that a challenge, at least at first. I’d invoice and keep working, having the good faith that they’d pay me. I’d submit a second invoice around the time the first payment was due, and of course, that first payment was late. I stopped working then, but made the mistake of starting up again as soon as I got paid for the first invoice, not the second. It’s really not rocket science: If you think a company’s going to continue to be late or not pay you at all, stop all work.
Small Claims Court Isn’t That Helpful
All my friends told me I should sue. People got really excited about the idea that I could go on Judge Judy. But, here’s the thing. Winning a small claims case doesn’t matter much if the company doesn’t have the money to pay you or just won’t pay you. I’d still be on the hook for collecting from them, which would have been a pain, since by this point, the company had cleared out of their offices and wasn’t responding to calls, letters, or email.
Accept It and Move On
I’m never going to see that money and that’s just something I’m going to have to accept. Sure, it would have been helpful to have it for paying bills or for saving up for a trip. I also have to accept that I was pretty naive and stupid and that I could have made better use of my time, looking for new clients instead of working with one that ended up vanishing into thin air.
But, all isn’t lost. I have a pretty good story to tell when people ask if I’ve had an terrible experiences as a freelancer. And I now know what to do in the future to protect myself from flaky clients.
Writer Bio: Amy F is a freelance writer based on Philly. She tries to keep things active and doesn’t own a thesaurus.