First Hand — Matt Dowling gives us the lowdown on getting paid as a freelancer
Ex-freelance photographer Matt Dowling set up Freelancer Club in 2015 after a client pulled out of an £11,000 project, leaving him disillusioned about the industry. Now the organisation provides business support to over 38,000 members in the UK, as well as connecting them with clients who need their services.
Over the past few years, Matt has been a vocal advocate for freelancers’ rights, launching the #NoFreeWork campaign and lobbying the government to change the law. At present, UK freelancers are entitled to claim interest on late payments under the Late Payment Act (1998). But the court process is arduous, expensive and most don’t know it exists or can’t afford to fight. We spoke to Matt about his campaign to better protect small businesses and freelancers.
Why do you think poor payment is rife in the creative industries?
It’s around culture and how a lot of companies treat the creative industries. Particularly within VR, fashion or music – anything where there’s a sense of glamour – there seems to be a mentality that the creative space is almost like a hobby or passion. Interestingly, certain sectors, such as freelance web design, are valued more because there seems to be a better understanding of how it could benefit a company.
What policies or changes are needed to shift the culture so that creative freelancers are paid on time? And how can creatives advocate for this?
For over five years, we’ve been working on a campaign called No Free Work. Its objective is to eradicate exploitative unpaid work from the freelance and creative industries. That led to setting up something called The Collective, which is a group of very influential leaders in a variety of sectors (education, fashion, acting, unions) to discuss this exact issue. So far we’ve assessed that we need to educate three different sectors. First we need to get in front of students, and talk about their worth and how valuable they are to the economy. The second group is the freelancers already out there working.
“We want to encourage companies to make sure they’re treating freelancers with respect from start to finish.”
We need to encourage them to rethink working for free or underbidding fellow freelancers. By undervaluing their services they do a huge amount of harm to their career, their reputation, but also the wider industry. Then we need to educate the clients. Sometimes bad practice is quite calculated and exploitative, at other times not. We want to encourage companies to make sure they’re treating freelancers with respect from start to finish, that includes paying them a fair wage, paying them on time and involving them in the company, so they’re not treated just as a blow-in. But we recognise that it’s not enough for it just to be the right thing to do morally. We want to go in and prove to companies that it’s better for their bottom line, too.
We’re also trying to change the legislation to give freelancers a lot more legal protection when it comes to late payments. We’re looking at double damages, whereby if a company is found wanting in small claims court, they’ll need to pay double the amount of the contract. And we’d like to make contracts mandatory above a certain amount of value, around £200. There was a very successful bill that was passed in New York, and the group that pushed that over the line contributed to a round table and offered us advice on putting a UK version together. Brexit isn’t helping, but we’re still very determined.
How does it benefit companies to pay freelancers on time?
Freelancers talk to each other. It’s not as big a community as one might think – there are close to five million self- employed individuals in the UK, and each of those sectors has little tribes. If you start to build up a bad reputation, it becomes more and more difficult to hire the best talent. Also you can maximise a freelance hire if you pay on time, as you’ll get to use them again. Most of the freelancers that we support are multi-skilled and, if you integrate them into your set-up, can often bring a lot of value to a company. Freelancers are quite vocal and have influence, they can be ambassadors for your company. They’ll often post work to social media, if it’s allowed in the contract. Again, that can either be a positive or a negative post.
“Knowing your value and speaking about money with confidence will dramatically increase your chances of a successful freelance career.”
What advice would you give to early years creatives to protect themselves against late payments?
There are some simple ones, like invoicing on the day of the job, so it’s fresh; finding out who will make that payment prior to signing the contract; ensuring there is a contract to begin with, even if the job is just a couple of hundred quid. Freelancers sometimes find this a little awkward but it dramatically decreases the likelihood of late payment or no payment.
Technology can play its part too. Having a third party do the chasing for you through an invoicing app or software can be invaluable. The main issue is that freelancers don’t want to jeopardise their relationship with the client by being pushy, or asking to be paid. You know, God forbid you actually get paid on time! But by having an automated email go from a third party app, it removes that awkwardness. You can always blame the angry robot. We also have template emails on our website that you ramp up, from a soft reminder right through to a notification of impending legal action.
Get used to creating contracts for every job, so that you do have some protection. In an ideal scenario you would tailor every contract. When you’re starting out you won’t have the finances to pay a lawyer to do that every time, but there are loads of really good contract templates available. We’ve got one on our site, which is free to download. You can put a line in a contract asking for a deposit upfront or stating that the raw files won’t be delivered until the client has paid the final amount. Don’t be too fearful that there will be backlash. Knowing your value, speaking about money with confidence and acting professionally will dramatically increase your chances of a successful freelance career.
This interview is taken from our latest Insight Report The State of Work: Issues Affecting Creative Careers in 2019. These extracts have been shortened; read them both in full by clicking the link above.