I’ve been self-employed full-time for one year this week and have learned a lot over the course of that year. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to not to let companies intimidate me.
Last year, a graphic designer I knew from a volunteering gig — I might even have thought of her as a friend once — contacted me. She had scored a startup client who was looking for a new website. She was going to work on the visual part and wanted to bring me in on the copy. I said yes but, quite soon, the alarm bells started going off.
The designer’s position in the project was unclear from the start. She kept saying she was “managing it” but she was also just another contractor for the client. Knowing that she had no experience in project management, I was confused and doubtful. And, indeed, she showed herself to be a terrible organiser, manager and communicator.
“Can’t you just, like, give them a ballpark quote?”
I couldn’t get a clear briefing for my quote. I couldn’t get an onboarding meeting with the client. For a long time, I never even talked to the client myself.
After I sent her my preliminary quote (based on the little info I had been given), I heard nothing from the designer for weeks. Then, suddenly, it needed to all get done immediately.
Once I finally got some more information, it became clear that the scope of the project was different. I needed to adjust my original quote. I wrote a new one, a binding offer this time, just for a voice-finding workshop and website concept. The copywriting I would quote them for once I knew more from the workshop.
When I was finally put in touch with the client via email, they started arguing about the price. By then I was wary and offered to cancel everything, no harm done. But they told me they wanted the workshop.
So, the workshop took place and I gave them a lot of creative input. I sent them a concept for their website. Then, I sent them my invoice. I also told them that I wouldn’t continue working with them, that they would have to find someone else for the website copy. I needed to get out of that crazy project! That’s when the shit hit the fan.
“I didn’t like the sandwich that I ate up, so now I’m not paying for it”
They refused to pay on grounds of “they felt they didn’t get enough out of the workshop”. Basically, they consumed the workshop, didn’t complain during or after it, never said another word, and then refused to pay.
I liken what they did to going to the supermarket, buying a sandwich that is clearly labelled, eating the whole thing on the way to the cash register, and then refusing to pay for it — on the grounds that you didn’t really want that sandwich.
“Hi, have you met my lawyer?”
In the end, I contacted a friend of mine who’s a lawyer. He looked at all the emails that had gone back and forth, gave a snorting chuckle that I assume all lawyers learn in law school and sent the company a nice little lawyerly letter.
This week, after 6 months of saying my work was too expensive, that they had never agreed to the price, that they didn’t get their money’s worth, I found the amount had finally be wired into my account in full. I guess they didn’t have such a good case after all, eh?
I won’t lie, I was scared stiff throughout the process. I knew it would be illogical for the company to even go to court with me, but there was always a chance that they weren’t aware of that. And even though I knew that I was right, I was so afraid that a court would randomly decide I wasn’t right after all. Now, I’m extremely glad that I didn’t let fear make me back down.
Don’t Let bigger business Intimidate You
One of the most important lessons I have learned from all this is that you should never give in to a company just because they are bigger than you. Freelancers and solopreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to insist on what they are owed.
Yes, it will feel like you’re David going against Goliath. Yes, you will fret and fear that it’ll all go to shit even more. But don’t let that hold you back from fighting for what you are owed for your work.
David won against Goliath, didn’t he? And while not all cases can be won, there is immense worth in checking out what you can do before backing down.
How Are You Going to Win if You Don’t Fight Back?
If a client refuses to pay for services rendered, figure out what options you have in your country. It’s different everywhere. Some countries even have organisations that make financial support available if you can’t afford a lawyer.
Talk to other freelancers! There’s always someone who has been through the same struggle and can give you some advice. And don’t be afraid of getting a lawyer involved. Pick someone you can trust to tell you if your chances are good or bad.
It’s normal to be afraid of going to court, but know that quite often things won’t even end up there. Bigger companies don’t like lawsuits either, especially not ones they are unlikely to win. Quite often, it’s simply a case of putting the fear of a lawsuit into them.
Companies are not above trying to screw freelancers over. They may be perfectly aware that you’re right and they’re wrong, but they think you won’t fight back and that’s why they’re giving it a shot. If you stand up for yourself they’ll likely end up paying — so what if they grumble while doing so.
I know it seems unfair that you even need to go through this in the first place. But don’t let that scare you. See it as an opportunity for growth. Next time, you’ll insist on a clear contract. Next time, you’ll trust your gut when it tells you to say no to a project.
And next time someone tries to screw you out of your money (and, likely, there will be a next time) you’ll be less scared and more decisive in your moves. You won’t even blink twice before getting a lawyer involved if that can get you your money faster.
It’s hard, for women especially, but don't be afraid of making yourself heard even if it means you have to be unpleasant. After all, if you don’t fight back how can you win?
A big thank you to Lukas, the lawyer who helped me get my money! And thank you to everyone in my coworking and freelancer communities, as well as my wife, for supporting me in my fight and for having my back while I was fretting and worrying.