the crappy client

client relationships can sour

As a freelancer, once in a while, you wind up with a crappy client. And there’s just no indication when beginning to work with them. As with other types of relationships, there’s often a brief honeymoon period. The client starts out on their best behavior: they spend time crafting carefully worded documents, define the specs for new features in detail, stay within project scope, and pay on time.

After a successful project or two, the relationship begins to fray. You start to see little signs that the client finds their initial good behavior too demanding. Grammar mistakes and misspellings appear in those previously perfect documents, and soon the docs require multiple, thorough readings to decipher. Maybe you give a little feedback, asking for more care in describing the assignment. In response, they tell you that “the task is quite simple” or something similar, as if you are the stupid one for failing to understand the garble.

You get on the defensive. You’re an excellent developer, and perfectionism kicks in! You spend some extra time reading through the document (on your own dime, if this is a fixed price project!). You do your best to reiterate to the client what’s been requested. The client tells you that your interpretation of their garble is correct (with an “of course!” as if you are stupid to even request additional feedback). So you start working. Then you run into a hitch, and ask for instructions. Turns out that they “didn’t mean that, they meant something else…”. No apologies, just do it some other way. You get a little miffed, but they’ve been paying on time, so you back off and rework things.

Finally, you finish the work and bill them, but they won’t pay yet because they are “testing”… they find some “bugs” that they want fixed. The bugs are just things that do not work because they weren’t covered in the original garbled “spec”. You spend time trying to reproduce a bug and can’t get it to happen… that’s more of your time wasted, if your project is fixed price. You ask for more information about the “bug”, get more incomplete and unclear feedback, and waste more time trying to reproduce it. Finally, after many hours of wasted debugging work, you discover that there was an important step left out of the bug report in order to reproduce the bug. Nice!! With that step, you can finish debugging, and you fix the issue. Everything is done, but it took a lot longer than expected.

And then comes the kicker: they felt like you took too long to work on this “simple task”. It’s all your fault, you see. They pay you less than what was agreed upon, telling you that the work took “too long”.

When this happens, you need to kick the client to the curb. Just don’t tolerate this behavior. Sure, you got paid “something”, but there were so many problems with this situation that you should never, ever do business with this client again. If you are so desperate that you have to work for them again, then you need to work hard to put yourself in a position where you can be more picky about your clients. It’s just not worth the aggravation!

negotiate royalties, otherwise invest

I ran across an article about an artist who painted the cover of Jethro Tull‘s Aqualung. He was paid a fixed fee, $1500, for three pieces of art in 1971.

It’s a little bit sad that this fellow did not make more money off the job. That $1500 is only worth about $9000 in today’s dollars, according to this Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator. I suspect that many artists would be thrilled to make $9K off a few paintings, these days. However, I can imagine that it’s still a bummer when your artwork is generating millions for the people who bought it, and you don’t get any royalties from that.

This artist doesn’t get a do-over. However, we can learn from this lesson! Nowadays, it is extremely easy to invest in index funds online. Even just $1000 invested in the S&P 500 in January of 1972 would be worth approximately $100K today. If you are an artist, and you do not have the power to negotiate a royalty agreement, you can still take your payment and invest it in a low-fee index fund like Vanguard’s VFINX. Depending on your tax situation, you might also want to put it into a retirement vehicle such as an IRA or 401K, which offers tax protection. There’s always risk involved in investing, but there’s a lot of risk involved in sticking your money in a saving account, too. Inflation will eat away that money in no time.

health insurance

If your employer pays for part of your health insurance premiums, you may be one of the lucky ones who can ignore the turbulence in the health insurance market.

That’s not me, though. I live in the United States, and like it or not, I’m forced to participate in the whacky health insurance system that we have here. I’m self-employed. Last year, I was paying about $5000/year for health insurance premiums. I was on a high-deductible plan that I had bought directly from the insurance company. I’d started on it before the ACA came into effect, and never tried to move off it.

what does a crutch really cost?
how much?

And then, last year, I moved to a new state. I’d estimated that my living expenses would go down if I moved. I knew I’d enjoy an increase in opportunities for outdoor activities, which would make me happier. I had some trepidation about what my new health insurance premiums might be. However, I decided that it was not an option to continue to live in one state for the rest of my life simply due to uncertainty about health insurance. I pulled the trigger, and made the move.

In the ACA, a move to a new state is called a “qualifying event”, and it lets you use the health insurance exchange to buy a new plan. During the search process, I learned that my income was so small that I qualified for Medicaid, and that I wouldn’t have to pay any premiums at all! It was galling, since I don’t think of myself as someone who needs Medicaid. However, I’m also not someone to pay for something that I can get free of charge. So I went on Medicaid.

During the course of this year, I picked up some freelance work to help bolster my income (unfortunately, my business is not even “ramen profitable”, and I do freelancing to pay my bills). Apparently, I am not a shrewd enough business person, however. I did enough freelance work that my income disqualified me from Medicaid. This meant that I was tossed off Medicaid mid-year. Getting tossed off Medicaid is also a qualifying event, so I went searching on the exchange again. “Fortunately”, I’m still making such a minimal income that I qualify for tax credits that pay for almost all of my health insurance premiums. I put “fortunately” in quotes because I don’t think it’s fun to live on approximately $20K of income per year. I’d rather make plenty of money, and have to suffer with paying the premiums myself. But that’s just the way things are going for me right now.

So why am I writing about health insurance premiums? If you live in the USA, health insurance premiums can make or break your plans to bootstrap a business. You can do all kinds of things to reduce your cost of living. Get one or more housemates. Eat ramen. Buy your clothing from thrift shops. Participate in the “gig economy”. However, you have very few choices when it comes to health insurance. You can refuse to pay into the system, and run the risk that you might incur enough medical expenses to bankrupt you (or, possibly, to even wind up killing you). Or you can choose a plan with a high deductible. This is what I’ve always done, but even those plans have become quite pricey. As an example, I’ve now bought into a plan that covers me for the next year. The annual cost will be almost $8000, without taking into account tax credits. And that plan has a deductible of about $7000.

I don’t like the health insurance system in this country. I don’t like that health insurance is heavily linked with employment. I don’t like that my health insurance plan has to change when I move from one state to another. I don’t like that even though I’ve been covered by health insurance for most of my life, I may incur huge expenses if I’m unlucky enough to have an accident or become sick during a brief period when I’m uninsured (and I’ve never been uninsured intentionally – it was always a move or the recent Medicaid fiasco that caused me to become uninsured for a short period of time).

Single payer is the way to go. I’m tired of hearing about how larger companies have more bargaining power with health insurance companies, and that this is why small firms have such high premiums.  If a large corporation has bargaining power, then how much more bargaining power would the entire population of the US have? Oh yeah, and I’m also tired of having my health insurance options decided by people who are disconnected from the health insurance reality that faces less privileged members of our society.

If we can get everyone covered by a single group insurance plan, I’m betting that everyone’s rates would go down. I think the cost of healthcare in this country would go down as well. I don’t have proof, except to point to how much better it works in numerous other countries. The US population has been comfortable ignoring the fact that many less well-off, self-employed people have been screwed by the tight link that formed between health insurance and employment during WWII. As more people lose their full-time jobs and start working in the crappy gig economy, it’s clear that something has got to change. It is time to cut the cord between employment and health insurance!

ask the dev: what does it mean when the previous dev won’t help me?

I was chatting with a colleague at a meetup recently, and he shared a story. He had recently picked up a gig supporting a software project via Craigslist. The client explained to him that the previous developer was no longer available. He needed a couple of new features to be implemented, and a bug to be fixed. My colleague thought it would be a good idea to have a brief discussion with the previous developer in order to speed up the transition on the project. The client gave him that person’s email address, and my colleague sent an email, but got no reply. A few days later, he sent another email. A week later, there’s still no response! The client averred that he had tried to reach the dev, too, but hadn’t heard back. He could give no explanation, and just suggested that the previous dev’s help was not needed, anyway.

My colleague asked me what I thought, and here’s what I said: It sounds to me like things ended badly between your client and the previous developer. Since the previous dev is not replying, maybe your emails got spam-collected. The fact that the client is not getting a response either is suspicious… If the previous dev parted on good terms, then I think he would have responded, at least briefly. I certainly would, even if I were busy.

Maybe the previous dev wasn’t paid for some work that was done. Maybe the client made unreasonable demands, rang his phone late at night, or something like that? I’d take this as a sign to “proceed with caution”. Don’t put a lot of work into the project without getting paid.

My colleague was doing the work as a fixed bid project. So maybe he should ask that each task be broken up into smaller, discrete pieces, each of which can be paid at an agreed-upon price. Also, the work should be clearly specified in order to avoid scope creep and disagreements about how the work was defined.

When freelancing, it’s a good idea to keep your initial project with a client small in order to test the waters. This is especially important when you have a couple of signals that your new client may be problematic. Getting ghosted when requesting information from a previous developer is one troubling sign. The fact that the client advertises on Craigslist certainly sets my spidey-sense tingling, too!