All Work and No Pay

Posted by Mike // Feb 23, 2016

[This is a guest post from a developer who was stiffed on several payments while working on a side job. He has asked to remain anonymous. 

This follow up post talks about ways to avoid situations like this.


All Work and No Pay

all_work When you’re growing up, everyone is always telling you the rules of work.

You work hard in school so you can go to college. Work hard in college so you can get a good job. Work hard at your job and, well, that’s when the big bucks start rollin’ in.

Hard work pays off.

Most of us have some level of work ethic baked into our psyche by the time we leave elementary school. Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, piano teachers, cartoon public service announcements… all of them remind us of the simple equation:

        hard work = $

But what happens when half of that equation fails to keep up its end? What happens when the scales of equality tilt wildly to the left?

       hard work = ??

What happens when you work, work, work, and NO money? What happens when they stiff you?

Not getting paid shatters your world view. All those teachers from your youth are made into liars. Up is down, black is white… When this happens, cats and dogs are living together and your hard work has been offered as sacrifice.

Raw Deal

The risk of non-payment isn’t typical in a full-time job. Most companies that are hiring are able to make payroll. If you get hired and you show up to work, you’ll either receive your hourly wage or you’ll get a salary “commensurate with experience”. It might be a few weeks until you get your first taste of those sweet, sweet greenbacks, but it’ll happen as expected.


The risk of non-payment goes up when your work cadence is atypical or short-term. It goes up further if you sign on to work for a tiny company, particularly startups with only a few employees or founders with questionable financial backing. Payment can even come into question if the company places incompetent people between you and your paycheck.

I had a job like this once.

It wasn’t a full-time job, though. It was a side-job.

A side-job, particularly in the tech industry, can combine several of these possible negatives into a nasty concoction of payday FAIL.

In my case, it was a side-job for a startup that had a single founder who was the sole source of financing. That financing was funneled through a contracting company that seemed to be managed by personnel deliberately hired for their ability to lose tax documents, emails, paychecks and my confidence.

I was reporting my tasks in an online tool and invoicing regularly, all according to an agreed upon schedule. Things felt odd early when payments were made on handwritten personal checks one week and printed corporate checks the next, but that was only when the payments were made. There were times I would go 6 weeks with no payment and times I would get paid every week. There were stretches where I would get 4 or 5 invoices paid in one big check, but the invoices being paid weren’t consecutive. Those cutting the checks would somehow leave 1 random invoice behind, a chronological middle child, all sad-faced and unpaid.

I was putting in 10–20 hours each week, working remotely. All of this was in addition to my day job, remember. I needed extra money, so I looked for a side job and I found one. One I enjoyed, in fact. But I wasn’t working for free.

Turn Out The Lights

Accountant-Cartoon-728x520 And then one day I got my last check… I just didn’t know it was my last check.

See, I got that last check in early October for payment that covered (some of the) unpaid invoices up into September. But I kept working well into December.

So, I worked that side job for nearly 3 months and never got paid for it. Not to mention there was still a random unpaid invoice from June.

Ironically, the bumpy, unreliable payment ride I had already been through was the primary reason I didn’t expect complete and permanent non-payment. But that’s what happened.

Emails. Phone calls. Careful reassurances. More emails. More phone calls. Some hand-wringing and finger-pointing. The threat of legal action.

And no money.

Almost 8 thousand dollars, in the end. A non-trivial amount for a guy such as myself. We’re talking car payments for a year. Or reduced debt. Or a new kitchen floor. A nice Christmas. The Disney vacation my kids want so badly (and still haven’t gotten). The reason I went after a side-job in the first place was to have some extra money to do things my wife and I couldn’t otherwise afford.

It makes you sick. You did the work and you didn’t get the money. You agreed on a price for your time and effort, put in the time and effort, and your employer never paid the agreed upon price.

Cats and dogs, living together.

Place Got Hit By Lightning, Eh?

goodfellas Unfortunately for us little guys, we don’t have a Paulie that we can turn to when things go bad. So, what can you do to avoid repeating my mistake?

For your day job, find a decent company with solid financials and the highest likelihood of making payments on time, every time. This is obvious.

And if, like me, you find yourself wanting some side work… Wanting to get that Big Screen, or afford a downpayment on your Canyonero or pay down some debt or go on that dream cruise… whatever your goals may be… find a way to make sure they can pay.

Keep the payments in Escrow. Find an intermediary that guarantees payment. Work through an online system that makes this guarantee happen in advance. Anything that won’t leave your time–time that comes at a price–wasted.

Do the work. Do your best. Work hard. I still believe in all of that, because I still know in my bones that hard work pays off. But now that I’ve suffered through a dose of contradictory reality I know it only pays off sometimes. The trick is making sure you avoid “sometimes” every time, bringing a steady balance back to that simple equation.

You might wonder whether this nonsense made me swear off side work for good? Nah. I keep my eyes open. And I still need to get the fam to Disney at some point. But I assure you I won’t make the same mistake again.


This is a great example of why we created Brilliant Chemistry: To avoid getting screwed on payments.  Interested?

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