Help me dump a nightmare freelance writing client.
July 30, 2011 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm a freelance writer who needs to tactfully end a business relationship with a web design firm. Help me walk away relatively unscathed.

When I first started working independently as a freelance writer about eight months ago, I reached out to local graphic and web design firms to see if they outsourced content. I've been doing business with the owner of one firm ever since.

Generally, he provides me with leads, vaguely "facilitates" projects, bills the outside clients himself and then takes a cut off the top. Lately, though, he's been marking up my projects 100% or more. Like, I'll quote $100 and he'll bill the client $220. I have to consistently lowball my rates in order to win projects. It disgusts me that he thinks he should make just as much as I do just because he introduced me to a client. I've expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement, and he says he "just needs to make money." He's a real asshole, and I know for a fact that he's had plenty of disagreements with other freelance talent.

There have been several flare-ups in our relationship, and it would be a waste of space to explain them all here. (The short: he's been vague, demanding and incredibly cheap.) I nearly dumped him several months ago, but I've developed a very good relationship with one of his clients (we'll call him Bob), who consistently sends me boatloads of work. It's getting to the point that because I have to lowball (since I know whatever quote I send will be doubled), I'm spending way too much time on projects for Bob without being compensated reasonably. I'm doing projects for Bob nearly full time, and there are huge things in store for the future. I can't continue to work this many hours with such laughable pay. I need to focus on higher paying clients.

I need to get out from under this pimp-whore relationship with the owner of the design firm, but I don't know how to do so tactfully. I have no contract with him, because I (stupidly) never made one, and neither did he.

Bob has become really dependent on my work, and compliments and thanks me on a daily basis. I want to continue working with him, but know that the design firm owner would be livid if I tried to work with him independently. The design firm owner works with other freelance writers, but Bob always asks for me specifically.

How do I end the relationship tactfully, or at least not create a royal shitstorm? I was thinking of contacting Bob and telling him that I will be leaving the design firm for "personal and professional" reasons, but will continue to take projects from him for two weeks. (I don't plan on badmouthing the design firm.) Then I would call the owner of the design firm and tell him that I am willing to take work from him for another two weeks, but will not accept any new projects after that. Is it completely out of the question to approach Bob independently once I have stopped working for the design firm?

I am in the middle of a very large project for Bob, which will wrap up by the end of this coming week.

I know that it's ridiculous that I don't have a contract, so I don't need to hear how dumb I am for not having any terms in writing. (I have contracts with all of my other clients.) I just want some advice from other freelancers who have gone through (or smartly avoided!) a nightmare situation such as this one. Thanks!
posted by shiggins to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When faced with a dilemma like this, I will often figure out what my buy out price is worth. If you were paid a fair price, would you be ok working for them? Then, just tell the owner that every 8 months you go over your books and adjust rates as needed and from now on your minimum rate will be XX. There really is no need to explain. I'm still not sure why you have lowered your rate. As a freelancers, you need to be firm with your price. The work will come but what if you can't do the good paying jobs because you are busy with the crap ones?
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:39 PM on July 30, 2011

I wonder, could you stop low-balling or gradually increase your rates with design firm owner? If the clients like your work and design firm owner wants to get the business, perhaps design firm owner will adjust his cut.

As dawkins_7 suggests, increasing rates really doesn't always need an explanation and shouldn't come as a surprise if you're doing good work.
posted by GPF at 7:45 PM on July 30, 2011

Response by poster: I'd really just prefer to end the relationship. He's a slimy guy, and I'd rather lose Bob altogether than to keep working under the owner.

He insists on taking these huge cuts. In addition, I'm friends with one of the designers and found out through casual conversation that he's been lying about the cuts he's taking from me. For instance, I'm managing a project right now that is going to net $2000. He told his designer that he wasn't going to take a cut from me on this project, when in actuality, he's going to make $2000.

I want to end things, as the relationship just keeps getting worse.
posted by shiggins at 7:50 PM on July 30, 2011

Response by poster: To provide a clearer answer, he insists on doubling any rate I send him. If I raise my prices, he will double them and then I won't get projects at all, since his quotes will be ridiculously overpriced.
posted by shiggins at 7:53 PM on July 30, 2011

ask Bob what he's paying the design firm for your services, offer him a discount for cutting out the middleman, and that's that. Everyone wins. Of course, you may never be able to work with this firm again, so hopefully you have a lot of other clients.
posted by acidic at 8:07 PM on July 30, 2011

Best answer: It really doesn't matter if he adds 10% to your rate or 300%. You have your rate, right? What is it? Answer that question yourself. Write it down. It's fixed. That's what your charge. If someone wants to collect a project management fee or finders fee or whatever on your work, that's up to them.

If this problematic client marks up what you charge so much that you won't get a project, then you don't get the project. That's business. The upside is that in the end, you'll get what you want. You'll sever the relationship.

The fact you don't have a contract works in your favor here, too. You're not locked into anything. Just say "No" and stop working for him. If you really want to have Bob be your direct client, ask him. You never signed a non-compete agreement. It's up to you to decide if that's unprofessional or unethical. Maybe it is, maybe not.

But I think what you really need to do is starting pounding the pavement. I see from your profile that you're in Chicago. There are plenty of other graphic designers and companies in Chicago that need your writing services. Go find them.
posted by Leontine at 8:16 PM on July 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

IANAL but IHCFUSC (I have contracted for US clients) and IRAFTSF (I run a firm that subcontracts freelancers), and I think the lack of contract will work in your favour - the only way your client can stop you from working for Bob directly is by making you sign a contract that prohibits it. Bob may well have a contract with your client that means he can't use another provider for this particular writing project. But from what you say, this won't affect your decision to fire your client.

FWIW doubling charge-out rates isn't unheard-of - you'll probably come across it elsewhere, and employers routinely charge their employees' time at 400-1000% of what the employee is paid. It's not so much 'making as much as you' as covering overheads, hedging against risks (like their best writer leaving), smoothing cashflow, investing in finding new work, managing you, the client and the project, and of course profit. The larger a company, the higher these overheads.

Anyway, to fire a client:

"Dear client,

I'm writing to let you know that I have decided to pursue a different direction for the business, and unfortunately will will mean I have less time for [your company]. I will therefore be unavailable for work after dd/mm/yy. Thanks for all the opportunities, and best of luck in the future.


And when client finds out you're working for Bob, say "Bob made me an offer I couldn't refuse" and decline to go into specifics. Or, you know, ignore him.
posted by cogat at 8:42 PM on July 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if your client is lying to Bob about what cuts he's taking, then you and Bob should have no ethical qualms about dealing directly with each other. From what client told Bob, it should actually save your client the overheads :-)
posted by cogat at 8:47 PM on July 30, 2011

shiggins: "I need to get out from under this pimp-whore relationship with the owner of the design firm, but I don't know how to do so tactfully. I have no contract with him, because I (stupidly) never made one, and neither did he."

I don't see this as a problem, this is the opposite of a problem.

First, just quit, two weeks notice is standard. Second, tell Bob you'd love to keep working for him directly, add 50% to your quote and Bob will think he's getting a 50% discount.

If he didn't have to sign a non-compete that's his problem.
posted by Bonzai at 11:28 PM on July 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

It sounds like your main problem is that you're an independent contractor with only one client. Right now that client is the owner of this design firm. Having only one client, no matter who it is, is bad, because there is no immediate competition for your services. It's as if you're running an eBay auction with a low starting price (your reservation wage, or the minimum amount for which you're willing to get out of bed in the morning), and only one bidder. The amount you get paid is low because your client is rational, not because he's a sleazeball. He pays as little for the stuff he buys (including your services) as he can, just like everyone else.

As a freelancer of any kind, you need more than one client. The one design firm isn't enough to keep your income floating up there at market rates, where it could be. Bob, by himself, won't be enough either.
posted by jon1270 at 4:46 AM on July 31, 2011

Response by poster: jon1270: I have plenty of clients, and many pay much more than the web design firm. I know how important it is to diversify. The problem now isn't a lack of work, it's the fact that I'm spending most of my time doing projects for Bob, when I could be devoting more time to higher-paying clients. Maybe I didn't make that clear.

I've been doing so much for Bob (despite my increasingly aggravating relationship with the design firm) because I thoroughly enjoy the work and interacting with him.

After reading all of these helpful answers (thank you, everyone!), I think I now have more insight into what I was really trying to ask in my somewhat convoluted question: Is it OK to continue working for Bob outside of the design firm?

I think yes, as long as I'm willing to accept the fact that I'll need to cut all ties with the design firm. Which, I'm more than eager.

I plan on giving two weeks, letting both parties know, wrapping up my current assignments and approaching Bob independently. No contracts and a lack of a non-compete agreement make this situation simpler than I've made it out to be.

That said, if Bob doesn't bite, I don't care. It's more about getting out from under Lord Tyrant, the design firm owner. He's a shady guy, and we've had several disagreements besides payment. I'm ready to be done with him.
posted by shiggins at 5:26 AM on July 31, 2011

Ah, I see I misunderstood your situation. Since you're willing and able to do without Bob altogether if necessary, your plan sounds perfectly fine. Enjoy your liberation.
posted by jon1270 at 5:37 AM on July 31, 2011

Giving Bob "two weeks" and approaching him for independent work needs to happen at the same time; otherwise, he'll start searching for a replacement.
posted by acidic at 6:49 AM on July 31, 2011

If all you got from the original designer is a referral, I don't think it's unethical to approach Bob directly. Quote Bob a direct rate, and quote the exact same rate to the designer for continuing work--either way, you get the same rate from Bob. And try not to be acrimonious in ending the relationship, even if the designer throws a fit. Something like this:

Dear [Designer],

I'd like to share some news with you. As you probably realize, the past few years have become increasingly busy for me. As a result, I've decided to start marketing my services directly, and won't be able to work for your clients under our existing arrangement as of [DATE]. I am also communicating this directly to your existing clients, to plan for a transition.

I am anticipating that we should be able to have any transitional work finished by [DATE]. If you speak with any clients who feel exceptional circumstances mean we cannot transition out of our relationship by [DATE], please let me know. I may be able to do a small amount of work after this in truly exceptional circumstances, but my rate for this will be [RATE].

Thank you,


Dear Bob,

I'd like to share some news with you. My business has grown a lot in the past few years, and I've recently decided to market my services directly. As a result, I will no longer be working via referral from [DESIGNER] after [DATE]. Please give me a call at your convenience so that we can discuss what needs to be done to wrap up our existing projects within that time frame.

For future projects, I continue to be available directly at my current rate of [RATE], and hope that you will consider working with me directly; I've enjoyed working with you in the past and hope to continue to do so.

Thank you,
posted by _Silky_ at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Double your rates. Then when he figures out he cant make a buck, or at least as many as he was, you can have a conversation about the relationship. Other than, you have no reason to continue working for him.
posted by timsteil at 11:39 AM on July 31, 2011

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