My Freelancing Horror Story – How To Make Better Choices

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It’s been said that mistakes are the best way to learn, and that’s true.

But there’s no reason they have to be your own mistakes.

When I started my professional blogging career, I was such a novice I didn’t even know I should have been asking for advice and guidance. It seemed pretty simple – I’m a good writer, people with blogs need writers for blog posts, so what’s the big deal?

hustle and workWith just my own personal blog as a portfolio, which admittedly was about average quality, I began building a list of clients who would pay me anywhere from $30 to $50 to pitch and write short blog posts. In just a few months, I went from knowing nothing at all about blogging to earning $600-$1,000 every month from freelancing.

It seemed like things were going pretty well. The income wasn’t steady, and I knew I needed to earn more if this was going to be a career, but making money didn’t really seem difficult at all.

After 6 months of blogging, I was beginning to get paid more per post, and with my additional income from editing, touches of affiliate marketing here and there, and no shortage of businesses willing to hire freelance bloggers to get content on their sites, my profits were enough to support me.

Or so I thought.

By the way, you should learn from me: don’t quit your day job too soon. When everything went wrong, I had a little bit of money saved in case of emergency, but I never anticipated what would happen next.

My First Freelancing Horror Story

One of my clients, an online magazine that featured wines, craft beers, and artisanal foods, was asking for plenty of work…but they were in the middle of an expansion, and they kept changing their process for pitching articles. They went from approving or denying pitches as they were received to limiting writers to a 3-day window every month in which all pitches had to be made and approved.

James River Cellars winery in Richmond, Virginia wine displayDuring the changeover, I continued visiting breweries, wineries, and gourmet shops so that I’d have plenty of things to pitch, and so that I would be able to quickly provide the articles when they were approved. If they weren’t accepted, I reasoned, I’d just sell the articles elsewhere.

In my mind, I was being proactive, and I thought the client would appreciate that I was so efficient during their harrowing expansion.

Of course, there were some other problems with this client, too.

They had a habit of approving my articles, telling me that they loved my work, and then coming back weeks later to complain that I’d done everything wrong.

Or, I’d email them a question (email was the only contact information I had) about what they wanted or how something was supposed to be structured, and they’d never respond…until a month later, when they sent me a nasty message demanding that I immediately turn over the article they’d approved originally. When I sent the article, they promptly told me that I’d done something incorrectly and I should have asked for help if I didn’t know the standard, even though I had asked that question and it was never answered.

As an experienced blogger, I know now that bad clients aren’t worth the fee – but as a newbie, I didn’t want to lose the chance to sell my posts to these people, so I continued trying to work with them.

It was a huge mistake.

They finally accepted pitches again during their ridiculous 3-day window, and I sent them a list of all of the interviews and tours I’d done. I told them that the work was ready to be completed, and if they approved the pitches, all of the articles would be finished and sent with photography within 48 hours of acceptance.

All of the pitches were approved.

I sent all of the articles just as I promised.

And then nothing happened.

They weren’t published. I wasn’t paid. My emails once again went unanswered.

It took two months of non-responsiveness for me to finally take further action. Normally, I don’t have formal contracts with clients, but this one insisted that I sign a contract – and the contract that they insisted I sign said that I would be paid for every article that the client approved and I provided…there was no provision that it had to be published on the site before I got paid.

With that contract in hand and a complete email history showing that every article was approved and provided, I did a little research to find the owners of the company, and I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau requesting that they pay me the $800-ish that they owed me.

Well, I got a response, then.

They eventually paid the outstanding balance, but first, they accused me of plagiarism.

In fact, they used the references I had given them when I first applied as a writer, and they contacted every one of my other clients to accuse me of stealing work, filing unfounded complaints, and various other illegal activities.

a coder, judging by the pictures on his laptop, remains intently focused on his computer screen, looking a bit frustratedI had just quit my job and moved thousands of miles away from everyone I knew.

And all of my clients except 1 dropped me, because they were afraid that having my name on their articles might invite trouble if this one bad client was going to make accusations.

They knew I wasn’t stealing work, but that didn’t matter. A reputation is an important thing, and they didn’t want my drama impacting their brands. I don’t hold it against them at all. They made the right decision.

My income plummeted. I had been making enough to support a fairly comfortable lifestyle. After that fiasco, I ended up making about $60 a month until I rebuilt my client list, which was much more difficult since I couldn’t use any of my previous references.

It was an expensive lesson, which is why I’m sharing it with you.

Choose your clients carefully.

Yes, I quit my job too soon, and had I still been working even part-time, the tragedy would not have been so complete.

But the real mistake I made, the biggest and most important mistake, was that I didn’t pay attention to the warning signs. I accepted that awful client, so everything that happened was entirely my fault.

And they haven’t been my only terrible client.

working together with other people can be difficultOkay, I admit that I can be a little (a lot) hard-headed. I never make the same mistake twice…I make it 3 or 4 times, just to make sure.

There are some warning signs that your client is going to be more trouble than they’re worth. Even if they’re not dishonest, a hopelessly disorganized person or a startup with no business skills can wreak havoc on your freelancing life, despite their good intentions.

Here’s what to look for:

The Warning Signs of a High Risk Client:

  • They aren’t responsive. If you have trouble getting answers, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong. Perhaps your emails and calls go unanswered, or it takes weeks to get a response. Or maybe you’re getting replies, but they’re evasive or don’t fully answer your questions. That might be a sign that they’re disorganized or overworked, or it may indicate that they’re a little shady. Either way, if they can’t respond quickly and effectively, they’re probably also going to have trouble paying you on time, or at all.
  • They’re inconsistent. You’ve been asked to do things a certain way, but when you turn in your finished work, it turns out that they wanted something different. Any inconsistencies are a sign that your client is either unsure of what they want, which means they’ll likely have no problem dumping you without paying if they change their mind yet again, or they’re not being entirely honest, which is another major red flag. Businesses that don’t have a well thought out marketing plan or blogging strategy are terrible to work with, and there’s a high risk of doing great work for which you won’t get paid.
  • They invent complaints when things aren’t going well. One of the most common problems I’ve seen in trouble clients is this: they’re perfectly happy and hands-people-woman-meetingabsolutely love your work…until they need a scapegoat. When you ask for payment, request information to help solve a problem, or when they aren’t millionaires overnight, there’s suddenly some kind of issue with the work you did. Last week, it was the best they’d ever seen, but today, you’re not up to par. Drop that client immediately, even if they owe you money. These are the people that will make excuses to avoid paying you, and they’re almost always crooks.
  • They’re hopelessly disorganized. You know the type: they ask the same questions over and over because they misplaced the first 4 emails where you answered it. They can’t remember if you provided that article on time or not, because it doesn’t seem to be on their computer and it should have been posted 3 days ago. They think they paid you for that already, but of course they can’t find the receipt…even with the best intentions, these people will take up inordinate amounts of your time without much payoff. While they might not be taking advantage of you intentionally, they’re costing you thousands in time, effort, and missed payments. Kindly end the work relationship, and hope that they’ll be competent enough to give you a good reference if you ever need it.
  • They’re interested in something other than your professional skills. Perhaps one day I’ll share the story of the gentleman who wanted to share a prostitute during a “business” lunch. As a young, single woman, I’ve had more than a few men (of all ages) who acted like they wanted to hire me, but they really wanted to take advantage of my naivety. Nowadays, if there’s even a tiny hint of flirtation in a seemingly benign comment, I refuse the work offer. Not only is this dishonest – it can be dangerous. This can happen with freelancer men, too, by the way. Be wary of potential clients with ulterior motives.
  • Their demands are inconsistent with their performance. Lots of businesses want to hire the very best writers, and they have a 15-step approval and editing process to ensure they get the right results…but if their current output isn’t up to the standards they claim they’re after, it’s best to walk away. When a client wants you to do work that’s significantly better than what they’re willing to do themselves, it’s a sign that they’re looking for that magic solution that makes their business successful overnight. Of course, you should have a positive impact, but you’re not going to be their savior, and when they figure that out, it’s going to be your fault. Taking on a deal like this is always risky.
  • money and bargainingThey want stellar work at bargain prices. We all want a deal, but there’s a difference in a getting a great value and taking advantage of someone. The client that expects a 4,000 word, fully search engine optimized, industry-leading article with 4 links per 200 words, at least 10 academic references, and an existing platform of potential customers that will read this article as soon as it’s published…for $15…is never going to be a good client. Even if they agree to pay what you’re worth, they’re likely to try to haggle later when the work’s already completed, and they’ll try anything to justify paying you less. Charge what you’re worth, and only work with people who treat you like an investment instead of an expense.
  • Their business is obviously failing. Look, not everyone is going to build a multi-million dollar empire, and that’s okay. But keep in mind that you’re in business for yourself, and freelancing for someone is a business deal. If that person’s company is essentially a sinking ship, odds are that they’re not a savvy and educated entrepreneur. Again, they might have excellent intentions, but intentions don’t pay rent. Think of this as a partnership – if you wouldn’t accept that person as a business partner, don’t take them on as a client.

Of course, these aren’t the only signs that your professional relationship may not be meant to be. Even if things look good on paper, and you don’t notice any of the warning signs listed above…

Go With Your Gut

Intuition is a powerful thing. Use it.

We’re smarter than we give ourselves credit for. That feeling that something isn’t right is usually an indication that our brain picked up on some cue that we’re not consciously aware of, so even if you can’t quite identify why you have doubts, trust that instinct.

In the example I shared earlier in this email, I had my doubts about that client from the beginning, but I was insecure in my ability to replace them with someone better. Even if I had walked away when they owed me only $100, it would have been far less expensive than losing the majority of my income and damaging my reputation.

It took an extreme situation for me to learn that the cost of a risky working relationship is far higher than the cost of cutting ties at the first sign of trouble.

Yes, it’s scary to pass on opportunities sometimes. I understand.

Do it anyway.

You’re still going to have the occasional crappy client, and you’re probably going to get ripped off a time or two over the course of your career. Even the most careful freelancers run into problems – that’s just the risk you run any time you work with people.

You shouldn’t ever have to sacrifice your self worth, your integrity, or a fair payment in order to find work. You’re better than that…and when you expect better from others, you’re usually going to get it.

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