FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Hi. I’m a Small Business Owner. Also a Collections Agent. And Someone Who Sometimes Wants to Break Things.

In Essays on January 30, 2014 at 5:35 pm

By Jim Thomsen

Jim ThomsenWhen you work for yourself, there’s your work—and then there’s all the work that goes into making sure you’re still able to work.

And some days, that work works on my last raw nerve.

I own and operate my own book manuscript-editing business. So, in my case, “the work behind the work” involves talking to prospective clients, communicating with current clients, managing my accounts, and the worst part: trying to get my clients to pay me.

Usually getting paid is not a huge problem. In my business, I provide an estimate, get a third up front, do the work, submit an invoice—and the client usually either pays in full, or asks to break the balance into payments. I almost always agree. The best clients usually set up an auto-payment on a set schedule, and it all goes fine. I’ve had more than two hundred paying clients in the four-plus years I’ve been in business, and I’ve almost always collected in full with a minimum of awkwardness.

But a small—and, sadly growing—subset of clients don’t set up an auto-payment, don’t pay when they say they’re going to pay, and force me to cyber-chase after them like a child tugging semi-ineffectually on a mother’s shirt sleeve. Most are apologetic when confronted, and cough up in a semi-timely fashion. Or at least explain why they can’t and then explain when they can.

I’m a nice guy. I understand that people have cash crunches from time to time (you know, sort of like the one I’m in right now because of all the people who aren’t paying up when they’re supposed to). I’m happy to work with you. But I’m not happy to see “nice” reinterpreted as “doormat.” I’m no doormat.

This morning, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and spotted a new post by such a client. The post said she was happy to be off work for a week so she could fly down to New Orleans for a book signing.

This is the same client I’ve been cyber-tugging at since last May.

Back then, I collected the deposit without any fuss, did a developmental edit on her romance novel, and invoiced her for the balance. She didn’t respond for a while, then wrote back to say that a) she had lost her job; b) needed to move with her kids back into her parents’ home; and c) wasn’t sure when she could pay the balance.

I wrote back to say, “I understand,” and proposed to give her three months to regroup. At that point, I’d be back in touch, and we’d work out a payment schedule that fit her budget.

In early October, at the end of the ninety days, I checked back in. It took a few more weeks and a few more emails for her to respond, but she finally said she could manage $100 a month, on the first of the month. Fine, I said, and she sent me $100 via PayPal later that day.

Great, I thought. But then November 1 came around, and nothing. It took two emails and ten days to get the next payment. Same with December. And then nothing in January. And then that Facebook post.

I had what I politely call a “rage aneurysm.”

At that point, I’d decided I had cut her quite enough slack. So I sent her a message demanding the balance in full ASAP, or I’d file against her in small claims court come Monday.

We’ll see what happens, but I wasn’t bluffing. I did the research. Our emails comprise a legally binding contract, according to Washington state law. The small-claims process here is easy, and costs just forty bucks. It’ll be the first time I’ve done such a thing, and signing the papers and releasing the claim into the system will represent a sad moment for me. I don’t want this. I’m not vengeful or vindictive. I don’t want to hurt this woman’s credit rating.

That said, if I ever do see another dime from her, it will be cold comfort. And untimely comfort, which is to say, no comfort at all. Because it’s not just this client. It’s the one who decided not to hire me for a full edit after I did a sample edit for her, and is now dragging her feet on paying the agreed-upon ‘kill fee.’ It’s the client who agreed to hire me for a full edit but is dragging her feet on paying the one-third deposit. It’s the client who hired me over a year ago to critique her manuscript and hasn’t yet paid me a dime, though at least she’s still talking to me about it. It’s the client who’s declining to pay more than half after deciding, after the fact, that I overcharged her.

It’s the fact that in two days, I’ve got to write a check for rent. And as things stand now, that’s a check that’s going to bounce. And if it doesn’t, it’ll be only because I have a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency friend who will float me a short-term loan.

I was in this exact same position last year. Businesswise, things seem to tail off a bit in winter, I’m finding. And, you know, I get it. We’ve got holiday-spending hangovers. We’ve got seasonal depressions. It’s hard to finish a book on time when all you want to do is go to sleep at 4:54 p.m. on a given day.

But, dear drag-your-heels clients, what makes you think I’m any less vulnerable to that? Or any better able to weather it?

I don’t get the luxury of going to bed at 4:54 p.m. Or even 11:54 p.m. Because I have to work harder to make up for the money I’m not getting.

I groused a bit about this on my Facebook page this morning, and what emerged was a flood of private messages from fellow entrepreneurs, some of whom shared their own getting-stiffed horror stories. The common thread through them was a weary acceptance of what I now think of as “stiffitude.” (Yeah, I know, it sounds slightly dirty, but whatever.) A sense of “It happens, what are you gonna do, just move on and hope it doesn’t happen too often.”

Me, I just can’t accept it.

So I told my break-glass friend: “Send the check. And, if there’s any way I can tear it up come Friday afternoon, January 31, I will.”

But that’ll take some action from people who, I hope mightily, haven’t torn up their codes of honor.

And, in the business world, that begins with communication. And ends with cash.

Jim Thomsen owns and operates a book manuscript-editing business in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. He can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter at @jimthomsen.

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