[Consistency works] Except when it doesn’t

As far as consistency will get you, if you work with startups or other rapidly growing businesses, sometimes they’ll struggle with cashflow. To manage these problems, you need to apply fair but undesirable consequences when a client consistently doesn’t pay on time. While individual tastes vary, popular selections include:

  • With[h]olding IP rights to the work in question
  • Charging interest
  • Ramping down or halting development after a warning period
  • Telling a client “[Forget] you, pay me” (advanced users only, offer not valid in Hawaii or Canada)

[highlighting and PG censoring performed by me -mfn]

Had a "duh" moment reading this one. I've been lucky that most of my clients pay on time. I'm probably also lucky that I don't act like I'm only around to pluck every living dollar out of what one might act like is their tightly clenched hand. I bet it helps you to get paid in some-to-many situations if you don't act like getting paid is the only reason you're interested in them. Clients are not ATMs; they're [usually, ultimately] people. If you're interested in helping them succeed -- and can competently help them do it -- they'll be happy to bring you along.

But the "duh" moment -- to be clear, a moment when I'm slapping myself in the head -- is to withhold IP. You might do yourself one better and include in your contact that you will also assume rights to any design elements and other IP that you've been made privy to while working. I realize you could get into a mess if the client has licensed stuff that they shouldn't or can't officially allow you to use, and some folks would balk at their current clients or test data, but you get my point.

Clients don't always respond to "time out"

The problem with "ramping down... development" and "charging interest" is that they don't guarantee you'll get anything. Those are really only useful if the companies want to work with you again, or if you're owed so much it's really worth suing. That is, those two remedies usually require the client to participate in their punishment for them to be effective. (If you're currently still working for a client that agreed to and is not now paying, we need to have a talk.)

It's like being a parent -- if your only punishment requires the punished's cooperation, you're often left with a battle of wills. This includes stuff as simple as, "That's your third strike. Go to time-out." If they don't go to time out, what do you do? Pick 'em up and put them there? Stand over them and forcibly keep them in time-out? (Um, I don't recommend that, btw.) These aren't great situations, are they? [... is a rhetorical question most any parent has likely already confronted.]

But tell someone you now own their ideas and legally become their competitor? Now that's punitive and enforceable.

Litmus testing

I really can't see anyone pitching too big of a fit for that being in your contract either, if it's well written and sounds fair and even, not like you're dying to stick it to your client. Anybody who tells you they're not willing for you to own their stuff if they don't pay might not be who you want as a client, right?

If they're worried about slow times or unexpected issues, I'd feel okay negotiating the, "Pay or I can play" clause as far as they want, until they're comfortable. I'd also probably need to add some soothing language that you wouldn't use their brand itself, and would perform what you felt were minimal distinctive changes to address possible user confusion...

Generic, post-Exxon branded, station

But at some point, a reasonable entity would have to recognize that, if they're not paying their own contractor what they contracted, that's unfair.

I should probably also add now that I don't typically fix-price something past the first contract. I don't mind taking a little bath to try and show someone I'm worth keeping around, but later, I try to make it clear that you're paying for hours of work, whatever they produce. This tends to keep clients on track if they're exceptionally cost-conscious, and also from them asking for the moon -- and from moving the moon biweekly because of some incredible insight!!1!121! they had over breakfast.

Two lessons here:

  1. Well-written contracts work well as a litmus test for your clients.
  2. Clients paying for time tend to be more responsible clients.

Google fails in search for blog

Headline, headline; read all about it!

One quick aside: When I was searching for Allen Pike's post, above, using a very specific string of words from the post, "to manage these problems, you need to apply fair but undesirable", Google gave me nothing, at least nothing tempting on the first page of results. That's crazy-insane.

Bing found it, no problems (though its third hit was, um, strange).

Bing vs. Google, searching for Allen Pike's post. Google loses horribly.

Go figure. As I've said before, Programming is Hard, (c) 1842.

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