ASK US WEDNESDAY: “My client won’t pay me until he gets paid – help!”

by Rachel Smith
12 February 2020

I did some work as a sub-contractor for a client / freelancer who is well-off, juggles heaps of clients and seems to be crushing it professionally. In comparison, I am young, new to freelancing and struggle to pay my bills. I recently finished a not insignificant content job for this guy, and invoiced as I normally do. It went ignored. I chased it up after a month and was told quite brusquely that he ‘hadn’t been paid by the client’ and so he ‘wasn’t able to pay me’. I now have no idea if I’ll ever be paid and I’m pissed. Is this the norm? Surely this is illegal? I just want the money I’m owed. Anon

Unfortunately, clients who say they can’t pay you until they are paid themselves IS something you will come up against a fair bit.

But should it be the norm? HELL NO.

Call me crazy but I think ANYONE who takes on a sub-contractor should have some kind of a contingency fund, a back-up plan, some savings, I dunno, to pay that person. If things go tits up, you don’t get to leave your sub-contractors high and dry – you work out a way to pay them. Yes, even if it leaves you financially worse off.

Case in point: I know of one journo/editor who ended up in a shocker situation years ago. He started a small agency and brought staff on board. It was going well, but the agency was afloat largely in part to its one main, big client. Then that client went bust, taking his small agency out of business.

You know what that agency owner did? He sold his apartment to pay out his staff, who were, of course, left without jobs to go to. Not a lot of people would do that. Most would declare bankrupcy, avoid eye contact and move on – but he’d hired staff and knew that he bore the risk (and the consequences) of that business going under. If only every business person acted with such integrity when the shit hit the fan. The upshot, he told me, is that a lot of the people who’d worked for him have been very loyal and supportive ever since. Funny that.

Anyway, back to you.

Clearly, your client does not have a contingency fund in place to pay you or any idea when he will be paying you, but your client’s cashflow issues are not your problem. He hired you in good faith and you did the work. If he couldn’t afford to pay you in a timely manner or he knew there was even an inkling of a chance that he wouldn’t be able to pay you, he shouldn’t have hired you. The end.

I don’t know how much you’re owed but if it’s not insignificant I would be writing a letter of demand and getting in touch with Paul Metcalf at CollectMore who is, I hear, a total badass when it comes to getting payment out of shady people. Even if he (or you) can negotiate a part payment now with another payment down the track that’s better than nothing.

And for future situations, I’d always have a contract in place with clear payment terms and a proper dispute resolution process. I’d also do a search on the person commissioning you to see if there are any situations involving non-payment or slow payment (and if there are, steer clear).

Good luck and let us know how you go.

Have you been in this situation as a sub-contractor? Or are you on the other side of the fence – someone who hires sub-contractors and is often waiting for payment yourself? I’d love to hear all opinions on this issue.

Rachel Smith

As a kid, Rachel used to carry around a little suitcase of pens and paper so she could stop and write stories whenever inspiration struck. These days, she writes for a living, in between running the show at Rachel's List. Some of you may actually believe she looks like a megaphone in real life, but it's not the case. Honest.
Rachel Smith

2 responses on "ASK US WEDNESDAY: “My client won’t pay me until he gets paid – help!”"

  1. Mariella says:

    Unfortunately I’ve been in this situation too. In the future I’ll take your advice, Rachel, and make the terms clear in the beginning. If they can’t meet those terms, then at least I’ll know from the start and I’ll be able to plan for it.

  2. Rachel Smith says:

    I’m sorry to hear that, Mariella – it is really tricky with some clients who don’t lay out payment terms from the start. The more clients I work with the more I think it’s up to us to be really upfront about our payment terms and to set those parameters as much as possible! And if we can’t, to really consider walking away.

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