While the dream is to bill global giants for high-end work, the reality is that many photographers and videographers are often doing small jobs for tiny companies. Getting paid on time can be a bit of a battle, so here’s a system to try and advice to consider in order to make sure your invoices don’t disappear.
For those a bit longer in the tooth, there’s probably no new information here, but if you’re relatively fresh and you’re not accustomed to dealing with commercial (or even non-commercial) clients, it should be of use. When you consider that 48% of all invoices sent by companies in the creative industries end up being paid late, it’s worth making sure that you give yourself an advantage.
For those starting out, being assertive can be difficult, especially if you’re culturally conditioned not to be direct when it comes to discussing money. A combination of being British and coming from an arts background rather than one of entrepreneurship, this is something I can still find problematic.
The Pain of the Late Payers
Having spent years working for tiny companies — often start-ups with no dedicated accounting departments — I would often shoot, edit, and then send off the images with an invoice stating my payment terms of 30 days. For the vast majority of my clients, this was never a problem, frequently receiving payments a day or two after sending my invoice.
However, there have been plenty of occasions when payments failed to arrive, often resulting in frustrated emails from me and evasiveness awkwardness from them. Given that self-employed people spend an average of 20 days a year chasing late payments, having a system that can prevent this from happening is certainly worth implementing.
To my knowledge, a client has never deliberately avoided paying me. Most likely, the problem was that they’re terrible at accounting or found that something unexpected has come along that has made a one-off payment too painful. While money was always allocated to employing me, poor management meant that the money wasn’t actually ready to be transferred to me at the right time, and it was much easier to fob me off and ignore my emails than, say, fail to pay the rent on time.
Take Deposits, Use Milestones
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this Instagram post:
While it would be nice if I could invoice clients $20,000 for wireframes (some sort of really expensive clothing rack?), the revelation for me early on was that I needed to give clients a payment schedule in advance of the work. Being naturally a lazy person, sitting down to figure out dates and lay it all out in an email feels like extra admin, but when I consider the time and frustration spent chasing late payers, it's a wise investment of energy.
In short, the system can be broken down into four words: take deposits, use milestones. If the small businesses I deal with struggle to cope with (relatively) large one-off payments, it makes sense to allow them to make a series of much smaller payments that are spread out over weeks or months. Once a fee has been agreed, I send my list of milestones, amounts, and payment dates — showing when they will receive an invoice and the date by which it has to be paid — and make sure that everything is as clear as possible.
I typically ask for a non-refundable, upfront payment of 50% of the final fee, but the details can be negotiated according to the job and could vary massively depending on whether you’re charging separately for post-production, licensing, etc.
The system described in the Instagram post is intended to ensure that you never do any work that hasn’t been paid for, but I’m not sure I can convince many of my clients to pay for images that they’ve yet to receive. Instead, I typically deliver web-res images alongside my final invoice and then do not make the high-res images available until I’ve received that final payment. Every job is different, and you may wish to send an invoice for a partial payment directly after the day of the shoot and before any post-production is started.
Ultimately, the goal is to spread out the pain of paying you and give a very precise schedule of how these payments should happen.
30-day payment terms (never mind 60 or 90) are a thing of the past, and 14, 10, and 7-day terms are much more common than they were10 years ago, especially now that checks have almost been consigned to history (in Europe, at least). I’ve not been paid by check in over 10 years (I don’t accept them), and it’s worth noting that the method of payment should be listed on your invoice. Almost three-quarters of invoices in the UK are 14 days or less.
Dates might still be missed, but the shorter your payment terms, the more likely you are to get paid sooner. A 7-day invoice that’s paid a fortnight late still sees money in your account sooner than a 30-day invoice that’s 2 days late.
Stick to Your Schedule
If your schedule states that an invoice is going to be sent on a particular date, make sure you stick to it. If you’ve invested a load of time into laying out a plan, don’t undermine it, as the client will regard you as incompetent and you might need to then revise the entire schedule, creating more admin.
Don’t Be Afraid to Chase
Small businesses — especially start-ups — have a hard time keeping on top of their finances, as many are growing at a rate that makes accounting one of the toughest parts of running a company. There’s nothing wrong with sending an email reminding a client that a payment is due in the next day or two. The client may even be grateful for it.
Put It in Writing
If terms are discussed on the phone, I immediately send an email summarizing the conversation so that there’s no miscommunication. If there are any changes to your schedule, make sure it’s put in writing to avoid confusion later on. It’s much easier to refer back to an email than a conversation.
Being a good photographer does not necessarily mean being good at administrative chores, never mind being good at running a business. Investing a little bit of time into being organized and developing a system can seem wasteful at first, but it could easily save you hours of anger and frustration in the long-term, as well as make you feel like you're on top of your finances.
I've barely scraped the surface here, and this is obviously geared to those starting out, but if you have any more advice to offer, be sure to leave a comment below.