How to get paid as a freelancer or self-employed small business owner

In the UK, there are around 5 million self-employed people accounting for as much as 15% of the UK workforce. Of that figure, a large and growing proportion are freelancers. Consider that against the knowledge that around 50,000 UK businesses go bust every year due to late payment.

No one talks about this enough; it’s the grubby side of freelancing and a massive problem for smaller businesses, where cash-flow is everything. I'm talking about the need to protect yourself and be paid your dues.

A grubby business

The annoying truth is that freelancers bring a lot of this on themselves, myself included. I've been in business for a while and should know better, but I’ve been caught out twice in the past 12 months, and boy, does it hurt.

In business, especially when you're just starting, I defy anyone not to be 98% focussed on marketing. You spend money on a great website, even more money on social media, on following up, emailing, Zoom networking, updating and working the CRM. On and on it goes, hour after hour and it’s all money and time spent on ‘the chase’.

Then, an enquiry bites, a client wants to go ahead. You're so dizzily excited that you throw all reason out of the window and launch yourself headlong into ‘deliver and impress' mode. You focus almost exclusively on the sense of pride and hopes of a glowing testimonial.

Take steps to protect your cash-flow

But, hang on a moment, aren’t there a few steps in between, like where you tell the client exactly how much it’s going to cost in writing and they put something in writing to say, that’s okay, I’ll pay that?

And another step where you say before I start working on those other things you asked for that weren’t in the original quote, are you aware that they will cost extra, is that okay with you? They again say yes, in writing.

And the ultimate step where they agree that the job's been done as they asked, and pay you everything they owe, on time?

And then, only then, do you get a sense of pride and a glowing testimonial possibly from your client, but definitely from the 2% of yourself that’s given any of this serious stuff a fleeting thought?

Don't learn the hard way

The vast majority of the people I've worked with have been brilliant and upfront with our verbal agreements. It’s only taken one or two bad experiences to bring me up short and realise that I've been fortunate to have come this far without getting my fingers burned before now.

I take cold comfort from knowing that I’m not alone.

Here’s the hard truth; no matter how much you liked the client, how enriching the creative process was, how wonderfully proud you are of the result, you must get paid!

If you don’t, you’ve wasted your time, energy and talent and it was mostly avoidable.

My bad experiences rocked my world, but I’ll not let it happen again.

Starting now, I’m sending contracts out for every project to protect both parties. If a client isn't willing to sign a mutually beneficial agreement, you have to question their commitment to the project?

Verbal arrangements, be gone!

I don't underestimate how difficult it is to implement this kind of process, but it is essential. As much as small business owners and freelancers want to be generous and friendly and helpful, know that you can be all of that, and protect your business as well.

Take control

I recently signed up to use, which takes all the stress out of chasing contracts. Just adding this simple step to your client agreements could potentially save you a lot of time and money.

With this system, you can set up as many templates as you need. You create a new contract for every client and email it to them. The client signs the contract digitally via a straightforward SMS text verification process. Once completed, both parties have a copy and the system even sends out reminders.

I’m also using template emails to send out personalised ‘warm-up’ emails to introduce the system and reassure clients. I’ve used Google Forms for other scenarios to cover any additional items that crop up mid-job. My final flourish is the form that tells the client that the job is complete, and they will not be charged for anything further. I do this nicely, of course, as it's a great way to say 'thank you' and is also handy to harvest those precious testimonials.

The forms are a bit bland, and there’s virtually no creative input required, but we creatives – (cos we’re the worst) have to fight the urge, get down to brass tacks and start being a bit less ‘fluffy’ and a lot more risk-aware.

If this isn't 'you', or you've never had a problem (and I genuinely hope you never do) there are other things you should be doing at the very least, such as:

· Negotiate a 50% up-front payment (100% of materials costs) and don't start work until you've been paid.

· Get to know as much as you can about your client and keep communicating. Problems often start when full costs are not communicated. It's okay to say 'yes, you can change your mind as often as you like, but it'll be charged at (whatever rate you've set)'.

· Send your invoice immediately after the job is completed, and make all the information clear, including a late payment fee notification.

· If you don’t get paid within the due date, follow up immediately with a late payment notification. You can mention the unfortunate need for legal action if payment isn't made within a specified number of days.

· Many trade and professional bodies give advice and free legal support as part of the membership.

Here are a just few examples (which indicates the scale of the problem):

· If it comes to it, there’s also the small claims court

Let’s get this problem out in the open and start helping ourselves.

Dogs cost money!

Forewarned is forearmed. Please don't end up as I did on those two jobs, being a busy fool for absolutely no reward other than my creative pride. As lovely as that is, it, unfortunately, doesn’t pay my mortgage or feed my dog.

Say hello to Floyd!