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.

Published by Joshua

I'm a web designer, and a writer. I enjoy spendng time with my wonderful wife. I'm a Christian, a minimalist and a Dave Ramsey fan.

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  1. Great advice, Joshua. I really like your suggestion on spec work. If you want some experience, go to a non-profit and offer to do their site for free. That’s a whole range of experiences in and of itself.

  2. I agree, there are organizations that would be more than happy to let you get your feet wet. Plus, you’re doing a good deed by helping others. Spec work on the other hand, is entirely unnecessary.

  3. Hey Joshua,

    This happened to me when I was starting out as a freelancer too and it was a significant amount of money. I built two websites for a client who in the end, never paid a cent. It was really annoying at the time, but a valuable lesson learned!

    Great post, keep it up!


  4. Yeah, unfortunately I think we’ve all gotten ripped off at one point or another, it seems to help strengthen our skin, so long as it doesn’t make us bitter! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi Joshua,

    Great article that! It happened to me quite a few times (3x if I recall correct) when I was starting to work as a freelancer:

    Junior (SME): I got my first contract like you and I was excited and agreed to go along with the design hoping for a payment afterwards – went all wrong.

    The second deal was with one of the BEE brothers (I am black by the way). He came with his flashy car and a beautiful PA. I wanted to make sure we ran through the payment part but he brushed me off saying, “Money is not an issue, you deliver the work and I will sort you out!” I delivered the work and he did sort me out alright – he never answered my calls and always avoided me. And the web project was hosted on his servers. A free big project worth R17k just like that!!

    The third time – It was an online scam. I have worked with the guy two times before and he did pay for the first two initial projects (which this time I required a 50% upfront payment). The third project was bigger and he “suggested” paying only 15% since he was low on cash at the time. He made statements like: “I have worked with you before and I will not mess you up. I have never messed you up…” Gave him the completed project and that was the last I heard of the guy – changed his cellphone number and never replied to my emails.

    SUGGESTION / CONCLUSION: I learned the hard way, but what I have learned (the client is not supposed to know). The 50% (never less than 50%) initial deposit should be the exact cost of the work and anything else (whatever is paid after the first 50%) should be treated as a gift/blessing… You can even send the client a “thank you gift” for doing business with you!!

    1. Archie, thanks for being so transparent! Wow, it sounds like you’ve been through some horror stories as well. My lesson learned has been to always get that substantial downpayment. That’s an interesting conclusion regarding the final payment being a blessing. Doubt I’ll ever had to go that route, as my clients have almost always paid the final payment.. but that’s a way to look at it I guess.

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