The following is an excerpt from my book Freelance Newbie available on Amazon on paperback and Kindle. Also available as a top-rated Udemy course!
Remember Geocities? It was Yahoo’s free web hosting site that allowed anybody with an Internet connection to build a webpage. As a teen, I was a real prankster and built a satire page for my classmates to visit when we had classes in the computer lab. I reveled in my alone time with the Geocities drag-and-drop editor.
I knew some basic HTML back then, but it wasn’t until years later in 2014 when I started flirting with the idea of becoming a professional web developer.
But unlike my Geocities adventures, where everything was funny, light, and met with delight from my peers and disdain from my principal, this experience was a train wreck.
My client owned a highly-reputable orthodontic business and she had recently developed a proprietary product for cleaning teeth. While in-store sales were doing great, she was ready to break into ecommerce. According to her husband, the duo had gone through multiple developers and consultants, including a relative who was also a full-time car salesman three states away. For one reason or another, none of these people had been able to complete the project.
While the story of the car salesman gave me a mild knot in my stomach, I remained highly optimistic and excited – after all, this was my first “real” freelance client. I asked a lot of questions, took a lot of notes, and we wrapped up the meeting with smiles and handshakes. I was confident I would hear from this motivated couple soon.
I didn’t even have a portfolio or price list yet and I was already getting a callback from a client with cash!
That’s when things started going downhill.
“Hi Candy, this is Jim. Hey, Tina and I want to meet with you again. Can you come down to the office tomorrow?”
I felt that mild knot again in my stomach: their office was in another city, over an hour away, and I wasn’t getting paid for this meeting. But once again, the thrill of me being pursued by a freelance client overpowered any physical manifestation of doubt I may have had. I didn’t even ask them why they wanted to meet – I happily obliged, because clearly we were about to close the deal.
It was a Sunday and their office was closed, so Jim unlocked the door for me and led me to a dark room in the back. Tina was there with the lights off, squinting and mumbling at something on her computer. The two discussed work-related issues for a few minutes before acknowledging my presence. But hey, they’re busy business people, and I really wanted them as a client.
After a few more minutes, Tina looked up from her computer, gave Jim the nod and then he gave me the rundown: they did actually have a website built already from their car salesman nephew, but he got stuck on something and didn’t have time to complete it. Tina sighed, got up from her desk, and scurried to a huge printer outside her room while quietly chanting, “I hate her. I hate her. I hate her,” as scanner lights illuminated the dim hallway.
Things were getting weird, but I figured it was just the cost of doing business.
This dysfunctional blob of a meeting continued on for over an hour. I was finally getting impatient with the misdirection, and looked for an opportunity to interject. While Jim brought up the topic of geofencing and worked himself into a near-mania with the possibilities, I looked at my notes, confirmed what their development problems were, discussed how I could solve those problems, and stated the next steps in the development process.
They seemed receptive to my ideas, especially after I explained the importance of a site that featured responsive web design (a major feature missing from the current site) and embedded videos.
“We’ll get back to you soon,” Jim said.
I got in my car and drove an hour back home.
“Candy, it’s Jim here. Say, listen. I’ve got one of Tina’s co-workers who claims she can get this thing built for free.”
I froze with disbelief, stunned with silence.
He continued, “Now, I don’t know if she’s telling the truth or not, but I want to get together with you for another meeting. And she wants to tag along with her husband to see what this website stuff you do is all about.”
I was shaking a little at this point with anger, betrayal, and embarrassment. Deciding to deal with the emotional fallout later, I said very calmly, “Jim, we can meet, but at this point I’m going to have to start charging you.
Jim wasn’t having it.
“Charging for a meeting? I think you’re being unreasonable. I mean, this could be a big business opportunity for you. I’ve just never been in a situation where a person charges for a meeting.”
“Jim, you just told me you have a lady who can do my job for free, who wants to know how I build my websites. And you want me to meet with you all for free for the third time? I’m sorry, but no. If you all want to meet for a consultation, I do charge for that.”
Then he said, “Well, then I think we might be better off finding somebody else. Could you at least get in touch with Tina and let her know if you’re still interested in revamping her personal website?”
Updating Tina’s personal site was was something we had briefly touched upon at our first meeting. I agreed to contact her, and hung up the phone. Where had it all gone wrong?
Once I snapped back into reality, I sent a professional email to Tina that afternoon, letting her know that we would not be doing any business together.
We never spoke again.
How many problems (or potential problems) did you identify in this client-from-hell story? Would you believe that I experienced two more similar stories just like this one before I learned my lessons?
Most of these missteps are common mistakes that beginners make, and perhaps you’ve already experienced some of them with your early freelancing efforts.
When something goes wrong early on, it’s easy to let the failure stain your perception of your career for the worse.
One negative experience can make people quit freelancing – unfortunately, many people have quit because of that.
However, the most important thing you can do in this situation is to learn from it and press on.
Your dream is worth more than that.
No doubt, dealing with low-quality clients like the ones I dealt with at the start of my career is soul-sucking, but honestly, it’s a part of every business.
The important part of it is to put everything into perspective, focus on your dream and realize that negative people aren’t going to personally help you reach your goals.
They never do.
Transform negativity as professionally as possible and press on, using that energy to fuel greatness.
P.S. Follow me on YouTube where I talk a lot about cool web dev stuff: