Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Don’t Work for Assholes

Things I Learned the Hard WayIn this series, I’m recounting work stories to learn from my mistakes. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

Twelve years ago, I had just set out on my own as a freelance designer. I met a potential client in South Park. We sat down at a picnic bench with some sandwiches and he started talking about the project. Within minutes I just knew: the man was an asshole.

He talked with his mouth full. He made comments about women at nearby tables. When I tried to speak, he interrupted me. When it came to my (way below market value) hourly rate, he haggled.

I didn’t like him, but what did I know? Maybe this is just how the freelance web design business worked. I took the gig.

It was, of course, a nightmare. He belittled my work, but offered no guidance. He wanted more and more time, but wouldn’t pay for it. When I finally stopped working because of his outstanding bill, he called me irate in the middle of the night. I got a lawyer.

It took months but my lawyer finally got him to pay his bill. I took his money and used it to have the lawyer to write me a bulletproof contract. I’ve used it ever since.

This was my first real freelance web design gig, and probably my worst, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons from it. Always get some money up front. Always get a signed contract before you start working. Always get a clear picture of what the deliverables are. Always charge what you’re worth.

But the biggest lesson I learned? Don’t work for assholes.

Nine times out of ten, the first impression someone gives you is exactly who they are. We choose not to see it because we need the money, or we want the situation to be different. But if someone rubs you the wrong way at the first meeting, chances are, it’s only going to get worse.

Years later I met another potential client at a cafe. We did the usual getting-to-know-you chat in line. When it was our turn to order, she ordered something very complicated, and then sighed and rolled her eyes when the barista repeated it back to confirm. When her coffee came back wrong, she lashed out at the barista in a way that made me and everyone else in earshot wince.

I’d like to say I walked away from that interview right then and there. I didn’t. But I did decide at that moment to turn down the gig. Baby steps.

It can be very intimidating to turn down work, especially in these uncertain economic times. But the months I spent suffering that fool 12 years ago would have been better spent building my portfolio and hustling to find better clients. All the time you spend working for an asshole is time you’re not spending to find a gig that will, in the long run, pay you better, teach you more, and make you happier.

Nowadays, the only asshole I work for is me.


Have you worked for an asshole? Tell us all about it.

Read more Things I Learned the Hard Way.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.