I love startups. I love their energy and enthusiasm, their forward-looking vision, and their confidence-bordering-on-arrogance. I even love the chaotic nature of these fast-growing businesses, where passion and commitment unite to create new solutions to pervasive problems, and the co-founders are so driven that they’ll gladly put in 90-hour weeks and a whole lot of elbow grease to sing their business idea on the rooftops to anyone of influence who will listen.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that working with startups can sometimes have drawbacks. Based on three years of experience in working with startups (and their publishing equivalent)–about a third of my clients at the moment–I’ve compiled a list of red flags to watch out for. While none of these are necessarily a deal breaker on their own (and few are limited to startups, per se), proceeding with caution–and responding appropriately– would be prudent. (As always, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.)
Red Flag #1: “We’re very willing to pay more than that for a job well done.”
Sounds great, right? Who doesn’t want a bonus? However, it’s a bit insulting. Most service providers will do a bang-up job at their quoted hourly rate. We’re not strippers; we’re not going to do a really good job compared to the mediocre job we would have done for the tip as a hanging carrot. If you really love a book you’ve read, do you really go back to the bookstore to pay extra for it?
The other problem is that “a job well done” is subjective. A client might hate work you did while following their instructions to the tee, and another might feel that work you consider mediocre is downright amazing. While the whole point is to leave the client satisfied, there’s no guarantee that the job you slaved over will be appreciated.
The final drawback to clients wishing to pay more for a job well done is the flip side. It’s always these exact clients that will ask for exorbitant discounts if they decide–often through no fault of your own–that the job wasn’t done to their satisfaction.
Possible solutions: Be very clear about your fee structure, revision process, refund policy (or lack thereof), and work these details into your contract.
Red Flag #2: “But we’re a startup!”
This is often said as a request for a discount.
Possible solutions: Offer less services for less pay. Some examples: write 400-600 word posts without interviews instead of 800-1200 word posts. Don’t field requests for revisions. Let your client actually post the piece on WordPress instead of posting it yourself; let them find images, too. You can offer a better quote if they’re willing to put in more work, and still maintain your pay-per-hour.
Red Flag #3: “We’re in the process of securing funding from some major underwriters.”
That’s nice. And once you have the budget, you can hire a writer.
Companies may try to rope you in with promises of pay “once they raise more capital,” and most of those companies go under–or hire someone else, anyway. Since you can’t pay your mortgage with promises of potential future pay, don’t work for companies that are essentially doing the same thing.
Red Flag #4: “Will you write for plastic widgets?”
No. I write for money, which I can use for purchasing plastic widgets or for rent.
Possible solution: This one’s easy; just explain it to the client.
Red Flag #5: “We need someone who has a vision for this position.”
This is great, if they’re actually willing to let you use your vision for the position. But more often than not, they’re just unclear about what they want. This leads to a lot of extra work when you get pushback on your vision by a perpetually unsatisfied client.
Possible solutions: Figure out ahead of time what metrics the client is using to gauge success, what factors they want to give you feedback on, and what they want self-contained. This will help you figure out exactly what they’re looking for. As an example, if a client wants to review and send revision requests for a blog post, they really do have a vision for what they’re looking for, even if they insist otherwise.
Red Flag #6: The perpetual meetings.
These are people who want to talk on facebook chat, and then on Gmail, and then on Skype, and then in person, and then on Skype again so you can talk to other people on their team. Often they’ll ask for writing samples or other tests, and make decisions by committee.
Possible solution: Price your services based on the amount of meetings you’ve had to sit through. For example, if you think it should take up to two hours for a client to decide whether they want to work with you, and it takes six, you may want to triple the time estimate for the actual project and negotiate from there.
I am thrilled when my clients win contests, get grants, or are otherwise recognized. And at the same time, they pay me to proofread their essays, write grant proposals, complete contest entries. They’re not paying me to win it for them. Just like editors, contest judges sometimes reject qualified businesses due to really complicated factors outside of our control. As an example, if you hired someone to write your college essay, and got rejected from that college, it may have more to do with your GPA or extracurricular activities or a whole slew of other factors. The writer’s job is to take what’s there and make it shine; to increase the odds of getting the grant or winning the contest. That’s all anyone can do.
Possible solution: Explain this to your client in advance, and see how they respond. Then react accordingly.
Um. I charge extra if I have to work on weekends.
Possible solution: Mention all deadlines ahead of time, as well as any weekend or rush fees. If you don’t do rush work or will never work on weekends, specify that up front as well.
Red Flag #9: “We’re so thrilled to be working with you. The last guy was a piece of !@#$.”
If you really think that your writing prowess will win the guy over, you may be in for disappointment…as there’s a good chance he’ll be repeating the same exact sentence to the next writer.
Possible solution: It’s easy to get a bit arrogant at this point, but pride comes before the fall. Just proceed with caution here.
Red Flag #10: Clients who are mean to their coders.
This is the biggest red flag for me. You’re meeting with the guy in charge, and he’s screaming at the tech whiz who secretly runs the show. Much like clients who bad-mouth the writer before you, these unpredictable hotheads are sure to turn on you next. Besides, coders are cool, and people who are mean to coders are not. Do you really want to work for someone who’s a bad person?
Possible solution: It’s really up to you, but all bets are off. I’ve actually gotten up and walked out of meetings where this was taking place. Other times, I wish I would have.
Red Flag #11: “I just rewrote this whole piece. Check out my typo-laden scrawlings compared to your professionally crafted work. Since I did most of the work here, can you give me a discount?”
Possible solution: Let people know up front what your writing process is, as well as your policies and procedures (i.e., no discounts).
Red Flag #12: The dumb bonus.
This is usually when people promise $50-100 or so if you get the most page views on your post.
Possible solutions: Just say thanks and ignore these things. Or, if you’ve got a great and open relationship with your client, let them know that you can earn 10 or 20x as much writing than promoting your post incessantly with no guarantee of hitting the magical number.
Red Flag #13: The request for unpaid promotional work.
Posting your own article or blog post on facebook and twitter is always nice, but often clients will expect writers to promote other people’s posts, hang out on message boards, etc. I personally worry about list fatigue, and won’t post clients’ work all over the place unless it’s really exceptional.
Possible solution: Do the promotion you’re willing to do, and then stop. If it becomes an issue, you can always share the amount you charge for that type of work.
Red Flag #14: Being completely unaware of conflict of interest.
(Or simply not caring, but I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt.) These are the clients who want you to “double dip,” essentially writing about them for magazines in exchange for pay–the type of promotional work that would get you blacklisted from any magazine worth their salt. I actually had a company reprint a magazine interview I did with one of their clients as a paid ad in the same magazine, and they claimed they were completely unaware of the fact that this made me look like a corporate shill. (Yes, I lost clients, because people thought I was doing promo work for the company, disguised as editorial work for the magazine…and I didn’t even get paid for it!)
Possible solution: If the client doesn’t understand, or chooses not to understand, ethically iffy situations…run, don’t walk, to the nearest available exit. It is never worth it.
Red Flag #15: Scope Creep
The craziest example of this I can think of is when I was writing eight posts a week for a website, on retainer. They decided one of those posts should include a 3-hour round-trip drive to an 8-hour conference, along with uploading videos of all the speakers, all for one post and at a ridiculously low hourly rate. This problem isn’t limited to startups, but seems to be more common.
Possible solutions: Repeat after me. “This is beyond the scope of our agreement.” Or let them know that you charge more to compile and resize 20 photographs or do whatever extra work they’re asking for than that which you originally agreed upon. But don’t say it unless you’re willing to walk away. If you desperately need the cash, just do the work, as it’s harder to keep the client if you insist you won’t do work and then have to backpedal.
Red Flag #16: The Disappearing Retainer
You agree to a lower rate than your usual due to an umbrella agreement where you were guaranteed a certain amount of posts per month, and then you don’t get those posts per month.
Possible solutions: Renegotiate. “I agreed to a lower rate on the guarantee of X posts per month, and have only gotten X. Would you like to increase the posts I’m receiving, or renegotiate the agreement so it reflects my regular rates?” Also, make sure retainer/umbrella agreements are in writing.
Red Flag #17: The Disappearing Perks
For example: you write an article for a very low rate in exchange for a mention of an upcoming workshop (or a backlink), and the magazine or website fails to follow through.
Possible solutions: Get the agreement in writing next time. Follow up to see if it’s something they can change (now or in the future). Better yet, double check ahead of time to make sure it’s ready to go, so you won’t have any unexpected surprises.
Red Flag #18: “You mean that e-mail agreement I sent you where I told you how much I’d pay you and what your deadline is which you had in hand before working for me is actually a contract?”
It’s always hard to discern whether these clients are willfully ignorant or not, but boy do they have a hard time understanding things. They will pretend that you never had an agreement, that their contract they sent you wasn’t really a contract (or a written agreement didn’t count), that they thought you were volunteering your time or writing on spec, that they thought your complete product was just a sample, and on and on and on.
Possible solutions: Unfortunately, no contract will stop clients from behaving unethically… but it can help make the truth of the situation more difficult to deny. If you didn’t get a contract, be aware that even verbal agreements are still binding in court (small claims may be a good option), and there’s also case law on quantum meruit specifying that even if clients cancel a project, they must pay for work completed up until that point. Some startups don’t realize that many writers prefer e-mail agreements because they’re better than a grabby contract asking for all rights. (E-mail agreements revert to FNASR in most cases). Anyway, when you’re getting screwed over on pay by clients who suddenly forgot the meaning of an agreement (or who think a simple apology will make up for the hours of nonpaying work you’ve done for them without your knowledge, let alone consent), sometimes it’s worth fighting (and groups such as the National Writers Union will advocate on your behalf, if you’re a member). Sometimes it’s best to just walk away. Just make sure to do whatever you can’t to get a really comprehensive contract in place.
Red Flag #19: Clients who don’t understand the revision process.
You send them a draft and ask for edits, and they send an e-mail saying “thanks,” or some such thing. You might even talk on the phone to ask questions before you make changes and finalize the document. You think you’re done, and suddenly they want all sorts of changes by yesterday. Or, they’ll send requests for revisions five or six times.
Possible solutions: Be incredibly clear about your process, and explain it both verbally and in your written agreement. If you only do one or two sets of revisions, make sure that’s stated up front. Double-check to make sure they don’t have corrections before finalizing the piece. Let them know in advance how many days you’ll need to make revisions, and what they can expect. (For example, some clients think that first drafts won’t look anything like the final product, even if they don’t specify changes. They just need to be educated.)
Red Flag #20: Clients who have no idea what they want…but it’s not that!
They have no idea how many pages they want in a manual, or how many words in a post, but they’ll tell you after the fact that the length is wrong, forcing you to redo work because it didn’t mention their unstated specifications.
Possible solution: Show them sample posts and say “this is what an 800-word post looks like,” or “this is what a 20-page manual looks like.” Let them know ahead of time what you were thinking of doing, and get their approval. Also, let them know if there’s anything else they’ll need (graphics, etc.) if those aren’t services you provide. Until you learn how to read minds, trying to get them to at least attempt to determine what they think they want is a good first step.
Feel free to leave your own red flags or rants and ravings in the comments!