|Cactus by StockSnap on Pixabay|
I was seated at a temporary makeshift desk -- a rectangular table with a community chair and no cubicle walls to absorb the increased volume that I was sure echoing from my manager’s voice. I was the newest employee in that department at a food services company so a dedicated space wasn’t yet available for me. My colleagues were mute and stoic as they stared at their computer screens. They missed the who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are-talking-to look on my face as I glared back at the woman who was actually chastising me -- another grown woman -- for asking HR a payroll question. I mean, that’s not allowed?
I wasn’t accustomed to some mother-may-I type of company culture and I wasn’t about to be uncomfortable, intimidated or simply put into my entry-level place at that job or any job for that matter. Other than that experience, one of the greatest aspects of working a traditional 9-5 was the mutual respect between me and my colleagues and that included upper management. While there were office protocol and obvious chains of command, there was also an open door policy and a welcomed exchange of ideas. I could converse freely with any employee and executives didn’t spit condescending rhetoric as some reminder that I wasn’t a member of the c-suite. Positive working relationships were my norm for 20 years in corporate America. And a fair salary, might I add, although fair may be an inaccurate descriptor given the pay gap between black women and white men. Perhaps I should say “comfortable.” I earned comfortable pay.
The point is I’m motivated by a combination of autonomy and money. I chucked double deuces to food services and returned to the familiarity of good ol’ telecommunications where my expertise was valued and I was treated as a human. I felt trusted, appreciated and consequently obliged to exceed expectations in that environment.
Now if that’s what working under entrepreneurial conditions was like, I could only imagine the freedom of true entrepreneurship.
Only the visions were as distorted as my reflection in a carnival fun mirror.
Okay, I’m being modest. Real life resembled the images in a shattered mirror with sevenTEEN years of bad luck.
Oddly, my client relationships weren’t as reciprocal as my corporate relationships. I’d actually describe client behavior as downright disrespectful. This weird shift was an immediate observation, one that caught me totally off guard and seemingly triggered an unwanted spiral into insubordination in every imaginable direction. Essentially, folks want extra. Men try to subtly negotiate pussy as an add-on service, like did he really think I would actually consider throwing in some ass in exchange for his business? And women want to negotiate discounted prices and still include every single add-on service as part of the package deal.
The freakin’ audacity of both.
A few months ago, I launched a pop-up studio in copywriting and web design to formally value my talent and time instead of continually giving them both away for practically free.99. I’d spent some time playing student on countless webinars and online courses to level-up my own skills and soon graduated to the oh-I-know-how-to-do-that alum. I did a lot of favors and I also noticed that I was also doing a lot of the tedious tasks or functions no one else could do with, frankly, little to no compensation in return. But what particularly bothered me wasn’t some fact that there wasn’t any money to invest into a rising business but the mere fact that there wasn’t much (or any) money to pay me for my grunt work grind.
What’s even more offensive is that I have no stake in these businesses, which would make those expectations acceptable. Not to be funny but I’m not an employee. I’m not an investor. I’m not a board member. Hell, I’m not even an intern and I strongly believe they should be paid! Yet I’m sacrificing free labor I could pour into my own empire.
While I paid attention to most of the lessons -- uh, you know you can monetize these coveted skills to go on vacation, relocate to that fabulous new city, go to grad school, grocery shop at Wegmans or whatever -- I cackled at the ones that I should’ve heeded as warnings. I mean, it makes total sense to charge for the hours I spend building someone else’s dream, especially since it means neglecting my own dream. And especially since I need to live until my dream is fulfilled. Like, can I at least pay for a grad school application?
Perhaps, if I had taken that advice to vet a client to see if s/he is a good fit.
Or to impose an asshole tax on top of my usual fee.
I’m not kidding. A freelance web designer actually recommended that.
You see, there’s something about striking out on your own that people tend to take less seriously. One, there’s an assumption of 24/7, on-call assistance. Two, there’s an unspoken belief that all I deserve is a tip for my “hobby” and that I must have some nerve to even ask for market rate when I have no traditional office space or other overhead because I’m no damn studio. I’m just some savvy chick with a laptop and fancy software.
But not having a brick-and-mortar location or staff doesn’t negate my skill set or time. That’s the part that some clients like to dismiss and still insist upon negotiating the set fee.
Full disclosure: I did offer a new client a referral discount as an appreciation of the new business sent my way and as sort of as a repeat customer incentive since she needed two websites built.
Admittedly, it was my contribution to what turned out to be a disastrous situation. Needless to say, I missed the lessons and recaps that warned designers that it’s never a good idea to reduce your prices, even if they try to negotiate with the promise of more work. Lies, by the way. No matter the reason, lowering your prices only sends the message that you’re desperate and not confident in yourself or your work. My subsequent, full-price paying clients? They didn’t come with any of this foolishness. None, whatsoever. Not to say that they didn’t have requirements and tweaks. But to say they were a pleasure to work with. So this current fiasco was totally my fault.
There were so many times when I wanted to -- and should’ve -- snapped and told her to hire an agency because they wouldn’t have tolerated the shenanigans.
Instead I lowered the fire-engine red flags that were flapping in my face to half-staff and tried to hand-hold and appease the client from the very beginning.
“Well, the first website is already set up and shouldn’t cost the same as the second one,” she said.
Let’s be sensible. Unless I’m only changing fonts and colors or doing minor cosmetics like centering an image from left-justified, asserting a site is “already set up” is pointless. There’s really no such thing when there’s copywriting, coming up with a tagline*, formatting and creating new aesthetically-pleasing, proportional images that take the website from amateurish to professional, creating links, not to mention hours of effort to make that shit happen. I had to trash that garbage and bleach the can, although all I had to do to the footer was realign the copyright. Perhaps that’s what she meant?
But I tend to want to lean toward the positive because I don’t want to be that person who always jumps ship before attempting to fix the leak. (If only I’d known I was aboard the Titanic, though.) So I simply repurposed that red flag into a handkerchief and wiped my sweaty forehead with it after she oddly grew concerned that the header photo created from a company image I got from her Facebook business page -- that she approved on the storyboard, by the way -- possibly misrepresented her business.
“They might think I do masquerade parties.”
But, um, you did host a masquerade party.
Instead of surrendering, I started waving those wet red flags dry so I could reuse them when she wanted to move all the information from the first website to the second website as if stripping the first website bare negated the all-nighter I pulled to make it go live by morning.
I wanted to burn those red flags when I began the second website and the about us page.
“You call yourself a storyteller,” she snidely emailed, referencing my own tagline, “so let me read a tear-jerker.”
A side note about this. Folks really feel compelled to utter some version of this statement, even those who come to me repeatedly for their last-minute persuasive letters. I still deliver. But whether a joke or not, it grates my fucking nerves. It’s belittling, actually, as if I cannot write something moving unless I’m reminded or provoked. So naturally, I was fuming, especially when I began to reread random words that I didn’t remember typing. At first I thought I was crazy; then I realized I really didn’t write that shit at all!
In my entire work history, I’ve progressively surpassed my company-set goals. I’ve earned maximum raises and annual bonuses. I even received a promotion to manager within eight months at my last employer, something relatively rare in most corporations. But I’ve always been curious and proactive. I’ve always had that drive to be great.
I’ve also written trending essays -- generating one of the most-shared articles at one of those publications -- and earned recognition as blogger of the month at another prominent pub before I even became a bonafide published writer.** (Have you heard of Martha Stewart? Yeah, I thought so.) So while I may not currently be on the payroll of a national magazine or design firm, I still know my shit and I take it very seriously.
But that’s because I’m traveling in the freelancer HOV lanes, which don’t have those measured exits representing steady direct deposits. I’m trying to reach some dreamy destination much faster than average. And on my own terms. Or at least that was supposed to be my route. Somehow I ended up on an under construction, potholed side street that was dead-ending in a matter of feet. But at least I finally recognized those flapping red flags for what they really were.
In reality, I allowed myself to be constantly criticized and demeaned by another woman -- without bounds -- early mornings, late evenings, weekends -- for the equivalent of 7 hard-cover new releases at Barnes and Noble to put it into perspective. Any why? Because I had visions of mountains and cacti and airfare and a loft and authentic Mexican food with unlimited frozen margaritas and ocean. Yet the scenario was no different than the manager who chastised me years prior: After my ‘never again’ proclamation, I was right back on the receiving end of someone who wanted to flaunt her power and control, in this case outside of her fulltime job. She wanted me to perform acrobatics for her minimal payment. Or maybe that’s it. She only wanted to pay as little as possible and still get a fully functional website. But she also wanted to prove her flippant statement about working with other black people in the first place so she just needed me to be inconsistent and wrong.
With this client, nothing was ever right. She took several weeks to put down a deposit. (I requested it as my protection on the second website but I still got screwed.) But then she swiftly shifted into we-need-to-get-this-done gear. Suddenly, she really needed to start soliciting donations for her upcoming event and time was running out. That somehow became my fault, not the fact that she squandered the prior weeks away. I just couldn’t build it fast enough for her. And as I previously mentioned, the content on the first website (again, approved on the original storyboard) suddenly needed to be moved to the second website.
Then the complaints became more and more minute. The company pink was more of a pastel but perhaps it really should be Pepto in certain areas of the webpages. The website didn’t glitter and bling enough. The 18 bottle caps in the stock image were blue. Or yellow. Or whatever they were. Why couldn’t they be pink, too? The website didn’t have a shopping cart.
But it also wasn’t even an e-commerce site.
I finally accepted these two projects weren’t worth my effort and sanity when 1. she refused to understand that the reCAPTCHA feature was really active even though she didn’t specifically see the words “I am not a robot” on the screen. (Some programs require a visitor to select specific pictures or perform simple math problems after they click the ‘submit’ button. Or does no one actually complete contact forms these days?) 2. the section with the unacceptable bottle caps was ultimately unusable, anyway, because she never vetted the information she provided me. My dumb ass Googled it because, even after all of the madness, I still didn’t want her and her business to look uncredible and I found it was actually a hoax. But, of course, I couldn’t take it down fast enough. Who cares if it was outside normal business hours when she responded and I wasn’t even online; and 3. she emailed me new images with new company logos one week before the date I was set to turn over the site. At that point, I contemplated snatching all my shit off of the website.*** For nearly two months, I worked with images I customized using the old logos yet she sent me new shit on week 7? Girl, bye.
It wasn’t even worth me charging an additional fee that clients generally incur for major changes. I was over it.
I asked myself why I’d put up with that nonsense, especially when I have more control over the projects I accept than with traditional employment. Working for myself, I always have the power to say, “NO. This isn’t working. It’s not me, it’s you.”
But why would I choose to work with a black woman, who in the first meeting, actually declared she doesn’t like to work with other black people? Why move forward with a client who, later in the same meeting, mentioned how she had to let go of the woman she hired to do her marketing because the woman never marketed? I’m sure that woman quit, for real, for real. Why didn’t I ask further questions when she said a mutual business owner declined to join forces with her for her event in the prior year? This client practically forewarned me what I’d be working with. Yet why did I constantly try to placate her with implementing more systems like Paypal and Mailchimp setups? Did I really think I was that one magical person to win her grace and mercy? Am I that much of a people-pleaser? Or was I that desperate?
I suppose my main reason to persevere was because we were mutually referred to one another. I didn’t want to offend or disappoint anyone in the circle by throwing up two middle fingers and a “fuck you” even though she was extremely difficult and overly critical. I’d still be the unreasonable person. And while I was momentarily enticed by the notion that I’d gain access to her supposed professional contacts who owned small businesses, did I really want to work with people who were potentially just like her? Or better yet, did I forget that I have the means to retap into my own amazing resources?
But that aside, in an ideal world, one client plus two websites equals a secured bag. But I heard my grandmother’s voice say, “All money ain’t good money.” Besides, this connection ultimately did nothing for me financially or professionally. This experience left me so jaded that I distanced myself from that whole circle of existing clients** because of that birds of a feather thing and became very selective about my subsequent clients. And if we did the math, deducting all of the work I did from her deposit, I actually achieved a great loss. I couldn’t even buy a paperback or ebook from Barnes and Noble. Another side note: I actually read somewhere that clients who pay the absolute least are generally the same clients who complain the absolute most. But I ignored that, too.
Nevertheless, as I write this, I’m still in disbelief, like did this shit really happen? If someone relayed these chain of events to me, I’d say, “Sis you lyin’!” followed by “because nobody in her right mind would put up with all of that!”
But I did.
And to that my grandmother would say, “A hard head makes for a soft ass” because I heeded nothing the experts said and look how that ended. It won’t happen again, though. This was only a popup shop, not the main business that I’m about to launch, so I can choose to make a hard pass on referrals and strangers. I can choose to work with like-minded individuals who see small business relationships as true collaborations; they don’t talk down to or treat another human being like The Help. They would’ve treated Minny like a celebrity chef. Building rapport doesn’t mean that a Minny would skimp on what she was hired to do. But it would mean she wouldn’t serve a shit pie.
What another bitch won’t do is rope me into some extreme digital sports obstacles course and then expect me to foot the bill. I will never again default to a personal assistant performing tangential administrative tasks in some all-inclusive temp-for-hire capacity and I won’t work triple overtime unless someone runs me my exponential coins.
In the words of the baddie ‘Yonce, put some respect on my check.
And may I add, before anyone parts her lips or crooks her thumbs on her keypad, she might want to check her blatant disrespect, too.
*Two taglines, actually. I came up with one for each website.
**I’m suddenly reminded of another mutual client from that same group of referrals. The co-founders approved the copy but one of the owners later forwarded a dissertation to me from her sister, who has no affiliation with the company, mind you, dissecting every single word I wrote. Ma’am, are you an English professor? She actually positioned her fingers oh her keyboard to type that a nonprofit doesn’t have owners. First of all, I know what the hell I wrote, which was “veteran-owned, nonprofit organization” not “veteran-owned nonprofit.” Those are two different phrases. In the former, both veteran-owned and nonprofit are adjectives. Thank you. But this only tells me I needn’t be so modest when it comes to my credentials.
***I didn’t have to resort to digital repossession and vandalism. The last time I checked, she removed my custom images but it left her website looking like something someone threw together, not a cause a donor would want to support. And the funny part? She still didn’t have the new logo.