You know the moment when shock turns into reality? It generally happens quite quickly after the initial event. Those trained to deal with high pressure situations tend to react rationally, calmly and quickly. I was not trained for such a scenario.
What had happened? The company I had been providing my services to for over two years had stopped paying my invoices for nearly six months and, behind my back, failed to tell me that they had gone into liquidation.
The following questions ran through my mind:
‘How am I going to pay everyone back the money I borrowed?’
‘Where am I going to live now that I can’t pay rent?’
‘Why are none of these &*!£^$@ answering my emails?’
Stage one - PANIC! Calling everyone who was willing to listen, I vented, ranted and asked what I should do next. Aside from getting some of it off my chest, this only served to magnify the stress and muddy my thinking. Next, survival instinct kicked in.
They owe me the money so I just need to get it back. But how?
I called my contacts who worked in the studio but not one of them had the guts to pick up the phone. All emails were ignored and after days of banging my head against the wall, I was left with no choice. Most freelancers chasing late payments will identify with this process although in this case everything happened at lightning speed. I went from angry emails to legal action in less than a week.
When a company goes bust, there’s not a lot you can do. You get added to a long list of brands and individuals that they owe money to, starting with the banks and the tax man. Anything that’s left over after that gets allocated to the second tier. Most of the time, when you’re low down the list, you’re lucky to see a penny.
With the last of my borrowed money I reached out to a lawyer. Of all the calls I made from the time the news landed, the lawyer was the one that put my mind at ease the most. An initial call generally doesn’t cost anything and hearing from a confident legal professional gives you a lot more clarity than general advice from friends or colleagues. Not that the news was positive but at least it gave me direction.
In the end, as consoling as it was, the legal effort was largely fruitless and I ended up deeper in debt. So that was it. The end of the freelance adventure. Time to pack my bags, buy a ticket back to Ireland, find a regular job and start paying everyone back. But wait, like all good cliché tales of redemption, there was a twist in the tale.
A week before my flight, I received an email from a journalist who had heard about my situation. She ran a column in a national paper that exposed fraudulent activity, exploitation or corruption - a bit like Watchdog. She wanted to run a piece on the real victims of the recession and I was to be the subject. When you’re down on your luck, embarrassment becomes less of a factor so I agreed to do the article. A photographer came to the flat to take a photo for the piece and strangely asked me to smile for the shot. I suggested that a smile wasn’t appropriate for this particular article so we compromised on a contorted facial expression that resembled that of a confused tourist.
The piece was published and that was it. No real feeling. No emotion. No impact until I received an email a couple of days before I was due to fly home. Another photographer had experienced a similar plight and reached out to tell me his story. Then another and another. Within 24 hours I had a full inbox of stories from freelancers who had all been victim of late payments, non payments or exploitation. We started chatting and even formed a Facebook group to chat about the issues. When asked a question, I researched it and wrote back with the answer. It felt great to give something back and know that I wasn’t the only one in this situation but didn’t do much for my immediate predicament. That, however, was also about to change.
One of the guys in our group helped organised talks aimed at aspiring freelancers and he asked if I would speak to his group about my situation. I was humbled to be asked but told him that my time was up as I’d run out of money. Then the immortal words all creative freelancers love to hear:
I was in!
A new chapter was about to be written in this freelancer’s life.
Matt Dowling is Director of The Freelancer Club, a members club aimed at supporting creative talent.