I recently did some web design samples for a client. The client was looking for an e-commerce website and wanted to see samples of what I intended to make the site look like. They were very adamant on the samples either being right the first time, or they were going to decline and move on to a different developer (should have taken this as the first bad sign, right?). I never had a client with this sort of mentality before (usually clients ask for revisions until it looks good, then move on), so we agreed that if they liked the samples, they would pay a 50% down payment and I would start development on the site (no extra cost for the samples). If they did not like the samples, they would only owe $100 for the work spent creating the samples for them. These terms were agreed upon via email as well as verbal.

Needless to say, after sending the samples they informed me that they did not like them and were going to find someone else (ouch). No problem, I sent them an invoice for the $100. I received an email the next day stating that they disliked the samples so much that they refuse to pay for them (double ouch). I politely apologized that they did not like the samples but due to the terms of our agreement, a $100 fee was owed for the work I did for them.

Today is the due date for the payment before a 5% late fee as written in our agreement. Since they don't appear to be anywhere near paying today (they aren't responding to my curtesy reminder emails either), I assume they have no intention of paying at all. I realize it's only $100, but the client was rude regarding the rejection and with the samples in hand, they could realistically bring them to another developer to use without me getting a dime.

My Question: What is a reasonable approach to getting the money the client agreed to pay me? Most options seem to cost more than the amount due.

For reference: Both parties are from Texas, USA (Dallas area); I have a written document regarding the terms of the work and design--my work did not breach the terms at all; I have email documentation regarding the $100 fee should they choose to not continue on with the project afterwards.

P.S. Hindsight is 20/20. Should have said no to the project. At the very least, should have required the $100 upfront!

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    To me, all seems clear on your side. Especially since you have signed contract and both of you are from the US. I cannot help more since I don't know US laws, but there are good US guys here who can help. PS. Can't you sue them? It's not much money, but it my country, in such case, the guilty party will pay me $100 + cover all court costs and taxes. – Peter MV Apr 25 '14 at 21:40
  • @PeterMV I agree with you. What else I will add is that in my country it happens so frequently that now, without an upfront payment I invest no more than the normal dialog and usual "know each-other" discussions. If they insist for samples, I send them to see my past works or make them pay. Is this rude? Maybe. It protects me and delivers results? YES! – Avram Cosmin Apr 25 '14 at 22:10
  • @AvramE.Cosmin In design business, custom samples must be paid work. If they want to see what you can, you show them samples of previous work. The same is in programming where clients sometimes ask me to make a demo app so that they see what I can do. Needless to say that I never fulfil such requests :). – Peter MV Apr 26 '14 at 6:57
  • Whatever effort you spend to retrieve these $100, odds are high that it will cost you more, in money, in time and in stress. Keep sending mails saying the you are comfident they are honest and will respect their commitment. And move on. – Harry Cover Jan 31 at 19:29

Be aware, even if you were to pursue something like small claims court and win, it's still your job to collect. A court won't collect for you. They merely allow you to legally pursue avenues of collection such as garnishment. Also be aware that there are filing fees which are generally $50-$100 so it'l cost you that to file a claim. Now, you can get that awarded back if you win.... if you win.... but it's going to cost you the filing fees up front.

If you were to use something like a collection agency you'd be giving up a percentage of the whatever was collected. So you'll never gain the full $100 that way either and that's if the agency collects anything.

For $100, I'd simply keep sending invoices every 15 days until the end of time or until I get paid. I find that for some stubborn clients the constant invoice becomes highly annoying to them and eventually they may pay to simply stop the invoices.

Other avenues aren't really worth their cost to pursue. So chalk it up to a learning cost, be smarter about it next time, and move on.

  • Sending repeatedly a reminder is a very good idea. +1 for your answer. I believe is the right answer to a situation like this one. – Avram Cosmin Apr 26 '14 at 22:51

Devin, you're probably screwed here. You took some work "on spec". Don't ever do this. There's a whole site devoted to this: http://www.nospec.com/faq

Your contract is pretty much garbage. Why is that? Sure, you can sue for your $100. But you have to do it in the county where the client's business is located (Peter MV, that's how it works in the states). That, in turn, means that you have to get yourself there after finding out how to open a case, take time off from working, and wait your turn to see a judge. Then, a judge CAN issue a judgment in your favor, but that doesn't mean for certain that you will collect a cent. You'd be better off taking a hundred-dollar bill and burning it than doing all of the above.

Consider the chance that the client was working-over you and other designers for samples all at once, and never really intended to pay in the first place. Be smarter about your business.

  • I thought he said they were in the same state (possibly same town) so that's why I said suing seems logical. Of course travelling to another country is not worth $100. – Peter MV Apr 26 '14 at 12:53
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    Oh, I see it now. Yeah, okay. That's helpful. But still, the time lost might not be worth the $100. – Xavier J Apr 26 '14 at 16:08
  • @codenoire - Yes, we are only about a 30 minute drive from each other. I do agree though, not sure if the time spent would actually be worth the money. – mobilefreelancer27 Apr 26 '14 at 16:17
  • @DevinYoung - for $100 better you look the other way around. Take right now from your pocket $100 and spend it wisely on some PR. It will be one hundred times better than pursuing a legal claim for $100. – Avram Cosmin Apr 26 '14 at 22:46
  • If you take into account time spent and that $100 is not much, then it's really not worth of trouble. It's only if this clients got you mad and you want to learn him a lesson, only then I would spend my time suing him. PS. you may sue him for more than $100 I think for all time you spent dealing with him, instead of earning money. You'd have to check this with your local legal advisor, but if possible, I would sue him for what he owes him + all the costs his negligence caused me (time, driving costs, etc.) – Peter MV Apr 27 '14 at 9:41

You have to always think about what happens if the client wants to withdraw from your services at any point. If you give it a long think you'll end up finding many loopholes in your agreement.

I realized quickly that only paying once they were 100% with the product at 100% complete would they need to pay, meant I could spend 400 hours and not receive a penny.

You're in this situation where you ask for 50% deposit for the website and the samples are at no cost if they take it, but $100 if they don't. This is bad in the customers eyes because it seems like as soon as they start talking with you, it's costing them. This is a big no-no to them. What I would suggest in the future is to fully understand what they want first before you do some samples, and bump up your price of the website. This way you get paid for that time, and if they don't like the sampling, consider it a loss. However you can reduce the risk of loss by ensuring you understand what they want, and not spend long on the samples.
After this client or moving forward to your next work, I would suggest changing your contract to free samples (where you dont spend long) and bump up the price for the website. What I would do for now with this client is keep sending them an invoice for your services, something like 'as per your contractual agreement here is your invoices for our services'.

You could go to court but as others mentioned, even if you win, you won't see much of it. Keep sending them invoices for maybe a year, and if nothing comes of it consider it a loss and move on. You've earnt more here than money - experience!

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