How to Know When You Need A Contract

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Do you sometimes lie awake at night wondering what will happen if your biggest customer doesn’t pay you? How about if the vendor handling your website upgrade takes off with your thousand-dollar down payment? These scenarios would be a nightmare for any bootstrapping entrepreneur – and they happen all the time.

The Problem

Here’s a pretty typical scenario. One of my clients, who owns an Internet-based consulting firm, was hired to create a new website for a client a few months back. He received a $500 deposit for several thousands of dollars worth of work. Then he hired a web coder, with whom he had a good relationship, to handle certain aspects of the design. He and the coder completed the work, and guess what happened next?

The client stiffed him. And not only him, but also his colleague, because he didn’t have the money to pay the web coder out of his own pocket. This caused a strain in the relationship between the consultant and his coder, and a major strain on his pockets.

Several months later, the consultant hired me and I used my magical lawyer ways to collect all of the money from the client. (Note: magical lawyer ways = calling the client, announcing that I am a lawyer and demanding payment. Okay, okay, it was more complicated than that but, most importantly, it worked). He was happy to get fully paid, but the strain on the relationship could not be erased, he lost the time value of the money he was paid in January instead of August, he spent a lot of time chasing this guy instead of working on other projects, and he was out the attorney’s fees he had spent, too.