“My client stole some of my work!”

by | Jan 2, 2019

In July of 2018, one of your worst business nightmares happened to me.

It was so painful, it took me six months (and four proofreaders) to write about it.

No matter your industry, I hope my saga helps you avoid this same problem.

A returning client refused to pay a big chunk of an almost $6,000 final invoice.

That may not seem like much to you, but it was a shock to the budget for me.

After a couple of decades in business, I had finally come face-to-face with bad debt.


My mentors said …

For years, my let’s-grab-lunch local mentors (along with trusted online advisors) have steadily harped on one thing:

“When former clients return, think of them as a new contact.”

“What?! Why?”

“Because you have no idea what’s going on with them, n-o-w.”

… and they were right!

I immediately began updating my contracts and processes.

About a week into the effort of corralling legalese ducks into rows (whew!), Trusted Client came to me with a rush project.

Instead of heeding my mentors (+ Spidey Sense) and saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have space on the project calendar right now,” I jumped in and barreled ahead.

Hey! I could finish those pesky getting-in-my-way updates later, right?

Kathie York to the rescue!
Where’s my Superman cape?
My Batman cowl?

I didn’t listen to my Spidey Sense

The Sense is only good if you pay attention to it.

Which I did not.

There was that doubt niggling in the back of my brain ….

“What happened?”

Glad you asked.

The person who approved this four-phase, electronic effort didn’t calculate the final cost of all modules.

She ‘left’ the company as everything fell apart.

There’s a no-brainer “Uh-huh” for you.

Thrown under the metaphorical bus

We had worked on several projects in the past, but she was out of her element with managing this new technical direction for the product.

Instead of explaining this to her boss, she let me take the brunt.

I was left hanging … caught in the middle.

This (metaphorically) threw me under the bus.

OUCH, again.

“Now what?”

I listened carefully to my mentors’ after-the-fact input:

“Anything under $10K is a waste of time/money to go to court.”

I decided against court, although it took a while to get past the sense of unfairness.

“Getting a judgment in your favor doesn’t mean the client will pay.”

[Attorneys’ fees] + [Non-payment from the client] = [Waste of more time and more $$]

“Don’t submit your final work until you have all the compensation.”

This one surprised me, but they’re right. With intellectual property, I have no recourse
(once the client has the product) to ensure payment.

It’s not as if I can repossess a website assessment. ;-D

“Fill the gaps in your contract.”

Along with tightened legal restrictions, my contract now:

• ‘Does the math’ for the client at more stages.
•  Establishes monies owed (instead of a percentage) at each process step.
•  More clearly states when each payment is due. in. my. office.

“Don’t forget: no matter what you do, leave with integrity.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

The final email

When a client steals your work.

“My client stole my work!”

I expected the director who took over the project to do the honorable thing: pay the invoice (which reflected the hours worked) and diplomatically part ways.

Didn’t happen. In a moment, I’ll share the final message I sent to him.

Look for my steering him toward the dismissed employee’s emails to find suggestions for saving time and money with new projects.

Having this helpful-instead-of-hurtful attitude strengthens our professional demeanor, and it’s the right thing to do.

My email:

We’re well past the due date for my last invoice.

I’ve lost this bet with my team and fellow business owners. I told them there was no way I would be ‘stiffed’ on this project.

Although [Company] has always been faithful in the past, the law of averages finally caught up with me.

A client has stolen my work.


I hope you’ve had time to read through my emails with [former employee].

You will find them full of good ideas for cutting project time and cost by about 75% on future updates.

The trick is having a relational database (which I’ve been ‘preaching’ to [former employee] for years 🙂 ).

I’m happy to see you heading in that direction.


[Name], we both know [Company] provides excellent [products] for its clients. My team is happy to be part of that success.

I am saddened we won’t be there for you in the future, but here’s wishing you well as you serve your customers,


Epilogue Part I: Stepping off the pride wagon

Friends and family still urged me to go to court.

My pride screamed, “No! It’s a much better story if I’m really hurt!”
(I know, I know. Crazy talk. But that’s where my head was at the time.)

I compromised and had my attorney submit a strongly-worded letter to the client.

I still lost > $3,000

They pilfered less of my work, but did they win?

Not really.

Still some anger and hurt pride on my part, but let’s do some math-y math.

Epilogue Part II: Math-y math … and the future

[I know ‘math-y’ isn’t a word, but don’t we need a little fun right about now? ;-> ]

I received a little less than 50% of the money owed me.

Better than zero, right?

In my mind, a pretty good investment for a letter costing me < $300.
(And I didn’t have to leave my office and go to court!)

Fewer data items stolen; some money in my pocket.

Unlike my client, I made no profit on my work.

However, I paid my team and a few of my own hours.


Sticks-in-the-craw flashes of muffled anger around the edges.

Even now.


Best case scenario if I’d gone to court for the entire amount?

I would have made almost $300 l-e-s-s than the check I had in hand.

This director’s no dummy.

He knew he could get away with a partial payment, and he went for it.

The best path

It’s a small town.

I’ll eventually see this company officer at an event.

Since I’ve represented my firm with integrity, I won’t be the uncomfortable person in the conversation.

The high road isn’t always smooth, and our pride may be hurt as we travel it.

But it is always … always … the best path.

Your Takeaway: “They’re wrong!” is the cry. But we, as business owners, must face problems with integrity. It helps our company image, and it’s the right thing to do.

Note: Email me here [ [email]Kathie@KathieYork.com[/email] ] for a copy of an updated contract I now use. Use Contract sample for your subject line and give me a quick overview of your type of projects and billing. (I have different templates for different situations.)

Join the Conversation: Have you faced a similar non-payment experience?

• How did you handle the unfairness?
• What was the result?
• What could you have done differently?

Share the post, subscribe, and join the conversation in the comments section (below).

Let’s learn from each other!

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  1. www.xmc.pl

    This post is the best I’ve seen on this topic. I agree with your conclusions and look forward to updates.

    • Kathie York

      It was difficult to write, but worth it, I think.
      No updates, but if I ever meet this manager, I’ll share the experience!
      Thanks for your comment. K.


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