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How one world-class criminal changed the way I freelance
30 May, 2023

How one world-class criminal changed the way I freelance


The moment I walked into my freelance life; I knew a dark path awaits me. I also knew I could turn the other way and work with amazing clients to their satisfaction. One of the dramatic questions that rang in my head from the beginning was how criminals with "clients" tags hurt freelancers. I wanted to spot and avoid them as much as I could. I was naïve and had no freelance experience.

It was in 2015, summer precisely. I planned to quit my full-time job at Facebook and start working from home. Just like many would do before they decide to change their career path, I looked into the pros and cons of freelancing and discovered “clients from hell”. It was the usual stories about clients refusing to pay freelancers. I was like, “I can deal with that!” but can I? Well, Welcome! I said to myself, "The flexibility you so much wanted has just begun. Now start freelancing!"

Freelance lesson 101

“Shhh, listen. hear that? that's the sound of your checks bouncing.” — Reddington from the Blacklist. The most dramatic of them all, one wouldn’t expect Reddington to just come in and say "I have your money." One-liners like the above are the tricks he uses to catch the attention of his enemy and get them to know how severe the situation he put them in is. “Shhh, listen. hear that? that's the sound of your pending invoice bouncing” — Clients from hell. When a client starts manipulating a freelancer to get more done without extra payment, especially after an agreement has been reached and the initial payment is still in escrow, the job can quickly become mentally, physically, financially, and emotionally draining. Should I raise a dispute? Continue working to get the initial payment or stop working? What if the client drops a negative review that'll affect my chances of getting future work? These are a few questions many naïve freelancers often ask once they get stuck in such a circle.

Learning about fictional characters like Red and how they manipulate people can help one understand ways some of their tactics align with how criminally-minded clients function in reality. They have one thing in common — The signs. Mostly there all along. Do not mistake the signs for project challenges. Every project has its challenges. One of the challenges may be working with a client that lives in a different time zone, dealing with cultural differences, technical problems, etc.

When a freelancer is being insulted or emotionally berated, asked to make unlimited revisions without a clear explanation of why the first was not accepted, and no additional pay, that is a sign right there. Often, these signs are right there at the beginning — on their job posts; often generic, with low budget, and requiring too many skills set in one freelancer. In cases like this, I do ignore the would-be manipulator by not submitting a proposal.

How I learned Freelance lesson 101 at the masters' feet

I just finished College at Canterbury College, Waterford, Queensland, and planned to move to the US to study Computer Science at Boston University. I dropped a comment on a post (can't remember the post title) on Reddit and someone reached out to me, one thing led to another, he hired me to build a website for him. He's one hell of a client, I ended up learning at the master's feet. While working on his project, he disappeared. The hunt for "John Doe" was a difficult one. After 3 months, I dumped his work to focus on my studies. I was already in the US studying at Boston University. Fourteen months later, "John Doe" showed up.

Unfortunately, putting everything back together may not be possible after "John Doe" appeared. "Where are my deliverables?" He asked. If our chat had no timestamp, one may believe the last time we had a discussion was yesterday. It would be difficult to put the genie back into the bottle.

Nonetheless, “John Doe” made me understand my limitations. I was not the skilled full-stack developer I am now. I had two years of experience in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and Python then. Despite not having the experience needed to get the job done, I took up his job offer. So often, freelancers still make these mistakes. They overestimate their skills and misapply their talent. As a freelancer, understanding my limitations consistently helps me mitigate disputes.

After lessons, came the aftermath

I wished I could have asked, “What happened?” Why show up after fourteen months?”. He could have been sick, in jail, or something and could not reach out to me even if he wanted to. The work I did for "John Doe '' was far from perfect, but I could have saved it on Dropbox or in a Drive but I didn't. I allowed anger to take a better part of me, I deleted it. He never paid for it.

So why is "John Doe" a manipulator? We started with minor features I was confident I could do, I was 18 then. He made several “pivots” which is beyond my skills and two years of experience of which he blamed me for it. How he manipulated me to accept each new project scope is extraordinary. He is that good, had me right under his palms. Gradually, I started to hate freelance work, and boom! “John Doe” disappeared again. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Then I broadened my horizons, here's how

After my University education, I joined Facebook but I wanted to work from anywhere and anytime I want. I wanted so much flexibility in my career so I resigned from Facebook after a few years and went back to freelancing. I had to accept the reality of my situation. My experience with "John Doe" made me aware of the fact that my freelance career is constantly at risk, and I have made peace with it. Instead of dwelling on fear, I choose to enjoy my freelance career to the fullest as Raymond Redington does but on a tight budget lol. Raymond travels to countries on his private jet, booked five-star hotels, etc. While I cannot afford the things Red could afford, the work-life balance I enjoy as a freelance talent is worth it.

Some criminals know they will eventually get caught. Therefore, they hardly care about their life. Raymond Reddington is quite different; he values his life and is grateful for each day he is alive. He often reminds people around him to feel that way. As a freelancer like me, I value my life and that helps me live with direction and purpose, and work better each day by adding more value to life. One area I do focus on is my time.

Like John C. Maxwell's quote “Time is more valuable than money because it’s irreplaceable”, It is one the most important things to make the best of because once it’s gone, it’s gone. Therefore, I work on ways to be proactive in making sure I am spending my time, skills, and energy on the right freelance work and relationships.

Whenever I’m hired for a project, I focus on what’s important and what’s meaningful to the person that hired me. One needs good communication skills to pull that off. I tend to use scenarios and even stories to gain some insights. I picked that from Red.

Raymond Reddington deserves some accolades when it comes to storytelling. He flows like a wizard and can easily resonate with anyone with his terrific stories.

I may not be a superb storyteller like Red but I understand how important it is to show clear details of my work progress to my client. For future sake, I document codes to make them easy to understand so the next developer my clients may probably work with in the future will not find them difficult to understand.

The success of startups, small and medium-sized businesses is a process that lies in the future. However, it is what they do now that shapes the future. This is why startup founders and business owners prefer hiring highly skilled freelance developers that can build scalable and stable products. They do not end there; they look out for loyalty too.

One of the main qualities skilled freelancers need to work with startup founders, and small and medium-sized businesses long-term is loyalty. "Value loyalty above all else." That’s Red’s motto. Yes, he is a criminal but owns businesses. Red is careful about the people he does business with just like several business owners, startup founders, etc. Freelancers spend so much energy on building their portfolios and reviews. Good-paying potential clients and employers look beyond that. If I could put my clients before myself and stick with them in good and bad times, that’s loyalty. I’ve done that several times and have reaped the reward tenfold even with my “not-so-nice” clients. The relationship between a freelancer and an employer or client is changing. Your freelance skills, portfolio, and experience can help you get freelance work but your loyalty stands a better chance of making that contract a reoccurring one.

Most importantly, avoid Red's bad characters.

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