When Not Requiring a Down Payment Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

I landed my first paid design project when I was 13 years old. I will protect the guilty by changing the name of the owner, we’ll call him Bob.

My job was to create several hundred icons for an online kids gaming website. Designing icons was fun for me. So when Bob contacted me, it was a dream come true. My first chance to get paid to do something I loved.

In my young understanding we had a gentleman’s agreement that I would be getting paid about $500, a huge amount to me at the time, in exchange for designing hundreds of icons for Bob’s site.

I spent hours meticulously creating the icons on my computer. Sure, they weren’t all great, but it was the best I could do at the time. Looking back at my work I still think some of them looked pretty awesome.

When I was done done I showed the work to Bob. He thanked me, asked for the original source files, and said the check was in the mail. Over the next few months Bob said the check was in the mail 3-4 times. I finally realized there was no check. I had been scammed. Years later it still hurts. Thankfully I learned a valuable lesson at a young age.

Instead of being bitter, let me share three positive things I’ve learned from this project:

  1. Get it in writing

    Never start a project until you have an agreement in writing that states the exact amount you will be paid.

  2. Don’t start until you have a down payment.

    Always get a down payment, usually this is 50% of the total amount you’ll be paid. For larger projects I sometimes accept a third of the payment initially, a third in the middle of the project, and a third upon completion.

  3. Don’t do spec work.

    Spec work is when you create a website, or do design work, for free in hopes of getting paid IF the client likes your work. Often this happens when multiple designers are bidding for work with a prospective business.

    If you really want experience doing websites offer to help a non-profit or ministry for free. Then, when you’re done add them to your portfolio and ask for an awesome testimonial.

  4. Always get a down payment for your work up front. If a potential client insists that they see some design ideas before paying you, be careful. There’s two reasons they could be doing this.

    1. They’ve worked with inexperienced designers in the past who were willing to work for them in hopes of getting paid, also knows as spec work.
    2. They are going to rip you off.

    Either way your job is to educate in a polite manner and explain that you don’t work for free. If you’ve explained this thoroughly and in a patient way, and they still refuse to pay you, they probably weren’t going to anyway.

How to Barter Web Design Services

Bartering can be a lot of fun. Craigslist is teaming with folks who barter on a regular basis. If you’re a web designer you can barter your services. Try it next time you’re closing a project. Offer a percentage of your services in exchange for your client’s products or services.

A friend of mine talked to a dentist about creating a website for her business. They decided to exchange services. It worked great, he got his teeth fixed, and she got a website essentially for free.

Often small businesses are limited on cash. Offering to exchange services might give you an edge in closing the project. Just make sure the bartering actually works in both of your favors. If you’re designing a website for a cookie business, you may not need a six month’s supply of cookies.

Once I bartered snowboard gear in exchange for working on a client’s website. My wife and I were able to go into the shop and get suited up. It was really exciting. Since the shop owner was limited on cash, and I wasn’t going to pay to buy the gear anytime soon, the transaction worked perfectly for both of us.

Typically a client will be more likely to barter services as opposed to products, since it’s less cost out of their pocket.

However, there is one advantage to bartering with a retail shop. Let’s say that you’re planning to barter with a bicycle shop in exchange for creating a website. You can offer your services at your hourly rate in exchange for the retail price of a bicycle.

In this case the shop owner will be getting a great deal. They paid wholesale for the bike, so they’re getting your services at a discount, which means less cash out of their pocket. For you it’s still a great deal, so long as you wanted a new bike, because you may not have closed the project otherwise.

One thing to keep in mind is taxes. Bartering is still considered income and is taxable. Check with your CPA on this to make sure you’ve filled out the right paperwork.

One final example. A friend of mine has bartered haircuts for years in exchange for hosting his barber’s website on his server. Free haircuts? Not bad.

Avoid debt in business

Having debt in business is a horrible idea. From practical experience I can tell you that it’s far better to start small and build slowly then to acquire debt and build too fast.

You’re asking for trouble the moment you borrow another person’s money to try and run your business. Any risks you take are enlarged. Subconsciously you don’t feel risk, since it’s not your money. When you have to make a decision using your own money then it’s on, you’ve got skin in the game.

At one point I was involved in a project where we took on a loan to get started. We wanted to get into a new industry and believed that it was easy money, which of course should have been warning number one. We thought we’d pay back the loan within a month or two. Half way into the project we ran into some unexpected challenges. Unfortunately this forced us to stop the project entirely. Since we had borrowed the money we had to pay it back out of our own pockets, which ended up taking nearly two years. We took on a loan and believed we’d immediately return the money.

Dave Ramsey has helped to completely change my mindset on debt. If I borrow money I’m a slave to the person loaning the money. Plain and simple. It’s not that having debt is a sin, but do I enjoy being a slave?

Had we been forced to use our own money we would have either started smaller, or decided to not do the project at all. When we used borrowed money to accomplish something it only magnified our risk. When you use your own money to start something you’re far more careful about how it’s used.

Saying No to Projects

One of the guiding principles I’ve learned is the importance of being willing to say no to a project, even if it makes financial sense to accept it.

If the project doesn’t fall in line with my principles, I won’t accept it. In the short run it may hurt, but longterm it establishes core values for myself that set me up to succeed. I have two simple criteria for deciding what projects I won’t accept.

  1. Does the project match my ethics?

    I live by moral ethics that help to guide my life. As a business owner I apply these ethics to my business when deciding what projects I will and won’t accept. A simple question to ask is whether you could use the product or service that the website is offering without going against your principles. If the answer is no, I don’t take the project. For example, if the website sells porn, I won’t work on it. If I couldn’t honestly use the service or product myself, I won’t work on it.

    While the line of ethics will vary by individual, I’ve set that line much further out than most people. Since I don’t smoke, drink, or gamble, and since I believe those three activities lend themselves toward injury and pain in families, then I don’t believe in supporting these activities by developing websites associated with them. Now, just to clarify, these are my personal choices, I don’t force this opinion on anyone else. I believe in the freedom to choose.

  2. Does the project add value to the world?

    I’ve messed up on this one in the past. I’ve taken on projects that were uninspired, improperly managed, or just plain bad ideas. As such the projects have generally gone down hill. Basically, if it’s something I wouldn’t be proud to say that we’ve worked on it, it’s ultimately not worth doing.

I’ve said no to a good number of projects. My values are important to me. Once I had a project offer for a website that didn’t fall in line with my principles. In good faith I couldn’t make use of the service myself. I decided to turn down the project, even though the financial benefit would have been helpful. That same day I was contacted by an organization who’s values matched mine completely. And the project’s budget was much larger. Now, I’m not going to say this always happens, but in the end it’s worth saying no to a project that doesn’t match your values. You’ll be able to sleep well at night.


As a web designer and a small business owner I’ve often had to make sales calls to followup on leads.

When I first started out I was intimidated. A 19 year old kid trying to sell a full blown website to a business professional. Through the school of hard knox I’ve learned two basic principles for making sales calls.

  1. Ask questions and listen

    Don’t do all the talking, listen. We have two ears and one mouth. The ratio should give us a clue about how much they should be used. If you’re genuinely interested in what the client has to say and are listening to provide a solution to their problem, it will show.I’ve learned that a phone conversation is so much more valuable than sending an email. Email is more like a monologue, while the phone is a dialogue. I like to get on the phone, ask questions, and then close my mouth and listen.

  2. Know your stuff

    Of course in order to ask the right questions it’s important to know your product or service to the core. If you do, asking the right questions will be easy. Since the point of the phone call is to see if your services can help make a difference for your client, it’s important to fully know what you can offer.Learn everything you can within your area of expertise, and be willing to tell the client when you don’t know something or are not completely familiar with how something works. The honesty will be refreshing.

Realizing that I really just need to listen and ask questions has made a huge difference in making sales calls. I get on the phone with the client, introduce myself, then ask how I can help. Obviously I lead with different questions as the project progresses, but really I’m just there to listen and figure out how my services can be a match for their needs. That’s it.

Getting off my butt

From what I’ve been hearing and reading, sitting at work all day will shave years off our lives.

I don’t want that to happen. So, today I decided to use a standing desk. I’ve tried standing up at work in the past, but for various reasons have stopped. I’m giving it another whirl. I’m tired of just sitting on my butt all day while I work. As the picture shows I have a chair underneath the desk, that’s for propping up one leg at a time; it helps give my feet something to do.

Now, if I only I could put a treadmill under this desk. Then I’d be ready to go!

Writing Emails

Before you send an email, read it. Then read it again. Read it a third time to be absolutely safe.

Each time you read it remove unnecessary words. Oh, and if you use Gmail, make sure you enable the “undo send” feature in Google Labs. It allows you to undo a sent email for anywhere from 10-30 seconds. It’s been a lifesaver!

The Power of Reading

My life has changed in the last year since I began to read. Now of course I’ve read before. I developed a love for reading at eight years old.

My brothers and I were homeschooled by our mom. Until we each turned eight we had what parents today call unschooling. Mom helped us learn important life principles in our young days in an informal way.

Once I turned eight and began to read my brain soaked up everything that came my way. Within a year I was caught up to my age level for reading. At age 10 I read through a 2,000 page book of Mark Twain’s published works. I would lay under the covers at night with a flashlight and become part of Huckleberry Finn’s adventures as well as following the journeys of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court.

When I was 11 mom purchased reading software which contained about 150 classical pieces of literature for young people to read. I sat at the computer desk for hours reading through books on our old CRT monitor. From then until the age of 23 my interest in reading was alive and well.

However, it wasn’t until 2011 that I really began reading with a purpose to change my life for the better. It happened when I attended Dave Ramsey’s one day EntreLeadership simulcast. I realized that Dave Ramsey’s level of knowledge and expertise was at least partially related to what he had learned by reading books. Throughout the seminar he recommend several authors, I wrote their names down.

I read through books like “Thou Shall Prosper” by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, as well as books by Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and nearly any other author Dave Ramsey mentioned. In the months following I listened to Dave Ramsey’s radio show and added authors and books that he recommended to my wish lists on Amazon and Audible.com.

Since then I’ve read, and am in the process of reading about 45 or so books. Yeah, I’ve probably got a dozen books open right now. But the point is that I’m reading.
By the recommendation of Leo Laporte, from MacBreak Weekly, I started an Audible subscription. Thanks to Audible the bulk of my reading has been through audio books . I’m currently signed up for two Audible credits a month.

Reading has changed my life, and more recently that change has been drastic. As Dave Ramsey says, 10 years from now the only thing that will make us better is the books we’ve read and the people we know.

One thing of interest. As far as I can remember I haven’t read a single fiction book in the last year. I’m not sure where I stand on works of fiction, I would be curious to know what experiences others have had in being inspired and encouraged by reading fiction.

New website

Wow, what a day. I started out this morning with worship, then got straight to work on my 15 day writing challenge. If you wish, feel free to join me. This is becoming life changing for me.

The design of my site has changed drastically between yesterday and today. I’m always tinkering with the layout and trying to come up with new ideas that inspire me. I decided to start with an awesomely designed theme, and use that as the launching point for continuing to develop my website. I’m sure things will change drastically between now and the ever uncertain future, but for now this design works.

I’ll see what I can do to tweak this layout as the days pass.


It’s been a little over a year since I’ve updated this blog. Originally it was an attempt to write on the topic of minimalism every day. I had a good four month span and then felt overwhelmed and stopped writing.

Since then I’ve thought about writing and how rewarding it had become. I want to share with people what I’m learning.

I’m going to try and revive this blog, or figure out a new platform for sharing my thoughts.