Avoiding The Dangers of Freelance
I have been "Umming" and "Ahhing" intensely about writing this post, but recently I was asked why I started this blog, and my answer was because when I was a student looking for something that wasn't a personal style blog or a digital creative portfolio - there was nothing. The essence of the Xandra Jane blog is to lay myself bare so perhaps one person can reconnect to their clothing, or one entrepreneur looking to establish a fashion business can glean an insight into the reality, or one young creative can learn from my mistakes. This post in particular, I guess, is for the latter.
As you are aware, Xandra Jane hasn't even been trading for a year and so alongside running my business I also freelance. This work involves anything from offering consultations and advice, through to designing, pattern cutting and manufacturing for a multitude of clients at various stages of their ventures. Now, before I proceed, this is NOT a post to undermine anyone I have ever worked with, I will be changing all names of parties involved and blocking out information in any images used - however, if you are reading this and recognise the individual involved is you, then sorry, but it's working with people like yourselves that provide the reasons I conduct my business with greater morals and ethics. Let's proceed shall we.
I have selected three stories in particular I will be sharing with you, which ultimately, given I have only been freelancing for 18months, is three stories too many. As you read on, it won't take a genius to figure out the common denominator in each case.
Story One: The Magician
I would like to start by thanking the magician. We'll call her Houdini*, as she was my first client and first disaster. You may have read my previous post about freelancing, and Houdini* was the starting point of learning how to know my worth.
Having met face to face in her London office during my last days in the city, we agreed on an initial project for her start up company. I had done some research into what would be a fair rate to charge by browsing other freelancers and weighing up their experience and skill. Houdini* deemed it fair to expect me to work for minimum wage. We soon settled on a £10p/hr rate and I moved home to Wales with my first client in the bag.
Before starting her project, she outsourced someone else's work and asked me to complete it for her as almost a 'trial' period. This was absolutely fair enough and a great way for both of us to test if the working relationship would be successful. Tech packs, pattern cutting and numerous toiles later the client was pleased with the project and both me and Houdini* got a pay check. Regardless if I did all the work.
So we moved on to Houdini's* project in which I travelled all the way back to London with unpaid travel expenses (a £90 return train, lesson one learnt) with a suitcase full of toiles for a meeting. In the next coming weeks I completed work and posted garments to her office, her response rate became slower, and her excuses came through that she was on a business trip to Italy. With the toiles at Houdini's office, she was able to deconstruct them and take down the pattern of the work I had done and conveniently stop paying me.
Once the e-mails had stopped, I followed up with phone calls to which she ignored me and blocked my number. I approached her on LinkedIn, Facebook and even sent a stern letter to her office claiming I would legally have to take matters further should she not respond. Though in reality, taking matters further would cost me more than the money owed so there really was no point, I was essentially trying to scaremonger her into a response. At the time, I even had my Dad lined up as a faux lawyer should she ever pick up those elusive phone calls.
To this day I am owed around £150 - that covers my rent for my atelier for one month for anyone who thinks that isn't a lot of money. Regardless if the sum was £10, owed money is owed money. But just like that, she had magically disappeared.
Story Two: The Debt Collector
Ahh the Debt Collector (DC). She was my insight into a large project often becoming too good to be true. When working on a large project, I often advise the client to proceed in 'steps'. This not only provides regular payments for me, but allows them to budget without a nasty invoice breaking their bank account at the end, it also ensures both parties are happy with the process as it evolves.
DC* commissioned me to pattern cut, toile and sample multiple garments for a resort collection. Throughout the initial stages she expressed many times in e-mail how overjoyed she was with the outcomes and we continued to work towards her deadline.
As a courtesy I always communicate through photographs so the client can see the progress of any given project and also highlight any errors before posting saving time and money. This is also a great 'added extra' for their social media platforms and is always appreciated without fail, small gestures can really help secure extra work (I also end every project with a thank-you card in the post).
After confirming the patterns and the toiles I proceeded to sew the final garments for her. Meeting her deadline early they were sent off next day delivery and she paid the final sum. On further review, DC* e-mailed me mentioning a small part of the dress had been caught in the facing, with time to spare until her deadline I promptly offered to rectify the issue to her decline.
Over four weeks later I receive a rather bold e-mail requesting I refund her the entire amount for everything spent within the project - including all postage and even reimbursing her for the final fabric. The total invoice I had quoted was around £600 and DC* was asking for £800+. This must have shocked me to the core because on receipt of the e-mail I burst into laughter, followed by tears and eventually rage. Her words described how the small area of the dress being caught by the machine led to the entire collection being unsuitable for approaching buyers and also felt the patterns were now of no use.
See my tips below for penning an angry e-mail, but I needed a good two days to calm down and respond. Should this be of help to anyone please find my response:
"I must admit I was shocked to receive such an e-mail with your bold request, leading me to seek confirmation of my rights from professional advice who are in agreement to you having no grounds on which to ask that sum to be paid. Given no signed contractual agreement has been made between us and more importantly our continued written communication throughout the project where you stated your happiness many times with the various stages of completion.
If the samples were worth £837.50 worth of damage I doubt you would have responded on receipt of them telling me "I received the samples and they look great!” before raising "a couple of queries” - I know if I felt short changed of that much money I would have more stern words to say. Your opinion on the matter seems to have developed over a considerable amount of time.
Not only have you invoiced me 34 days after the completion of the project but your reasoning for the patterns being unusable should have come in during the toiling process, instead you happily confirmed the prototype garments when moving forward. Therefore there is nothing wrong with the patterns. I have offered to rectify any areas of the samples caught by the machine yet you have decided against this.
I’m sorry you’ve felt the need to end on such unreasonable terms though I wish you the best of luck with everything in the future."
Story Three: The Scrooge
Scrooge* is a legit con man who should be warned to the masses. This particular story happened around Christmas 2016, hence his appropriate nickname.
Scrooge* fluttered into my life needing some leatherwork and a small production run. He was a funny character, which I initially found endearing. He drove his van down to my studio for a meeting (at 5AM!) and had his three dogs in the back alongside assets he was delivering for me to commence the project. This was a large job to take on, a job leading into the last months of the year that would occupy my weeks allowing me to focus on one freelance client and continue with Xandra Jane. This large job, seemed too good to be true.
Having recieved the initial deposit, I jumped into completing the given work. At the end of each day I would write up a productivity log and provide photos to ensure a clear stream of communication. When paying me a day rate, this was to reassure him I wasn't slacking on the job or taking him for a ride - as I'd started to realise such people existed in the industry (there can be bad freelancers alongside clientele).
At this point, may I highlight I charge a fixed day rate, this means I worked a minimum of the 8 hours charged, yet did not limit me to pushing on to a 10 or even 12 hour day which I sometimes do around particularly tight deadlines. These extra hours were not charged.
At this stage I had established a respectable hourly rate from the days of Houdini* and our agreement developed into myself communicating and completing the work, with regular payments to be made at the end of each week. My last invoice was sent in the week running up to Christmas for a rather fair and healthy sum, for an equally fair period of work. Christmas came and went with no news on payment... I went through weeks of tears and stress over being left high and dry at such an expensive time of year. Eventually, I had to cut my losses and at least had the assets as compensation. Although I never actually touched or sold them and they still sit to this day between my studio and a shipping container taking up space.
Six months later I had well and truly closed the book on the project but Scrooge* messaged me asking for his items back on payment of the money that was outstanding. I kindly reminded him how lucky he was I had kept them in the first place, and regardless if I had or hadn't, he owed me money. His terms for payment involved not releasing the fee until he had driven to a location chosen by him and run through an itinerary of what was there, including the quality of the work I had completed. It was handbags at dawn between a few messages, and refusing to back down I cut contact instead whilst my blood boiled. Unbelievable.
Without wanting to scare you off from becoming a self employed creative, these stories are shared more to encourage you to learn from my mistakes and have your wits about you. As the creative industry is one that society could not live without (think marketing, graphics, logos, fashion etc.) it is unfortunately one notorious for people wanting something for nothing. I have fallen into the trap several times of offering a quote, but the nature of design work can lead to projects taking longer than anticipated due to amendments or changes in the brief, and the client will still expect the fixed rate. Know your worth. Stand your ground. I always maintain that clients work with freelancers due to needing their skills that they do not necessarily possess, with this comes experience they do not understand and so time and time again explaining the process to them and having to justify your costs is not uncommon. But fear not, I've laid out some top tips for you to avoid these particular buggers at all costs:
Identifying a red flag
When the client you are dealing with always pays you through a third party, whether it be their Mother, Daughter, Friend or Dog - get worried. It is a red flag when fully grown individuals can't seem to handle or manage their own money. I have had client's unable to access their e-mails or online banking... really? You're meant to be running a business, these are scarily basic fundamentals.
Knowing your worth
Research similar freelancers on website platforms and weigh up their skills and experience in relation to their hourly rate. This should give you confidence on where to pitch yourself.
Have an angry e-mail to pen?
Type it with the recipient excluded from the sender field (no one wants accidental e-mails posting in the middle of the red mist decending) and re-write that e-mail as many times as it takes to draft it down to a professional, put together response. I often find myself deleting personal attacks at how 'outrageous it is that they don't understand the process of pattern cutting isn't straight forward' or the 'ridiculous request for a deposit refund because they chose to cancel the project halfway through and clearly don't respect creatives' - getting personal doesn't help anyone and weakens your stance as a professional. But that being said it feels great to tap it out on the keys a few times until you calm down. Alternatively if it riles you up further just walk away from the e-mail until you're ready
Incorporating your morals
I run an ethical and sustainable fashion company and yet my freelance work still funds certain areas of my business allowing me to work towards the bigger goal. However, this means I work with clients who do not share the same values and are looking to enter the fast fashion market. I've even had one client who said he wouldn't care if someone was to purchase his brand and throw it away as they should be that affordable. Ergh.
But the point I am making is if I criticised, refused certain projects or limited the people I worked with, then my income would not be able to fund half the stuff it does. It is very easy to get on my high horse and preach about what's right or wrong but when that deters work and income, the line must be drawn somewhere. Essentially these people will not listen and find another freelancer to carry out the job. Do not cut your nose off to spite your face. Instead I offer my knowledge and experience, I can gently suggest things that may be a better option for the environment or suggest manufacturers who are trusted in worker's rights and the rest in all honesty isn't my business. Now if they see from my portfolio and express an interest in sustainability, well by all means open the flood gates and invite them in.
Most importantly as mentioned within the stories, maintain communication. Know that written word is gold. If a contract hasn't been signed (in the case of DC*) then a written word in e-mail or small print on your invoice is the next best thing. Of course a contract is the best option, but even now I don't necessarily work to one for every project. Consider what you say within your messages and stick to your word. Don't forget it can work both ways, so if you agree to a deadline in an e-mail, you better be on target.
Citizen's Advice Bureau
If you really are in doubt over who's in the right or wrong in your given situation call the citizen's advice bureau, in the case of Scrooge* I was looking to sell his assets on to make back the money I was owed however, after calling for advice, this wasn't legally plausible. What was within my power was turfing them out to an insecure location as I had no obligation to keep them safe, should they be lost, stolen or damaged this would not fall to my responsibility.