FREELANCING: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I moved to New York City in January of 2012 to become a freelance software developer. Since then, I have worked with eight clients – three VC-funded startups, two unfunded startups, two corporate companies, one individual. These were all contract jobs and none of them were meant to become full time positions. I was a hired gun. During this time, I have been tendered three full-time offers in writing: one by a funded start-up and two by development firms. I turned down all three offers for various reasons. Most of the people I teach seem to want to do what I do and I have to admit, it does have its advantages. But there were many many headaches along the way which I didn’t anticipate so it would be a service to go over some of them here.

One of my first freelance gigs was with a small bootstrapped startup in Westchester County. They wanted an iOS app with specific QR code reading functionality. We agreed to a set fee of $2,500 for an initial version (my first mistake – always go with the hourly rate). After about two weeks, I visited their offices to show them an update and collect the first half of payment which was agreed to. They didn’t have a check ready and couldn’t furnish it because the CEO, who had to sign all checks, wasn’t in. I gave them the benefit of the doubt but wrote the CEO an email in which I very clearly stated that I don’t expect that to happen again (ha!). They promptly mailed the check to me and it arrived about four days later. Three days after depositing the check, I recieved a letter from my bank informing me that the check had bounced and they charged my account $30 for some processing stuff. I emailed the company and told them they had two days to furnish payment. They missed the deadline and so I emailed them again to inform them I would no longer be working on the assignment. Evertything that happened afterward is immaterial but let’s just say, that was when the fun really started. They did eventually get an iOS app made (about a year later), but it’s garbage, no real surprise. I never collected any payment for my troubles.

Just before moving to NYC, I worked with another bootstrapped startup in the Flat Iron District. It was two guys, one of whom loved to remind everyone that he’s a former Google employee. Today I suspect he didn’t leave Google by choice. I agreed to code an iOS MVP for them as audition of sorts – if they liked it, I would join the team as the lead mobile engineer on an equity basis. After two weeks, I put together the app and they liked it. They then offered me an equity package of 0.3 percent. That’s not 30%. That’s three-tenths of 1 percent. This was their offer to be their lead mobile engineer. I told them the number has to be more like 10% to which they responded with 5% along with “this is not negotiable.” Just for background, it’s worth pointing out that neither of these guys had ever run a business and I was in the process of selling my first business in Connecticut. Anyway, we simply didn’t come to terms and just parted ways with the understanding that they wouldn’t use my work. They did offer to pay ($600) but I considered that insulting and turned it down. As long as they didn’t use my work, I figured just move on to the next thing.

Fast forward six months, one day I’m poking through the App Store and find the app that I coded for them. I downloaded it and sure enough, it was literally my code. They didn’t even add to it – they just published it as is which tells me they couldn’t find any other iOS guy to accept their shit deal. I emailed the contact demanding that he take it down or pay me fair market value. He emailed me back saying he had rights and could prove it through an NDA I signed. I responded again simply demanding that he take it down and CC’ed my lawyer. 45 minutes later, it was down and hasn’t been up since. He didn’t even put up a fight.

This situation confuses me the most. These guys are both about my age. We’re in NYC and we are all smart, hard working, and driven. The difference is, one of us thinks he is smarter than the rest. What I don’t get is, what does he think will happen? We each have a long way to go. I’m going to be here for a while, working on many projects, meeting many people, getting better at my craft. I will be around. And so will he – treating people like shit, assuming he is smarter than everyone, taking advantage of people. It’s a small world and my guess is that there are others out there who feel the same way about this individual as I do. In five, ten, twenty years, does he really think we will still be freelancers bouncing from gig to gig? I don’t get it.

In Spring of 2012, I worked with a jewerly company in Midtown who wanted to develop an iPad only app to showcase their inventory. This time I billed by the hour and stated that I require payment at the end of the each week. They missed that deadline a couple times so I emailed the lead to tell him that until I am paid, I will not show up to work. This direct approach worked and he paid me almost immediately. We then had a ‘man-to-man’ in which he said something to the effect of “things are very hectic and I might lose sight of the payment schedule so if it gets to day 8, 9 or 10, let me know.” To this I responded “if it gets to day 8, there won’t be a day 8 – I just won’t show.” He slightly rolled his eyes but saw that I was not fucking around. As I’m sure you predicted, it got to day 8 and that was it, I stopped coming in. I also stopped responding to his emails and texts. I did send him a courtesy email saying we’re done. I lost a few days of work in the process but there is no price on my pride. Some may consider this unnecessarily aggressive and I can see why but in my defense, I very clearly laid out my terms and conditions. I was not ambiguous. They did not meet those terms so I pulled the trigger. You have to mean it otherwise you’re just lying to yourself.

By the end of that episode, it was late Spring and I had really wised up on the freelance scene. From there, I worked with the Topps baseball card company, a VC-backed startup and a well-heeled individual client. These companies have massive budgets and devote human resources entirely to making sure people get paid on time and in the right amount. Money is a secondary concern and consequently, they expect top-shelf work from you. That’s the way it should be. The lesson learned is, tread very carefully when dealing with starry eyed, boot-strapped startups who are long on fantasy but short on cash. Also beware of the entrepreneur who read one too many Steve Jobs biographies or watched the Social Network way too many times. This is real life, not a movie.



2 thoughts on “FREELANCING: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

  1. Unfortunately, these are all lessons that need to be learned from actual experience. I’ve had very similar experiences with very similar dirtbags. Reading about them will not make you better at seeing them when they’re right in front of you. However, I’ve always found that when my gut tells me something feels wonky, it is. Now, I’m wise enough to walk away from any deal, with the confidence that there’s always more work coming.

  2. Pingback: Regrets, I’ve Had A Few « The Full Stack

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