I’m sure none of you are strangers to being asked to do favours for friends and family. I’m here to tell you that while there’s nothing wrong with doing a favour for someone you love now and then, always draw up a contract and terms of service, no matter how small or minimal the project. I don’t care if you’re doing it for free – make them sign a contract. In this case, I assume complete responsibility for the following situation because I mistakenly worked from trust. I should also warn you that this reads more like a bad romance than anything else, but hey, I wouldn’t wish the following on anyone.
Background: I’m a 22-year-old university student with aspirations of practicing rural medicine. I’m also a freelance web/print designer. It’s my sole source of income, and it’s what I do to put myself through school. I don’t have much of a social life because I balance a full-time university schedule with twenty to thirty hours a week of volunteer and paid design work. I wouldn’t change a thing here. I’m happiest a-codin’ and designin’, and I count myself as pretty lucky to be able to make a living from my hobby while I’m working towards my doc dreams.
I’ve always been a nerdy and creative kid, so I got into computers and art at a fairly young age. I knew I liked designing and I spent a lot of time playing with Python to pick up on basic programming in middle school. In high school, I designed posters and crappy Geocities websites for nearly every extra-curricular club around. So when I was fifteen, I was really excited when my dad asked me if I’d be interested in doing some design work for a good business acquaintance of his, whom I’ll refer to from now on as CFH (for Client From Hell – what else?). The job involved developing some simple layouts and promotional materials for an industry-specific print career guide. Armed with Publisher and Photoshop, I got to work.
The pay seemed pretty damn great for someone my age, and the idea of getting paid to do something I loved from home seemed pretty attractive compared to the notion of finding a summer retail job, an experience that had bored me out of my mind the previous year.
I did the job, CFH was happy with my work, and I continued working on small projects for him every now and then, past graduating high school and entering university.
In early 2009, I received a scholarship to study abroad for a semester. When CFH heard, he gave me his heartfelt congratulations, attended a goodbye party my parents had for me, and even gave me a generous monetary gift for my travel expenses. He’d become a very supportive family friend at this time, and was often the only non-South Asian face at family gatherings. I was really grateful for his support and thought the world of him. When I returned six months later, CFH let me know that the website I had designed for him had been voted into the global top ten of its field and that he would be branching out to cover a greater range of clientele. I knew that it was making him boatloads of money and I was happy to have been involved in a project that had achieved such status. He asked me if I’d be interested in taking a lead role in helping out with the company’s growth. I agreed enthusiastically, and got to work.
Fast forward to September, when I started as CFH’s primary web designer. The work was substantial, and took up much more of my time than previous projects had, but it was completed on time and he was thrilled with it. Prior to starting, I had let CFH know that I’d be changing our previously casual business relationship, and that I’d be invoicing him all Official-Like from now on since I was going to be using my work as my primary source of employment, and needed to keep good records for tax purposes. At this stage, CFH had started outsourcing all his back-end development work to India because it was cheaper than hiring Canadian-based developers, so I think my invoice took him by surprise as he had thought that web work would be ‘cheaper’ and ‘easier to do’ than print, for whatever reason. Keep in mind that I was asking for what was essentially cents above minimum wage per hour of work not including the many hours I spent on development, consultation, edits, etc. because I was a little insecure in my legitimacy as a designer due to my lack of formal education in the subject. I now know this to be BS, as my current clients continue to hire me, citing the diversity of skills I offer and the highly creative and efficient nature of my print and web work. Nevertheless, I decided to give CFH a very steep discount because we hadn’t pre-negotiated the terms (even though he was aware of how much time each project was taking me). He took his sweet time with my invoice but finally, and begrudgingly, decided to pay up.
Things get a little ridiculous here.
CFH became increasingly imposing. His phone calls to me became increasingly longer and unrelated, bordering on uncomfortable.
He started demanding additional amounts of work to be done ‘immediately’, and when I’d ask about payment, he’d get irritable and tell me that it was ‘all about the money’ with me, and that he’d pay me as soon as I sent him an invoice via snail mail. Everytime I would mail out an invoice, he’d complain about some charge, and insist that I send him an updated invoice with this or that detail changed. This continued. I didn’t see a cent. I was even paying for stock photos and fonts out of pocket and not being reimbursed like I had earlier been promised. Keep in mind that I was in a particularly delicate position given that this person was my father’s good friend, and regretfully, my pride got in the way of actually saying anything to my father at the time. At the time, I didn’t think things would (could?) get worse.
They did, so in January, I put my foot down. I told CFH I’d no longer be working for him as he had become unbearably imposing, and had unreasonable expectations of me. Primarily, I was concerned because I hadn’t seen a cent from any of this work I’d done since September. He countered this by telling me that I was a rip-off and that he’d found a “professional design agency” that was better equipped to meet his needs. I wished him the best despite the fact that I was disappointed at having let go of my biggest client. I tried not to think about the many hours of work I wouldn’t be seeing a cent for anymore. At the same time, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to put up with his borderline psychotic behaviour, or compromise the quality of my work anymore to meet his increasingly ass-backwards demands (white text on beige?).
Two days later, I received a phone call from CFH. He apologized profusely right off the bat, said that he’d pay his complete owing sum, and that he needed me to come back. He told me that he was extremely unhappy with the quality of, and the speed at which his new designers were completing his work. He begged me to come back, saying that this time he’d be more considerate of my time and reasonable in his expectations of me. I hesitated, but agreed to come back on the terms that he had to agree to the estimate I gave him prior to starting each job. Since my prices were ‘too steep’ for him and he didn’t want to contend with the fact that I could only work in the evenings due to my class schedule, we worked out a system where I would design the main graphical elements and primary pages, and his “professional design agency” would use these elements to develop subsidiary pages for the back-end. He agreed, and I got to work. As a sidenote, I should mention that his “professional design agency” pulled out when they realized the extent of work that needed to be done and his unreasonably demanding nature, but I digress.
So I hadn’t realized that my new agreement with CFH would otherwise translate into a one-way ticket to hell, with him reigning as chief Satanic commander.
His behaviour become fairly unbelievable at this point: he’d call me at 11:30pm and asking to have something by 7am the next morning. He’d whine when I’d decline. He’d have me sit on the phone for hours while directing me to this stock photo or that website to “get inspired by” (i.e. steal). At the time, I was under a lot of stress because I was experiencing a flare-up in an existing neurological condition that was putting me in the emergency room almost every week. I mentioned at one point to CFR that I was scheduled for an MRI in a couple of months, and he suggested that I pay out-of-pocket to get it done privately to avoid the wait. A private MRI has to be done out-of-province, and runs upwards of $1500. I explained that this was not an option for me given that a recent astronomical increase in tuition costs, and my student aid being cut substantially due to the increasing conservatization of my post-secondary institution.
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t ‘get’ it, telling me to bug my parents for the money or ‘something’. For the record, I’m completely financially independent, and have no intentions of harassing my parents for money I’m perfectly capable of making myself. My lifestyle ain’t so lavish that it requires a lot of dough either: I’m a herbivore, don’t go out much, share an apartment with two other people, and ride a bicycle or take public transit everywhere. I use open-source software and recycle hardware whenever possible. Textbooks (which I generally buy secondhand) and tuition are my major expense, so while my living costs might be minimal, they’re still there. I wasn’t sure what part of this CFH couldn’t comprehend. Surely, he’d understand, having himself been a student forty years ago?
April was the final straw. I hadn’t seen a cent since September despite many false exclamations of “the cheque is in the mail!” and what I now knew to be CFH’s lavish income from MY work.
He even had the nerve to call me to share his excitement about his new ‘keyless’ car, which he eagerly explained cost about as much as a house.
A myriad of other reasons followed, and you should tell me if I’m being a bit too sensitive here: Rape jokes? check. Racist remarks about his Indian developers DESPITE the fact that I’m South Asian too – but ‘not like one of them’, according to him? Check. Pictures of, and forwarded emails from women he was sleeping with? Check. Pervasive questions about my sexuality and personal life? Double-check.
I quit. I fucking quit. I sent a politely-worded e-mail explaining that I would not be working for him anymore. I don’t believe in leaving people in the dark about their behaviour, so I explained very clearly exactly how his behaviour had influenced my decision to leave. CFH responded by saying that he hadn’t “bothered to read my e-mail” but that “as a professional, [he] anticipated that [I] would provide [my] assistance in bringing the new resources up to speed..”. Regarding my invoice, his exact words were: “It shall, of course, be paid, in full, upon receipt” (all those commas, must be, compensating, for, something) seeing as how he was continuing to use my work. I had no problem with this, and made the remaining incomplete files available in their raw form on my server, alongside a detailed explanation of what the new designer/s would need to know. I’m not a vengeful person, so when the new designer got in touch with me, I was quick to direct him to where he needed to be. I just wanted to get paid and get CFH out of my life already.
Things seemed like they were ending on a slightly more positive note. A few days later I got a call from my father. CFH had taken him out for drinks and then gotten him call me to “tell me” to come back to work for him. CFH had explained to him that I was upset about my pay (I didn’t realize zero dollars was pay?) but that he had ‘forgotten’ that I was now a grown-up with financial responsibilities, and not that same fifteen-year-old who was estatic about getting some spending money from his hobby.
He told my dad that I had left him hanging despite having given me a pretty decent deal; apparently my ‘mental health issues’ and ‘greed’ were getting in the way.
Clearly, this wasn’t just about the money for me anymore, and I realized that CFH’s new designer had probably bailed on him as well as a result of his.. loopiness. Naturally, I declined. This upset my father initially, though he changed his mind later when I gave him a (heavily censored) account of what had actually happened.
Besides, hadn’t CFH mentioned that he’d be paying me for the work I’d already completed? The invoice was in the mail for the fourth time. Of course, I didn’t set my expectations too high because on May 11, I received the following message: “Let me be quite clear about things. Unless you immediately finish the projects you started for [Company Name], we shall not pay your invoice. Enough is enough!”
So now I know better than to expect any pay at all. Over 300 hours logged since September, and not a cent.
CFH continues to use my work and profit from it. I have no legal backing because (1) CFH happens to be a retired lawyer, and (2) I never drew up a physical contract because of the sporadic nature of the work and our long-standing business relationship. My own fault. The best part? I have to defer my next semester at university to work more, because I couldn’t come up with my minimum tuition payment in time this year – seeing as how my job didn’t pay me, and I had to use my existing funds for things like rent, medication, and food. CFH is well aware of this. Sucks, but I’m not one to dwell in the past recognizing my own mistakes. I’m also far too grateful for things like a roof over my head to feel sorry for myself.
I learnt my lesson and since then, I have had no problem putting what I’ve learnt into practice with my current clients. Keep in mind that these are primarily charitable organizations and student groups with very limited funding – yet they have no problem respecting my time, signing contracts without complaint, agreeing to my terms and putting down a 50% deposit before I do any work. These clients believe in my right to make a living wage from my work, and that’s exactly how all clients should treat their freelancer.
In closing, please don’t make the same mistakes I did with CFH. I don’t care if you’re making invites for your neighbor’s son’s friend’s girlfriend’s baby shower: always draw up a physical contract, regardless of whether the work is for-pay or not.
It’s a sad fact, but there is no guarantee of sanctity in a long-standing relationship regardless of how long you have had your client. There are people out there whose only motivation is to make as much money as possible while taking credit for your work and screwing you over in the process. A contract gives you some legal backing, and at the very least ensures that both parties understand the terms of service. Deposits are great too, because they ensure that both parties are invested in the project to some extent. Lessons are better learnt earlier rather than later.
And finally, to CFH? I trust Karma.