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Maxvoltar - Protecting yourself from Shitty Clients

Maxvoltar is the personal weblog of Tim Van Damme, a freelance interface designer at Made by Elephant.

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Protecting yourself from Shitty Clients

Yesterday, I kicked out a client. He refused to pay, and I was sick of it. Ripped up his invoice and let him know he wasn’t allowed to use any of the designs I made for him. Here’s what I learned the hard way, and how I’m going to prevent this from happening ever again.

First off: It doesn’t matter who this client was. We both agreed on keeping this between us. Although a bad experience for both of us, ruining each other’s reputation wasn’t going to help either of us. And besides: It could be anyone. Maybe you have a shitty client, maybe someone you know is complaining about shitty clients.

Have a contract signed

The first thing I’m going to do, is write a contract based on Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer.

If signing a contract I didn’t fully understand made me a stupid son-of-a-bitch, not asking my customers to sign one just makes me plain dumb.

If the clients refuses to sign it, we’ll either a) make some minor changes to it, or b) end our relation here.

Ask for a deposit

After the contract has been signed, the client will have to make a deposit based on my estimate. This can vary between 25 and 50% of the total estimate. No work starts before that deposit has reached my bank account.

This isn’t just a matter of trust, but also of cashflow. Sometimes, I go as far as writing the client an invoice on a weekly basis. If you deliver quality work, the client won’t mind paying you the way you want.

Stick to your schedule

I’ve written about this before, but seriously: Stick to your schedule.

Don’t think a 1-day project in the middle of a 2-month project won’t do any harm. It will. Taking on projects in between will cause all your other projects to suffer. It’s very simple: First come, first served.

Set boundaries

Set a standard for the kind of work you accept. This isn’t a strict rule you should stick to, there will always be exceptions. Once in a while, you get offered a project you’ve always dreamt of. If that’s the case: Break all the rules and go for it, head first.


I’ve decided not to take on work that requires less than 2 days – I don’t really have a maximum. The reason for this is that each project involves a bunch of paperwork, emails, meetings… and for really small projects, it’s just not worth investing that effort into it.


Everybody has a certain style, an area of expertise. You shouldn’t be scared to step out of that safe circle and expand it, but you can’t constantly be doing stuff you know little about. This would result in you looking like a douche and delivering half-assed work.

Forward projects to friends

If you happen to get requests for projects that do fall outside of your preferred choice of work, don’t hesitate to forward them to befriended companies that might need some extra work or are just more suited for the projects in question.

I’ve done this plenty of times, and they started doing the same. This resulted in a small network of friends all forwarding each other work. When one of us is low on work, we’d just say so.


These are all precautions you can take to make sure a project goes smoothly, and that you get paid in the end, and are able to feed your cat and partner.

Remember that these are all written from a one-man company’s perspective. Also remember that not all clients are shitty, there are some you just want to kiss.


  • Ben Bodien

    3677 days ago

    Sound advice, Tim!

    There’s a lot to be said for exchanging projects with companies you know and trust. Personal referrals are extremely valuable for all involved.

    Also a good point about not sandwiching micro projects into bigger ones, but we all get tempted ;)

    Oh and if you plan on kissing me let me know so I can get the strawberry gloss on.

  • William Wilkinson

    3677 days ago

    Great post. Hopefully this will get my ass in gear and start following these rules.

  • Fernando Lins

    3677 days ago

    This is an excellent post, and I’m going through the same process so I can assure this is way it should be done.

  • Andy McMillan

    3677 days ago

    Curse you Tim – was just drafting an almost identical blog entry!

    Agree 100% – getting my paperwork didn’t become a priority until I’d stumbled over my first awful client, it was a serious lesson learnt and I always advise new freelancers I meet to do it immediately.

  • Scott Gould

    3677 days ago

    Great advice – experiencing exactly the same thoughts, allbeit before the shitty client actually messes me around.

    Thanks for your honesty.

  • Jason Finch

    3677 days ago

    We’re lucky here in the UK to have a “Small Claims” system that covers stuff like this: real easy to grab a form from a Court, fill it in and send it off to the Court. They notify the other party. If they don’t pay, you both go to Court, really simple process, you end up getting paid. Invariably you get paid first because the other party doesn’t want a Court Judgement against their company.

    I’ve had to use this a couple of times in the past. One guy I won against was dumb enough to ask me to do another project for him afterwards!

    Your two killer bits of advice are always get a contract and always get a deposit, particularly with new clients.

  • kat neville

    3677 days ago

    Good post Tim. I think a lot of designers are starting to do things to protect themselves, but sometimes the partnership will fail, even if you have a contract and a downpayment. I guess it just makes it easier to walk away at that point (and at least you have a little more than nothing!).

    A similar thing happened with a friend of a friend who was going to do an exchange of service (she was a masseuse and I love massages) for a logo design and website. Bad call— she was impossible to please (15 logo options later), and we mutually agreed to end our commitment. At that point, I couldn’t possibly receive any ‘payment’ as I was too furious (and getting a massage while angry isn’t exactly relaxing).

    It’s too bad, but I’m sure you, like me, feel so much better for ending the thing!

  • Kristof Houwen

    3677 days ago

    I really need to start thinking about having a signed contract for all projects.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this.

  • Ole Martin Kristiansen

    3677 days ago

    Very true and probably an important lesson learned. It’s easy to believe that your client is a ‘good’ client as the communication might be going very smoothly and they’re happy with the results of your work but I guess their true self really shine when they receive their invoice?

    I’ll make sure to write a contract from now on :-)

  • DP

    3677 days ago

    I recently lost a former colleague and friend after he refused to pay me for a service.

    While the agreement was verbal, he totally took advantage and I imparted a lot of valuable knowledge onto him – he has lost himself a friend, business connection and actually a asset to his personali life and business… for R1000? Can you believe it?

  • David Perel

    3677 days ago

    We dont commence work until 50% is paid upfront. If the scheduled time frame is exceeded due to the client then another 25% is required before we continue. Cuts out alll the BS.

  • Tim Van Damme

    3677 days ago

    • @Ben Bodien: Got any coconut?
    • @Jason Finch: As far as I know, we don’t have “Small Claims” in Belgium.
    • @kat neville: I wouldn’t want to get a massage by an angry masseuse either :)
    • @DP: Should have added that to the article: Never work for friends or family. Sooner or later, this goes wrong/awkward.

    Also: Trust your guts. When you’re not 100% sure about a client, dare to say no.

  • Michael Grinstead

    3677 days ago

    Touch wood I’ve been fortunate to have stayed clear of such clients, but doesn’t mean that I’m not going to eventually get one.

    Not having a contract scares me, but I feel that as my current clientele tend to be on the small side then there is no need to go thrusting a contract under their noses, I know I’m wrong in thinking this. Tho saying that I do invoice for a deposit (25%).

    Good point regards to taking on 1-day projects in between larger ones, this I do have a habit of doing, and has effected 1 or 2 projects in the past. Mainly because these so called 1-day projects can turn out to be a little more then 1 day, especially if the clients starts to add to the list.

  • Mokokoma Mokhonoana

    3677 days ago

    A deposit before commencement of a project is a must.

    I had a prospect who urged me to start with their project before they made the deposit, the client kept on using the “…you’ll get a lot of exposure from this…” lame trick.

    I declined.

    While the project might sound exciting to you, the fact that a client doesn’t afford your expertise isn’t your problem but theirs!

    Any client who values/respect you as a creative wouldn’t hesitate/mind paying the deposit.

  • Tom Harrop

    3677 days ago

    Some excellent advice here in an area I would call my weakest

  • Alan Bristow

    3677 days ago

    Thanks for this post. It reminded me to return to Andy’s contract to read.

    One additional piece of advice that seems almost not worth noting as I am guessing everyone knows this, is, in Canada at least, you need to be clear who is signing on your side.

    More specifically, if you are a legal entity (you run a small corporation), then your signature needs to clearly show the corporation is agreeing to this and you are signing on it’s behalf, check the following with a lawyer in case I am wrong, but something like:

    Example Inc.

    MySwirlySigGoesHere – - – - – - – - – - – -
    Name: Alan Bristow
    Title: My legal position in Example Inc
    I have the authority to bind the corporation

  • Trent Walton

    3677 days ago

    While all pointers are solid, I’ve definitely found that getting a deposit or “50% pre payment” from clients sets a good tone and shows you they are serious about the project and your work.

    I love coming across articles like this. If creatives don’t value what they do, don’t be surprised when clients follow suit. Spread the word and hopefully we’ll all find ourselves working with people happy to pay for good design.

  • Bob Hufkens

    3677 days ago

    Tim, if you’re interested, I have a dutch adaptation of Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer I made earlier this year. It might come in handy or serve a basis for your local clients. Give me a hoot if you want it.

  • Sam

    3676 days ago

    “Forward projects to friends”
    Or a brother :)

  • Johann Dizon

    3675 days ago

    Good Read. Nice Redesign btw!

  • Luc Latulippe

    3674 days ago

    Wonderful advice, thank you for sharing. Nasty experience though.

  • Glen Mossong

    3669 days ago

    I get clients to make a 50% down payment before work begins & then the remaining 50% plus any extra work incurred during the project, paid on completion. This has worked thus far as people tend to be alot more responsible when their money has been handed over.

  • René

    3664 days ago

    Well, I think that the most of us learned this the hard way.

    After my first experience with that I started to force clients to deposit 50%. If a client deny, you know how they will act later.

    Another advice that should be given:
    Never ever work for friends you know since you were childrens / classmates etc. or for your family!

    Your relationship will end faster as you think if you don’t react on every wish on change.

  • Tim Van Damme

    3664 days ago

    @René: I completely agree with that! It’s something I try to avoid.

  • Mark A. Richman

    3651 days ago

    Would Andy Clarke’s Killer Contract actually hold up in court?

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