Freelancers: here’s how to ask to be paid

If you’re a freelancer, you need to get paid. I’m not talking about how you set up your business or what you actually do. What do you do when it’s time to ask to get paid?

Here’s a secret freelancers won’t tell you: some of them are embarrassed to ask for money. I know a highly intelligent woman who did a bunch of consulting work for a big company, then put off sending the invoices for months because she didn’t feel comfortable sending them. Shyness like that will put a dent in your revenue, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

I don’t have that problem. I always get paid. In six years, I’ve never been stiffed once — I have always received exactly what I billed for. It’s all a question of operating professionally and forthrightly when it comes to billing and payment. Here’s how to make sure you always get paid, too.

Choose clients wisely

The first step is to identify clients — individuals and companies — that want what you’re selling. If there is a clear understanding of what you provide and how it matches up to what they want, you’re off to a good start.

Trust your instincts here. If somebody seems shady, refuses to talk about money, or sets off your alarm bells, just don’t work with them. After all, which would you prefer: “losing” a gig that wasn’t really there, or doing the work and then not getting paid for it?

Specify work and deadlines up front

I don’t always insist on a contract. But I always lay out a set of milestones and payments. I send those by email or, if there is a contract, include them as a “Schedule A” in the contract.

Here’s an example of an informal set of milestones and payments I sent by email:

My job is to help you conceptualize and position the book, including coming up with a title; to edit and collaborate on a table of contents that makes it hold together as a business book; and to edit four of the chapters to create a sort of template for the rest. Also, as you requested, I’ll review the final thing once it’s complete.

Pricing is as follows:
– Idea development (title and treatment) — $1750 up front and $1750 on completion.
– Table of contents: $2000 on completion.
– Editing four chapters: $2000 on completion.
– Final review: $500 on completion.
Total $8000.

I always charge up front; my work does not start until I get paid. But all the rest of the payments are based on completing milestones to the client’s satisfaction. I try to match the payments to the amount of work in each stage.

In a contract for a book proposal for a prospective author, I use the more formal “Schedule A” in a contract. (The author is called “Company” in the consulting contract, while I am “Consultant.”) For example:

EXHIBIT A Statement of Work.

Consultant agrees to create a “treatment” including title, subtitle, and approximately 1.5 pages of text describing the idea for a book by Company, created after a 90-minute video meeting with Company and others selected by Company.

Payment schedule for Company as follows:

– On signing this agreement: $1,750
– On completion of treatment and acceptance by Company: $1,750

Book proposal
Upon mutual agreement between Company and Consultant, Consultant agrees to create a book proposal suitable for soliciting publishers to publish book by Consultant. Creation of the proposal will require three to five video meetings between Consultant, Company, and possibly others, as well as three or more rounds of review by Company. Proposal will include the following elements:

– Title and subtitle
– Opening passages, which will be similar to opening passages in the book.
– Description of main ideas
– Points of differentiation that will make the book stand out
– Analysis of competing books
– Detailed book outline/annotated table of contents
– Promotion and marketing plan
– Sample chapter

Payment schedule for Company as follows:

– On agreement to begin creation of proposal: $5,500
– On completion of all elements of proposal except one: $5,500
– On completion of proposal and acceptance by Company: $3,000

All payments on Net 15 terms.

Expenses not anticipated in this agreement will be billed at cost, but only after Company has provided written approval.

Agree on how they’ll pay you

In the last six years I’ve been paid by check, by PayPal, by wire, by Zelle, and by electronic funds transfer. I can’t afford to be picky — if you can pay, I can take your money (except cryptocurrency). While many of my clients are individuals, some are big companies that have elaborate and infuriating accounts payable mechanisms.

Getting the payment mechanism settled is especially important if your client is not in the same country that you are. And be aware that some big companies will pay you from overseas subsidiaries — I’ve been paid by Singaporean and Belgian subsidiaries of large companies, for example.

Whatever the mechanism is, the time to establish it is before you start work. Send an email and say “Would you like to pay me by check, direct funds transfer, or in some other way?” or “How does your company typically pay small vendors like me?” Then set it up and test it with that first up-front payment.

When it’s time to get paid, send an invoice

Invoices don’t have to flow through accounting software. You can just send a PDF to your contact (using whatever mechanism you established earlier). My typical email looks like this:

Subject: Invoice for completion of chapters 2-4

Attached find the invoice for $6000 for completion of editing chapters 2, 3, and 4. Please refer this for payment.

You did work. You say what the work was. You ask to get paid. That’s it. No fuss required. Having set clear deadlines in earlier stages, there shouldn’t be any need to argue now.

If your client is using a purchase order system, include the purchase order number in the subject line. They’ll forward it to someone deep in accounts payable and that person will be grateful if you’ve made it easy to find the purchase order.

What’s in the invoice? The bill amount, the deliverable, and some information about payment. I also find it helps to include your name and address since they’ll likely need that. Include the purchase order number if you have one. Here’s a typical invoice. I convert the MS Word invoice to PDF just to reduce the chances of tampering. My invoice numbers are just dates.

be clear, be brief, and don’t be boring

56 Florence Avenue
Arlington, MA 02476 USA
[Phone number]

[email address]

Date: 27 April 2021
Invoice #: 20210427V
Bill-to: [Client company name]
Attn: [Client contact name]

Description of work:
Plain Writing Workshop, Second payment
Workshop fee: $2,500.
Total: US$2,500

Make check payable to WOBS, LLC.

My EIN is [tax ID]

Zelle: [bank details]
PayPal: (Add 3% ($75) for PayPal fee.)
Bank information for electronic funds transfer [bank details]

Payment due within 15 days.

For questions, contact Josh Bernoff at [contact details]

Don’t get caught up in this stuff

This stuff is obvious — unless you’ve never done it before.

Use these straightforward methods to get paid for your work. Emotion doesn’t enter into it. You did the work — you deserve to get paid. Spend your emotional energy on creating, not billing.

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One Comment

  1. “Trust your instincts here. If somebody seems shady, refuses to talk about money, or sets off your alarm bells…”

    This is also true for other scenarios, for example, at work…

    I had an executive who wanted me to take over a troubled project, our company was near losing the contract for as the current project exec had to run roughshod over the client to deliver on an overly aggressive timeline and with a severely under-bid budget.

    We discussed the possibility over lunch, but the moment I asked about how I would be able to earn my bonus (the one I would surely earn at the current project and would have to forego if I took the new project), he went ballistic accusing me of “only being about the money!!!”

    Suffice to say that I did get brow-beaten into taking it on and was screwed over, despite the success I delivered (timeline and budget).

    He took his vested equity (he was a partner in a consulting firm that we bought out about one year earlier) and retired within a year (before I completed the first 12 month phase).

    Also, btw, he was the chief negotiator of that contract with this client – he wanted to show he could “bring the goods” to justify his retention.

    So, WHO was in it for the money?

    What a mass mole!

    Lesson learned: If someone gets surprisingly upset about “money” – walk away.