The other day I received an email from “Kathy,” who was a full-time copywriter for 10 years, and, like a lot of folks lately, had been “let go.” Funny how that phrase conveys that you weren’t screwed–you were set free! Liberated! Go, you wild thing! Kathy wanted to discuss the pros/cons/pitfalls of life as a freelance copywriter, and one of her questions was: how do you make sure you get paid?
Oh Kathy, honey, I’m SO glad you asked.
I’ve dealt with the whole “getting paid” issue from two fronts: as a freelance copywriter and as a co-owner of a mid-sized fire alarm contracting business. I dealt with more collection issues in the construction industry; as a freelance writer, I only had one really bad situation in eight years. I was working with a small agency on a larger account, we had already completed several components of a large campaign, when suddenly a new account person took over and we were “let go” without payment for services rendered to date. Luckily, we had a contract and the agency owner sued the company. Luckily, she has two relatives who are attorneys. Luckily, we won and finally did get paid–18 months later.
Here are seven things you can do to make sure you get paid for your freelance work:
1. Check out the company BEFORE you do business with them. Google them, check out the Better Business Bureau, ask around. People who don’t pay their bills get reputations. Find them before they find you and stiff you. Some accounting programs like QuickBooks for Mac offer credit checks for a fee, and while that has its benefits, a company may be current when you check into them but falter soon after. Keep tabs on the industry you work for; if your main client is a home builder and the construction industry is tanking, you may want to think twice before taking the risk. And if you do, check out #2.
2. If in doubt, ask for money up front. You can spot the good payers a mile away: they pay your bill in the terms agreed upon; they don’t “lose” your invoice; you get paid and there’s no drama. For start-up companies with little history, new clients or clients with question marks on their payment histories or out-of-towners, ask for a percentage up front. Put this in writing, in your formal estimate, and get it signed. Some people ask for 50% up front; personally, I think that’s too much. A more equitable, albeit more administrative way to go, is to bill 30/30/40–30% down, 30% midway through the project, say after a first look or draft has been delivered, and the remaining balance to be paid upon completion. This reduces your liability–if the relationship goes sour, you have some money to show for it. This method also helps you build a steady flow of revenue. If people balk, walk away. It’s not worth your time and effort to get burned.
Note: marketing and advertising agencies don’t work this way. You get paid on their terms and like it. Also, beware the “pay on pay” plan. While common in the construction industry, it’s not common in marketing, and for good reason–it means you get paid IF and when your client gets paid. So if your client doesn’t get paid, guess what? You don’t either.
3. Treat invoicing as sacred. Make invoicing a top priority. Set aside one day a week to handle invoicing and payment reminder calls. Bill promptly. Stay on top of who owes you what. If you wait too long to bill or collect, the company or the contact you worked with might not be around anymore. Use formal estimates (again, I use Quickbooks for Mac, it has everything I need) with actual legal disclaimers that clearly spell out your terms. Never give out rough estimates in an email; there’s nothing worse than scrolling through thousands of sent emails three months later trying to find the original quote buried in three paragraphs of text, or trying to explain why something will cost extra when you didn’t mention it in that email.
4. Get to know the AP folks. When you start working with a new client, always ask what information they need to set you up as a new vendor in their system. Smaller companies may giggle, but you will sound polished and professional. Larger companies may direct you to the Accounts Payable (AP) department. Other times, you’ll send your information directly to your contact and she or he will forward it for you. You will always need to provide a current W9. Keep a digital copy and send it along with your first invoice. Get to know the AP people, be nice to them; they are the ones who will process your bills–or not. And remember, they almost always know your primary contact and will be happy to let them know if you’ve treated them like crap.
If the bill is past due, call the AP folks first–not your client, who is busy and does not want to deal with Freelance Writer Bettty calling to look for her $250 check. If after a week or so, you are getting the runaround from AP–say they don’t return your calls or emails–then reach out to your contact in a nice way. He or she may have forgotten to pass on your invoice to accounting or the invoice might be sitting in a stack on their desk, waiting for approval. Assume the best until you have reason to believe the worst.
5. Be prepared. The National Writer’s Union has great resources for members, including a database of literary agencies to avoid due to nonpayment or other unethical practices. Ask friends of friends for attorney recommendations, preferably attorneys who take pity on freelance writers and starving artists. Consider doing a barter–write a brochure or some marketing materials for an attorney in exchange for a block of legal assistance should you need it. It’s nice to know that you have the back-up you need when you need it, rather than scrambling at the last minute.
6. Stay in touch. Some projects take longer than expected. When a brochure starts stretching out beyond the original deadline, call your client. Determine a set amount of time that you’ll wait before billing them another percentage. Call and give your client notice, then say you’ll follow up with an email. then do it, so you have proof.
7. Be nice. To a point. There is always the chance that a check did get lost in the mail, or that they actually did mail the check the day before you called. There’s nothing worse than reading someone the riot act or hitting send on a nasty email, than strolling out to your mailbox and finding the check sitting right there.
Hopefully, you will never have to deal with this problem because you will have fabulous clients who appreciate you and take good care of you. Be good to those clients, or other freelancers like me will be happy to swoop in and take them off your hands. If you’ve had trouble getting paid as a freelancer, what steps did you take? What worked for you?