Advice — Invoices, contracts and following up: How to get paid on time as a freelancer
Sometimes finding interesting work to do is only half the creative battle. The other half? Getting paid – and on time. Sounds simple enough, but as many freelance creatives will know, the reality of this isn’t always devoid of complications. Here, in the fourth article in our series about money, Kate Hollowood helps unknot some of the situations that can stand in the way of a fee finding its way into your bank balance, and how you can make sure the payment process stays on time.
Lie-ins whenever you want, mid-morning yoga classes, a commute that ends in your kitchen… There are a lot of benefits to being self-employed. But if you don’t get paid for the work you’re doing on time, the freelance dream can quickly become a nightmare.
At the start of the year we witnessed one particularly disturbing freelancing horror story, when online magazine The Pool went into administration. While staff failed to receive their January paycheques, The Pool’s freelancers were some of the worst hit, with the magazine unable to pay them a collective £85,000 worth of commissions. One of its most regular writers, Marisa Bate, has been left £9,000 out of pocket.
“If you don’t get paid on time, the freelance dream can quickly become a nightmare.”
But it’s not just journalists who are finding themselves owed huge chunks of cash – freelancers are having issues getting paid across the board. “Often as many as half the payments owing to me are overdue,” says illustrator Ben O’Brien, also known as Ben the Illustrator, who last year launched a petition calling for an end to the late payment of invoices. In one instance, Ben and his wife had to cancel a holiday because a payment was three months overdue.
Despite the fact that advancements in fintech have made it possible to send money with your thumb, the majority of organisations still rely on outdated systems, which usually involve several rounds of admin, or a particular member of staff being around to sign-off a payment.
“Often it’s the bottlenecks in a payments system or financial processes that are causing all this unnecessary red tape in getting freelancers paid,” says freelance writer Anna Codrea-Rado, whose #FairPayForFreelancers campaign and petition has amassed more than 1,000 signatures and been backed by organisations like the Frontline Freelance Register and The Second Source.
Along with all this bureaucracy, sometimes companies don’t have a dedicated person to deal with invoices. “An invoice can just fall through the cracks,” says Anna. “I say this as a former editor – editors are really overworked, have a long list of things to do and dealing with invoices is one of them. It can be easy for it to slip to the bottom of the pile.”
These issues are systemic, and hopefully the rise of self-employed workers (now over 15% of the UK workforce) and business’ increasing dependence on freelance talent will put pressure on governments and organisations to address them. For example, Ben wants to see a law enabling invoices to work on the (reasonable) terms of the freelancer, rather than the company’s payment terms. “I can submit an invoice stating that my payment terms are 30 days, but if the client has 90 day payment terms I often can't negotiate with them on that,” he says.
But, when it comes to self-employed designers at least, most late payments could be avoided if the freelancer does more work upfront, according to designer, author and founder of San Francisco studio Mule Design, Mike Monteiro. “I’ve discovered that as designers, overall we do a piss poor job of setting ourselves up to get paid for our work,” says Mike, who interviewed a number of freelance designers while researching his 2012 book Design is a Job. So while currently we can’t always dictate our payment terms, and we certainly can’t control whether or not a company goes bankrupt, there are things we can do as individual freelancers to protect ourselves.
Get a contract
Firstly, make sure you’ve signed a contract before you start. According to Mike, whose latest title Ruined by Design explores design ethics and activism, freelancers are “notorious” for not doing this. We spoke to Shirley Watson, chief finance officer at London agency Uncommon, about what this document should include. “Besides the usual indemnity, non-disclosure, and other clauses that go into services contracts, you want to make sure your contract includes your daily rate, how long you are being hired for and what happens if you don’t get paid on time,” she says. “Having a contract means that both you and the agency are legally protected should things go south.”
Before signing a contract, read it thoroughly and negotiate any terms you’re not happy with. You could, for example, ask for a portion of your fee upfront. “The bigger the client is, the tighter their contracts are,” warns Mike. “So if you’re working with a Fortune 500 company they’re going to give you the most airtight contract in the world that helps nobody but them. If you just go ahead and sign it, you’re screwing yourself.”
Befriend someone in finance
Rather than relying on the person who commissioned you or someone in HR to get your invoice to the right person, find out the details of someone who works in the finance team as soon as possible and liaise with them directly. “You have to do everything in your power to short circuit all the company bureaucracies,” says Mike. “Make sure your invoices get as close as possible to the person who can actually pay you. Go meet that person, because they can save your ass.”
It seems finance departments are perfectly friendly and willing to connect, as Shirley concurs, “Say hello. introducing yourself always helps!” Plus most commissioners will be happy to have a bit of admin taken off their hands.
Make it easy for them
When should you submit your invoice? Is there a cut-off date for the next payment run? Do you need to complete timesheets? Hopefully this will all be in your contract, but if not, ask your new pal in finance.
When it comes to writing your invoice, include as much information as you can to help them pay you. According to Shirley, this includes your name, address, phone number, email address, project name, reference number, payment amounts, tax information and purchase order number (if one has been assigned), the dates and hours per day that you worked, plus the job codes for what you were working on.
Once you’ve submitted your invoice, follow up to make sure that they have all they need. “Make sure your client acknowledges the receipt of your invoice,” advises Alexandre Holder, freelance writer and author of Open Up: The Power of Talking about Money. “Ask them to confirm all the information on your invoice is correct. There is nothing worse than chasing on a late invoice for them to say, ‘Oh yeah you didn’t include your house number and we need that to process payment.’”
“When it comes to writing your invoice, include as much information as you can to help them pay you.”
Know your rights
Even if you have done all of the above, things can still go wrong that are out of your control. So it’s important to understand your rights and how you are protected by the law. If a payment has not been made according to the terms in your contract, you are legally allowed to charge statutory interest, which is 8% of your fee plus the Bank of England base rate for business to business transactions. You are also able to claim up to £100 of debt recovery costs. Gov.uk explains how all this works in detail. Anna recommends adding a warning about late payment fees on your invoices. “It signals that you know your rights and will enforce this if you need to,” she says. “I haven’t had a late payment since doing this.”
Hiring a lawyer is of course an option, but not the most affordable one. The Small Claims Court can help you take legal action for up to £10,000 and you can make a claim online. The initial application fee is between £25 and £410, a court allocation fee £40 and potential court hearing fee between £25 and £325, according to Money Saving Expert. But if you win the case, those costs will be repaid.
Setting yourself up to get paid certainly isn’t the funnest aspect of freelancing, and hopefully systems will evolve in a way that makes it less painful. In the meantime, an admin-induced headache is the lesser of two evils, and besides, a bit of yoga should get rid of that in no time.
This article is part of a series opening up conversation surrounding how the industry works in financial terms. Read the first in the series here, featuring illustrator Steph Coathupe on why we should encourage greater transparency with creative earnings.