The Hardest $1600 I Ever Earned

This was probably the worst I've ever felt about myself. After years of grinding, learning, and working as hard as I could, I was back where I started and unable to pay rent.

The Hardest $1600 I Ever Earned

One of my first freelance clients was a small agency downtown. I met the owner for coffee and we had a great conversation about a potential full-time role. At the time, I was desperately seeking a salaried job with benefits. They were looking for a full-time WordPress developer, and I seemed like the perfect fit. The owner explained that it would be a few weeks before they could commit to a hire, but they needed help right away, so she asked if I could start contracting for them immediately.

They needed help with what she described as a "quick-turn, pretty simple Wordpress site" and she showed me some wireframes. It looked like 40 hours of work, so I quoted a flat fee of $2,100. They agreed to my price and sent me website login credentials so I could get started right away. I was absolutely thrilled. At the time, $2,100 seemed like an unbelievably large amount of money.

There were some other websites that needed work, so I knocked those out that first day for free. I was eager to prove how valuable I'd be as a full-time employee. For the next few weeks, I spent every waking hour building that website. Things were off to a great start. At the end of the week they invited me down to their office. I met their team and had a formal interview where we agreed on a salary range and starting date.

Things were really looking up. I called my wife to tell her how it went, and she excitedly relayed the news to her parents. My in-laws scheduled an impromptu dinner to celebrate. I didn't have a formal offer letter yet, but it seemed like a sure thing.

Spoiler alert: it wasn't.

As time went on, the project grew far beyond what I'd initially agreed to. The project evolved from a simple Wordpress site to a multisite network with 7 separate websites, streaming video, and 50+ pages of content. I didn't object, because I was already thinking of myself as a member of the team and was okay putting in extra hours without compensation. When I inquired about the full-time role, they started to backpedal and complained about my progress so far.

Was the job offer a bait and switch.

How could I have been so stupid? I'd just paid $100,000 and spent 3 years of my life in law school learning about the importance of contracts, and months into my new freelance career I skip out on having a formal written agreement. Now, not only was the full-time job off the table but I was in danger of not receiving payment under the contract.

I'd already worked twice as many hours as I originally estimated, and for all I knew, the scope could double again and I'd be on the hook for more work with no increase in pay. I was totally demoralized knowing I was working for free with no hope of a job from them.

I explained that I simply couldn't afford to work for free any longer, and I'd already worked far beyond what was in the scope. They asked if I'd like to cease work and turn it over to them after a few more revisions. I made the changes they wanted and turned the project back over to them. Then I sent my invoice for $2,100. Then they went totally silent. They stopped responding to my emails, and I was worried that they were trying to avoid paying me.

Over the weekend I called the woman who ran the agency to make sure she received my invoice and confirm that they were prepared to pay it. I'll never forget the woman who ran the agency told me next, "You wouldn't pay someone for half-way fixing your car would you? Why would we pay you for what you've done so far?"

They weren't going to pay me. Almost 100 hours of work down the drain.

This was probably the worst I've ever felt about myself. After years of grinding, learning, and working as hard as I could, I was back where I started and unable to pay rent.

I was desperate and didn't want to file a lawsuit, but I had no choice. I desperately needed that money. I put my overpriced legal education to good use and drafted a formal complaint. Before I filed it with small claims court, I emailed it to the agency owners. They promptly set up a call with me to discuss.

I was basically a punching bag for 10 minutes.

They attacked me personally and traded insults about the work I'd done. It was shocking to hear the hostility in their voices. For some reason this call is still painful for me, even as I reflect on it years later. I was so vulnerable back then, both financially and emotionally. They seemed like smart, successful entrepreneurs and since that's what I aspired to, their words carried more weight and cut more deeply that insults typically would.

BUT at least they were willing to negotiate and agreed to pay me $1,600 of the original $2,100 fee. I checked the mail every day for that check and it arrived on the due date. We were able to make rent which carried me over until the following month when my luck finally turned, and I landed a kickass full-time job at Blackbaud.

This is a great example of everything NOT to do, and I hope others can learn from my mistakes. Can you spot all the mistakes I made?