I Was Exploited As a Freelancer
I stood in front of my “boss” as he yelled at me. He sat in his chair behind his desk; I had to stand like a school boy in trouble because there were no other chairs in the office.
He told me my designs were unprofessional and looked like garbage. He tried to guilt me about complaining that I hadn’t gotten paid yet. He was belittled my skills and my position.
It all came at me so fast that I was still trying to process what was happening. Even as I tried to stutter out a response in my defense, he cut me off immediately.
In that moment, he had all the power and I didn’t know how to respond. It was worse than an employer-employee dynamic, it was like a master-servant dynamic.
But then I realized I was a freelancer with specialized skills, and I secretly held all the power.
I was taking every job I could get
The economy crashed in 2008, and I had just graduated with my master’s degree in 2009. With everyone firing and no one hiring, my degree was worthless. I couldn’t find any work, not even part-time or entry-level jobs.
So I started freelancing, initially with graphic design, and then with web design. It wasn’t what I went to college for and all my skills were self-taught. Because I was still learning and didn’t have much experience, I took whatever gigs I could find on Craigslist for low pay.
I landed what I thought was a dream job
I applied for a freelance project with a law firm and got an interview. Oddly, it was a group interview with 2 other candidates and they told us only one of us would be hired.
A week later, I got the call notifying me that I was chosen. I would later regret being selected.
The job was to redesign their website. We agreed on a project amount and timeline, which would be paid out weekly as I worked. The stipulation was that I had to go into their office twice a week to work (that, by the way, is a requirement that can only be made of employees — not independent contractors).
The office was about an hour and a half drive from my home each way — during rush hour traffic. But it was the only job I had at the time, so I just thought I had to do it.
The office had a really cool modern aesthetic to it. A company “perk” was that they provided free lunch, and there was an outdoor garden to just sit and chill. The boss of the company was young, friendly and energetic.
I thought it was the greatest office job and was eager to get started.
It turned out to be dishonest, unpaid employment
For the first week, I sat at the desk they assigned to me and used my laptop to start designing the website. I took advantage of the free lunch. I chatted with the other employees at the office. At the end of that week, I got my first check as agreed upon. I also worked at home the other days of the week. So far, so good.
The next week, I continued working on the website and produced a rough first draft. The boss looked at it and said it was good, and to keep going. That week though, I didn’t get my check. I didn’t mention anything, thinking it was just a mistake and would be given the following week.
The third week, I made more progress on the site, and kept getting the ok to move forward. I didn’t receive a check for the previous week or that week, so I brought it up to the boss. He said I needed to go to the accountant to resolve it. So I did, and the accountant just said he would get it to me the following week.
So the fourth week, I brought up to the boss that I still had not gotten paid for the past 2 weeks, while also sending him the latest draft of the website. That’s when he seemingly exploded.
The website, which had passed through a couple drafts and reviews, was now all of a sudden horrible. And I was somehow demanding for wanting to get paid on time.
I walked out of the meeting feeling confused and defeated. He had made up some excuse that funds were unavailable because they were being moved around, but I would get them soon. He had the accountant give me a check that day… for only one week of pay.
I went back to work on the website and tried to fix all the criticisms he had of it. At the beginning of week 5, he looked over the website and was happy with it. It was pretty close to final with just a few tweaks.
Up to this point, I had only been paid for 2 weeks, and had already worked for 4 weeks, driving into their office twice a week. The boss said I would definitely be paid the full remaining amount that week, and that they would have more work for me to do.
Sounds good, I thought. We had a rough patch, but smoothed it out. At the end of that 5th week, I went to the accountant and asked for my check, but of course, he said it wasn’t available yet. I went to the boss, and he said I needed to be more patient and to just come in next week to see if the money was available.
I finally stood up for myself in the most hacker way possible
Enough was enough. I worked 5 weeks and completed their entire website, according to the agreed timeline. I met their conditions and drove into their office to work onsite, in addition to working on the website at home. But I had only gotten paid for 2 weeks, was given excuses about money being delayed, and they wanted me to keep coming in to do more work.
I felt helpless about what I could do.
But then I remembered I was the website designer, and had full control over their website.
On the 6th week, I made a courtesy phone call to ask if they had my money yet, instead of driving to the office. You know the answer.
Their new website that I had designed was already live. I went in and disabled the entire site, except for a single plain web page. It said,
“This company has not paid for the design of their website. This website will be restored once payment has been made in full.”
I also sent them an email notifying them of their disabled website.
It took them a good 2 days to find a backup of their old website and figure out how to restore it. So they had their old website back up and lost the new one I had designed.
I had gotten some form of justice, but it was still a lose-lose situation. They paid me some money, but got nothing in return — they still had their old website. So at least they got a bit of what they deserved. But I also worked close to full-time for over a month, and only got partially paid.
I even gave them a second chance
Shortly after, one of the people within that law firm reached out to me. During my time with that company, I had started a side project website for them. It was supposedly this nonprofit arm that they had. The website never really got that far.
But this individual asked me to finish it for him. He apologized for how the company treated me, said that he wasn’t really tied in with the business aspect of the law firm, and that he had autonomy and independence in running this nonprofit part.
So I decided to give him a chance. I set a higher project price, and required that a 50% deposit be made before I resumed work on it. He agreed and sent me the check — a personal check, so he was paying from his own funds.
I worked on the website from home and finished it within a couple weeks. When I asked for the remainder of the payment, he told me, of course, to wait. He said the law firm would make the final payment, and they were just waiting for funds to clear.
Of course they were.
So for his website, instead of taking it down completely, I put up a banner at the top saying that the full payment had not yet been made. He called and pleaded for me to take it down, and that the payment would be coming “very soon.” I told him I would do it once the remainder of the payment came in.
It never did.
I honestly don’t remember what happened after. I may have just left the website as it was, with that payment banner, or I might have taken the site down completely. The remainder of the payment never came in. Neither the law firm nor their “nonprofit” contacted me again.
Nevertheless, it was another lose-lose situation with this company. I only got partial pay for my work, and they paid some money, but got nothing in return.
How I grew to be a stronger freelancer
Through all the struggles as a new freelancer, that experience probably was among the worst. But I learned a lot of lessons that helped me grow into a better freelancer.
I gained the confidence (and knowledge) that as an independent contractor, I set the terms for how I work, when I work, and where I work. That’s the benefit and primary reason of a being freelancer — the freedom.
I learned to be less trusting of clients, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now I issue every client a contract they have to sign. I require at minimum 50% deposits up front. For bigger projects, I often set up milestones for partial payments to ensure I get paid for my work. If a payment is missed, I stop working. Some contracts also have late fees for late payments.
As a web designer, I do have a specialized skill and setup that gives me more control over the project. I can deliver a final product to a client, yet still have full control of it, giving me leveraging power when clients don’t hold up their end of the agreement. Yet for any freelancer, there are ways that you can protect your work and services and ensure you get paid in full before clients get the actual product.
These are just a few of the lessons I learned through this experience. There are a lot of other mistakes and lessons from my freelancing career that I talk about in my other article: