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The Fine Art of Getting Paid (and Spotting Red Flags)

Ottawa, Wellington Street, November 2018

“What are you doing?”

“I’m working.”

“Yeah, but why?”

“Huh… well, I’m good at what I’m doing and I get paid for it. Look. This document is in French and I’m rewriting it in English so that people who don’t speak French will understand the content.”

“But… where does the money come from?”

“… my client who needs the translation?”

Mark frowns, suspicious, and inspects my laptop. Suddenly, I get it—this was a literal question. Shockingly, there’s no hundred-dollar bill sticking out of the USB port.

“It doesn’t work like that,” I reply, laughing. “The computer doesn’t spit out coins and bills as soon as I hit ‘send.’ It’s… virtual. My client deposits the money into my bank account.”

I log into CIBC. “This is my money. Remember the card I use at the ATM? When I withdraw cash, it comes out from this account.”

“OH MY GOD. You have… you have…”

Mark is so excited he can barely speak. Keep in mind this is the six-year-old kid who thinks you can buy a house for one hundred dollars.


“Well, yeah, that was one job.”

“Wait. That’s like…”

“Two thousand and fifteen dollars.”

“You have more than one hundred dollars? Stay here. Gonna go tell daddy.”

I can’t stop laughing. I get it, from Mark’s perspective, it’s pure magic. People give me money when I send them documents. Like, seriously?

Except it’s not always that straightforward—the getting paid part of the business, I mean, I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of making a living and that you’re not staring at the computer hoping it will start printing banknotes.

I’m a freelancer. Not only there’s no guarantee I’ll get assignments, but there’s always a small risk I won’t be paid once the work is delivered. Illegal, sure, but who’s looking forward to a legal battle?

Luckily, five or six regular clients keep me busy. We’ve been working together for years and we built a good relationship—I deliver documents promptly in proper French or English and they pay invoices by the due date.

The conundrum begins when a new client contacts me.

Government of Canada? I’m in. Unless you’re on the payroll (see the Phoenix fiasco), the federal government and the public sector in general a reliable. Slow payers, sure, but they are my only client who add late fees without being prompted.

Large, established companies with an accounting department? Probably, if we agree on terms and conditions.

Small businesses? It depends. If the project is small and if I’m desperate, I usually hope for the best and go for it. If the client sounds difficult, I’m out. Dealing with idiots is a waste of time.

Unfortunately, identifying red-flag and green-flag clients isn’t an exact science.

In April, I was contacted to join the team of a London-based communication agency. There were no red flags. The tip came from another freelancer, the company was legit and the end client was a big multinational. I went through a professional onboarding process, budgets were agreed upon and the project managers were efficient and friendly.

Payment terms were originally net 45 (i.e. invoices to be paid 60 days after issued), then the company changed them to net 60.

In June, after completing various assignments through April and May, I waited for my first invoice to be paid. Past the forgivable few days’ delay, I emailed the project manager, who told me to contact accounts payable. My emails went unanswered but the invoice was paid a couple of weeks later. A month later, same scenario for the May invoice, but this time, an email was sent to all freelancers to assure us that payment issues were being worked on.

Damn. Giant red flag.

One of the project managers quit and in private, she told me she was tired of getting calls and emails from angry, unpaid freelancers. The June invoice was paid after a dozen of not-so-friendly reminders. The July invoice was paid several weeks late after I threatened to add late fees—and did. In October, I declined assignments, which prompted a fast payment of the very late August invoice. I’m no longer working for this agency. The September invoice, my last one, is due in December. Should be fun.

I wish I could say “lesson learned” but I didn’t see this one coming. The freelancer who put me in touch with the agency is also having trouble getting paid and she felt bad about dragging me into this mess. Apparently, the agency was reliable at first.

In October, I was contacted by a small business in Ontario. There were more red flags than Tiananmen Square on October 1. The industry is notorious for creative accounting, the company’s website was poorly designed and the HR department was just one person. At first, I claimed I was busy. “No rush!” they replied. Then I gave them a quote. They attempted to negotiate. I refused and they proceeded on telling me such behaviour was commendable.

Damn. Now I had to take the job. I still asked for a 40% deposit, which they transferred right away.

I completed the work and delivered early—my HR contact was sweet and helpful, I went above and beyond. I sent my invoice for the remaining balance and I gave them 30 days to pay it. I’m not a monster, I know cash flow can be an issue for small businesses.

The HR contact was delighted to see the assignment had been completed before the due date. “I’ll make sure your invoice is paid really fast!” she wrote.

Two hours later, my phone pinged. Despite the net-30 terms, the company had paid the remaining balance in full right away.

Faith in humanity restored, quickly covering my initial red flag with green paint.

Yeah, you really can’t tell with clients. Welcome to the life of a freelancer.

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