I’d like to relate my one bad experience in 14 years of freelancing, and issue a warning to everyone to be very careful when working with clients.
I first met Mark Hadleigh in June 2012 on ELance, where I did a sucessful project for him and he paid without any issue – although to be honest, with the escrow system in place, he didn’t really have a choice. We reconnected in April 2014 as he had a concept he wanted to develop called “WebNumbers”. It was basically a mobile app that allowed users to enter a simple 3 to 6 digit code which represented a brand, product, upcoming movie, TV show etc – each unique code led to a mobile page containing a multi-level menu leading to links to content on other platforms, such as webpages, Facebook posts, Tweets etc. The brands themselves would pay a subscription for this service, as the most cost-effective means of reaching out to their fans at a time when Facebook and Twitter were limiting engagement without paying megabucks for the privilege.
He’d already put together a basic hybrid mobile app in Telerik, but was having problems adding in all the features he wanted to implement – his coding skills were rudimentary at best, involving mostly cut and paste snippets he’d found on stackexchange.com and other online resources. When I saw a PHP regex to remove SELECT/INSERT/UPDATE/DELETE from user-supplied input as the *only* method of SQL Injection prevention, that was a big warning sign he really didn’t have a clue. So I came on board to do the mobile code, properly implement the backend database and scripting to feed data to the app, integrate Facebook and Twitter logins etc etc. He paid an initial agreed sum of £1,700 GBP (around $2,800 USD) at the end of May 2014.
We discussed a partnership moving forward, that would initially involve him sourcing VC capital, deploying the system on professional hosting, continued development and improvement, with me acting as CTO to cover the entire technical side of things, and him as CEO / Sales to promote and sell the product. As capital was still tight, he said he couldn’t yet commit to anything formal for the partnership, but I was happy to go ahead on an ad-hoc basis for the next few months. He was going through capital like water, first he moved to a villa in Spain, then later moved to London to promote and pitch the product to potential clients.
I’d come to dread these pitches, as after every one, he’d take on board every last suggestion from the client, and then want to crowbar them into the product. We’d add code to pull Facebook likes from the logged in user, then add / remove it on a regular basis. We’d do the same for Twitter followers. Then we’d remove the login altogether as it was a barrier to use – then put it back the next day. We’d add in notifications and then spend a week buggering about with the format and text in them. We’d add in barcodes for sales promotions. We change the layout and flow of the application on a daily basis. We’d implement a content management system to supplement the menus, and make the app more than just a glorified link-shortener. Then we’d put the whole damn thing on hold, while he played with ideas of web based systems, and then give up and come back to the mobile app again. And then he discovered the new web-beacon technology and wanted to add that in also.
During this four month period, I was putting in circa 40 hours a week into this clusterfuck of an app, and he’d spent so long micro-managing and changing direction with it’s goals, he’d neglected to actually promote or sell the damn thing. I was starting to get pissed as I hadn’t seen a cent in 4 months, but at that point he managed to secure £20k GBP in VC, and paid me £3,000 GBP (around $4,800 USD) at the end of September 2014. I stated at this point I wasn’t willing to continue in this fashion and needed a more fixed commitment. So we agreed that from October 2014 ahead, I’d be working a strict 40 hours a week for a monthly payment of £1000 (around $1,600 USD) per month, and a 5% stake in the business.
And here is where I made my big mistake by not getting this in writing. Everything we’d ever done was majority voice communication and chart sessions on Skype (and man, that guy can talk the hind legs off a donkey!) with emails whenever he has a new brainwave (which was about 3 times a day). He’d paid a fair amount of money already, was totally invested in the project concept, was confident he could secure more VC, and to be absolutely honest I believed in it too. We’d sort of arrived (by a very long and winding route) at the point of having a sellable concept, the business projections he’d put together made sense and I thought it was worth sticking with a bit longer.
So we pressed on. He’d relocated to London with the last of the 20k VC to spend a month selling the thing to potential clients, I was busy doing the daily routine of opening his latest “brainwave emails”, putting together samples and implementing stuff in the app, waiting for him to come on Skype and relay the latest news about his sales pitches and then discussing (for hours, and hours, and hours) the next batch of fixes. He had this phrase that he loved interjecting into the conversation – “let’s take a step back” – I swear to god we took so many steps back we ended up in fucking China. Nothing came of the London trip, so he moved back to Spain living with his mother, but was still swearing blind he could source additional VC and the project was still a go.
At the end of each month with still no money forthcoming, I’d be voicing ever more concerns that I hadn’t been paid yet and had a family to feed, and it was always the same soft-soap that money is coming, don’t give up on it yet, just one more month. In the mean time, we’d change free hosting every couple of months, with each change involving setting up dedicated servers from scratch and deploying the system on the new host, testing everything before switching over the DNS – and still the changes kept coming – the guy just didn’t know when to stop.
Yes I know what you’re all thinking, I was a fool to myself, I should have called a halt earlier, but by January 2015 I was already 4 months in the hole and not yet paid, it was difficult to just write it off as a bad deal – and I did still believe in the project concept, even if I’d lost almost all my confidence in Mark by this point. Everything came to a head in April 2015 – at this point I was owed £7000 (around $11,200 USD) for October 2014 thru April 2015 and wasn’t going to do another line of code without some kind of financial compensation – notwithstanding that in those 7 months, I probably could have earned double that working for other people – I’d only agreed a lower price than my regular freelance rates because of the promised 5% share in the company, and that was all rapidly evaporating before my eyes, as was any chance of getting any more money for my work.
So Mark asks me to take a month off while he went to secure some more VC – and that’s the last I ever heard of him. No emails, no Skype, nothing. He just disappeared off the face of the bloody Earth without even a “sorry it didn’t work out”. It totally destroyed my trust in clients, took a massive lump out of my confidence, and a much bigger lump out of my bank balance. Every other job I’ve done since has been through Upwork, so at least the money is secured by escrow, even if it does cost a whopping 20% service fee – the greedy bastards upped it from the 9.5% I was paying on ELance when they absorbed it into Upwork.
I haven’t a clue what he’s doing now – I do see very occasional changes to the websites on domain names he registered, and out of curiousity peek a look at the source code which is definitely in Marks style – so I guess he’s still trying to develop / sell the concept in a much more limited form than the grand plans we had in 2014 / 2015.
So, if you ever happen to read this Mark, here’s a little message from me.
“FUCK YOU Mark Hadleigh. You cost me 7 grand directly (14 grand if I consider the time I wasted on you I could have been working for other paying clients), you did a fucking runner and didn’t even have the decency to say sorry for fucking me over. If I thought it was worth the hassle in lawyers fees and time and I wasn’t 8000 miles away, I’d have dragged your arse through the small claims court with the 7 months of emails and skype chats I have recorded, in the vain belief that a mans word is his fucking bond and a verbal contract is still legally binding. As it is, I’ll just have to settle for a very expensive lesson learned, and try and ensure no one else gets ripped off by you.”
So there it it ladies and gents. Don’t ever take anyone at their word. Get everything in writing. And sometimes accept you have to take a 20% hit on your income to ensure getting paid at least 80% by using Upwork.