Getting Paid

Not that I’m bitter, but when I was 20 I worked a deadly dull, minimum wage, night shift job while paying my way through school. Call me cruel (just call me!), but if the dotcom bust and the general recession mean that a 22-year-old can no longer collect eighty large for Instant Messaging his drinking buddies all day long, I don’t consider that a profound national tragedy.

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What galls me about the new New Economy is the reluctance of clients to part with their money while continuing to expect that work be done. I can’t count the number of businesses that owe me money, and if you freelance or run a small web or design agency you probably can’t count your creditors either.

As businesses struggle to stay in business, many are short-changing vendors, and it’s making life rough for those who don’t consider meals optional.


I once had a client go bankrupt – not because of anything I did – so I know the drill: First you pay your landlord, then you pay your employees, then you stall indefinitely on the rest.

Inspired by the ploys of health insurance companies (whose profitability seems to depend on never paying for anything), web clients have developed brilliant new methods of delaying payment almost indefinitely. Chief among them: death by paperwork.

It’s no longer enough merely to submit proposals, contracts, and invoices. Clients need forms, forms, and more forms.

One client has compiled more paperwork on me than the FBI has on Osama. I’ve filled out form after form, each more complex, more baffling, and more obviously useless than the one that preceded it. Not that I’m bitter.


Even if you send completed forms by Registered Mail, you will likely be told they were not received. Send them again, and you’ll be informed that you filled them out incorrectly. By your third or fourth submission, the person responsible for filing the forms and approving your invoice will have been laid off.

Ten phone calls later, you hook up with someone new, who humbly invites you to begin the process all over again, on the grounds that the laid-off person failed to tell you the company can’t accept forms delivered by Registered Mail. Or they can’t accept faxed forms. Or they can’t accept email attachments. Or they can only accept forms in – which software did you say you don’t own? – yes, that’s the only format they accept.

Sometimes you get a friendly type who tells you the company is “making progress” on your overdue invoice. The more trivial the amount of money involved, and the later the payment, the more neighborly this person becomes. After a while, you forget they owe you money, and begin thinking of them as an old combat buddy.

As your expenses pile up, you slip the bounds of reality altogether.  I fantasize about showing up at the office of one particular client wearing my pajamas and dragging a sleeping bag behind me.


While I’m kvetching, Lord help you if you do any public speaking in connection with your work.  In addition to filling out everything from W9s to Loyalty Oaths and submitting your outline nine months in advance, you will be asked to send your personal credit card numbers via unencrypted email to “cover” your double bed at the Mount Pilot Ramada Royale. Six months after the event, you may even get paid.

Some conferences no longer pay cancellation fees, even if they cancel the week of the show, when you’ve already flown to the gig and ensconced yourself in the Hooterville Grande Hilton at your own expense. Not that I’m bitter.


During occasional bouts of lucidity, I ask myself why I put up with this crap, and the answer is always twofold:

  1. I love the web, and can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. (Indeed, having done many other things for a living, I can’t deny how much I prefer this line of work, late–paying clients, browser bugs, and all.)
  2. Reality is reality, and currently all businesses are struggling. It’s business, not personal, and when business improves, behavior will follow. Those who hang in there will reap the rewards. Or so I keep telling myself.

My only wish is that more businesses would act as if things are already improving, would show a little class and a little faith, since the rest of us have to. Ultimately things will get better. Behaving as if they have already done so will speed the recovery. Acting fearfully will only delay it, if you ask me.

Not that I’m bitter.

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