Legal Left, Meet Creative Right –Collections Pt. 1
I have the same conversation with different photographers every week or so. The names are interchangeable, but the underlying facts tend to go something like this: photographer shoots a gig for a client and sends along the bill. The bill comes due in 30 days but (somehow) doesn’t get paid on time. The photographer, afraid to offend their client, waits in quiet frustration for the envelope to arrive. 30 more days pass. Then 30 more. When the photographer finally calls the client they are met with a handful of common responses:
1. Our accounts payable department takes longer than 30 days to process payment;
2. We never received the invoice;
3. Bills only get processed on x day of the month, let me resubmit the invoice but don’t expect to be paid until after x day;
4. We’re sorry, we won’t pay x expense. Please resubmit the invoice.
My personal feelings about all of those answers is that they are different flavors of the same brand of bogus. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself because I think it’s most important to understand why working photographers need to keep on top of their outstanding accounts before we start cracking into our client’s excuses for not paying up. In order to do that, I’d like to break this week’s topic into two posts. Today’s post is a bit of an introduction to why I think expecting timely payment is important. For the follow-up post, I’ll offer my own methods for keeping tabs on unpaid invoices and my process for getting overdue accounts paid promptly. Basically, today’s post is philosophical and the subsequent post is practical.
I don’t think it’s any stretch of language to say that most working photographers experience a bit of survivor’s guilt in the way they see their chosen profession. Unlike most of our friends and family who slave away in jobs that they only moderately like, we love what we do. Photography defies the Johnny Paycheck definition of a J-O-B in the sense that our work is not some Puritanical form of punishment endured for a paycheck. The paycheck almost seems like a bonus.
But it shouldn’t.
Photographers, hear me out for a second, because I want to tell you that it’s ok to love what you do and still expect to get paid for it at the appropriate rates and in a timely manner. If you won’t take that assertion at face value, let me sell you the same idea by way of analogy. A few months ago, my furnace broke. I’m no furnace repairman, but usually enjoy fixing things myself because I like the opportunity to learn. So, with that in mind, I set about to trying to locate the problem. I spent half a day reading about my furnace, making sense of schematics, and getting my head around how the appliance actually functions. During the second half of the day, I picked up a multi-tester, stopped by the HVAC supply store, talked with a parts salesman, and finally went home to test different components along the circuit that I had isolated as problematic. By the end of the day, I had it figured out. Twelve dollars later and I had the replacement part in hand, ready for the final task of installing it. Total time invested: ten hours.
Were I not a DIY sadist, I would have called a repairman. No doubt he would have walked in, fiddled with the furnace for ten minutes, diagnosed the problem, changed the part, and my furnace would have been working within the hour. His charge would have been enormously more costly than the 12 dollar part, but it would have been justified. Why? Because I wouldn’t have been paying him just for the part, I would have been paying him for his experience, for all the other furnace repairs that he stumbled through in order to get to the point where he became efficient, quick, and thorough. I’d have been paying for the nine hour difference that separates him, as a professional, from me, as a DIY weekend warrior.
The analogy to photography almost writes itself. It’s not that amateur photographers can’t make a good picture every now and again, it’s just that professional photographers have hundreds of thousands of exposures under their belts and a serious investment of life in figuring out the quirks of working with their subjects, their equipment, and their environment. In short, a huge part of what we’re charging for is the wrapped up in the same backstory as the HVAC repairman. It’s the ability to be efficient, thorough, and consistent that makes a professional –not just the ability to fix the problem.
If you’re with me on the underlying thesis that it’s ok to love what you do and still expect to be paid for it, let’s move on to the next big stumbling block: it’s also ok to expect to be paid on time. Take a deep breath and re-read that, because it’s one of the most integral components to putting together a sustainable business. Ok, got your deep breath? Again: it’s also ok to expect to be paid on time.
To illustrate this, let’s keep rolling with the HVAC repairman and his business. In order for his business to work, he needs to have enough money to purchase the parts he needs to repair furnaces, maintain a lease, insurance, car payments, etc. Each month, he pays these expenses. Money out. In order to make those payments, he relies on a steady flow of cash coming into the business on the same 30 day cycle. Money in.
When that cashflow cycle is broken, the repairman’s bills don’t stop. They continue coming and his vendors expect him to pay on time. Without cash to cover his expenses, our repairman is left with a few unpleasant choices:
1. He can put his expenses on his credit card.
2. He can pay his bills late and pay a late fee and/or interest.
3. If he’s fortunate enough to have a line of credit with his bank, he can use it to cover the shortfall.
4. He can go out of business.
In all but the last choice, the repairman will eat additional cost in the form of interest and late fees. Whether he puts it on his credit card or pays his bills late, he is essentially borrowing money and, as we all know, there is always a price on borrowed money.
Again, the analogy is straight forward. Substitute photographer for HVAC repairman and it should be clear why being paid on time is critical. Plain and simple, when your business doesn’t get paid on time, it costs you money. I’m sure that seems pretty obvious to most people but it bears repeating because photographers aren’t in the business of financing our clients.
In the next post, I will build on the premise that photographers should be proactive in getting paid on time by laying out my own system for keeping tabs on accounts as well as my own regular procedures for following up on overdue debts. Until then, questions, comments, or perspectives on the ugly business of getting paid are always appreciated.
Matt Slaby is a Colorado-based attorney (and photographer). Matt attended the University of Denver College of Law on a full public interest scholarship. His experiences in law school include a PILG clerkship for ongoing civil work with El Centro Humanitario’s legal clinic as well as handling wage claims and contract issues for DU’s Civil Litigation Clinic. He is a founding member of Luceo and, in addition to his photography, brings his legal background to the organization. Questions, comments, and ideas for future posts are welcome. Please add them to the comments section or reach me here: email@example.com
**DISCLAIMER: Luceo Images LLC and Matt Slaby assume no liability for the information provided above. This information may not be correct when applied to your specific situation. Moreover, the information provided is not intended to create an attorney/client relationship and shall not be construed as legal advice.