Here are some basic thoughts on improving cash flow on successful projects, which should be applicable to many freelancers / contractors / consultants.
Possible current problems
Invoicing is generally kind of a pain because you have several gates to get through in order to get paid. You could be looking at the following situation if your company has net-thirty payments:
- Work done on day 1
- Company policy is to bill the client every thirty days, so we send the invoice for days 1-30 on day 31
- Our invoice is on net-30 terms, which means the client has thirty days to pay the invoice (day 61)
- We notice the invoice has not been paid on day 65 and send an email reminder
- The client promptly sends a check via snail mail. We receive it three days later (day 68)
- We deposit the check on our weekly bank run (day 70)
So with these policies and delays, we could easily be looking at seventy days between when we do work and when we get paid. One issue with this is that it gives us a slower feedback cycle on the work that we are doing.
Startups considered harmful to cashflow?
I’ve heard something along the lines of this story a couple of times:
We started work with [startup X] in April and things were going well. They paid on time and were generally a pleasure to work with. Then they started falling behind on payments, but they assured us that payments were just around the corner. Finally we had to cut them off because they were avoiding us, but unfortunately we have a couple of months worth of unpaid bills on the project. Now they are saying that unless they launch soon with a few more features, they won’t be able to get more funding, and won’t be able to pay us.
So now the consultancy is in the unenviable position of:
- writing it off and losing a couple of months of money
- trying to help just a little more and taking the risk of losing whatever leverage they might have had
I make it very clear that I’m a professional, and my job isn’t to take on risk. The founders and their investors are on the hook for either crashing or burning or making a boatload of cash; my job is to get paid for services rendered.
Taking equity further harms your position, as you get into “between a rock and a hard place” decisions a bit more often. It also exacerbates cashflow issues, as equity pays out generally only on a liquidity event, which may be years from now (if at all.) Try paying for dinner with equity from a pre-IPO company, and you will see what I mean. :)
Some potential solutions
Getting better terms
Alan Weiss has written some excellent books on consulting including Million Dollar Consulting. I definitely recommend reading it, as it will force you to look at your business assumptions in a whole different light.
Weiss promotes getting better terms for your contracts. He requests that all clients pay upon signing a contract with him for the full fee. For a monthly retainer, he might book for six months or a year. For a full reason of the benefits, I encourage you to check out the book.
I enjoyed these posts by Sebastian Marshall on thinking through the systems behind fees:
- Get Terms that Require Less Thinking (short, but thought-provoking)
- How to Set Your Consulting Scope and Fees
- How to Ask for and Get Favorable Terms When Consulting
Creating better internal systems and policies
I recently started depositing paper checks with my phone to avoid needing to go to the bank (to cut down on the amount of delay in the money-getting workflow.) What other things could you do to cut out delays entirely caused by your end?
Do you invoice monthly? What about cutting it to biweekly? This would certainly help to reduce the risk with minimal impact on client relations. Same for payment terms, doing something like net-15 instead of net-30 should be no problem for a client that you are meeting with every few days anyway.
I recently highlighted using IPN to get faster payment of invoices. Through IPN or other means you can give an incentive for timely payments, although I probably would not do that unless I charged higher than usual to begin with (a form of fees for late payment.)
When you consider that you develop software in an iterative manner to reduce risk, why not bill for that software development in a manner that reduces the risk?
Get payment up front with riskier clients
To avoid the aforementioned client with financial problems, consider taking advance payment. If you have a lot of potential paying clients and an existing client misses paying an invoice or two, you can consider making prepay the default for that client.
This may seem heavy-handed, but you have a business to run and should not be in the business of making loans. If I have ample clients, then those that are not paying in a timely manner need to get current and stay current or risk losing trust.
What if you don’t have a good idea of what to charge for a prepay block? You could look at past billings and make an educated guess, charge a certain amount and then invoice for the overage or apply the credit to the next month, or allow prepayment for a block of hours.
Prepay for a block of hours
Jared Brown taught me about a “prepayment for a block of hours” technique. Basically low-bandwidth clients purchase a block of hours (say, ten hours) and then they can use these hours across whatever issues come up. I suppose this is a sort of a retainer with a time cap. It is useful when the scope of work changes often or there are budget concerns. The client knows they will be paying for X hours and can get the changes they need, and that more work will cost more.
This strategy incentivizes clients to be clear about their scope of work and desired results. It’s also nice that you have the funds up front instead of needing to worry about tracking someone down for ten hours worth of work. In a sense, it’s batching up small payment decisions into one larger contract, and also bundling any authorization decisions in there as well. “I’m getting close to my limit, so I’m going to need you to sign off on an additional Y hours.” When you get paid, then you work. Not the other way around.
Obviously I seem to be focusing on hourly / daily compensation, which leaves out the value-based fees approach. I think that some of the principles are similar though, and I think there is value in considering how you can get better terms and make better policies and systems.