The ‘Net 30’ Billing Trap
(Why You Should Avoid This Much-Too-Common Business Practice)
It’s the year 2010 and I’m talking to a colleague of mine. She’s a full-time freelance editor. Very talented. Very busy. And it turns out, very miserable. I’ll call her Helen and here’s our conversation:
Helen: I haven’t had a week off in months.
Me: Congrats. That’s terrific. A lot of freelancers are finding it tough to hunt down work, much less stay busy.
Helen: You don’t understand… it sucks. My client owes me $50,000.
Me: Uhhh… excuse me?
Helen: His clients aren’t paying him – so he can only pay me from money that comes in on other jobs he’s doing.
Me: I’m sorry. $50,000? Why the hell are you still working for him?
Helen: I don’t have a choice. He also owes a lot of other people money. The only way I have a chance of getting paid is if I stay front and center. I have to keep working for him. I can’t afford to lose 6 months of salary…
At this point, Helen is visibly upset, frustrated and embarrassed.
Helen: And I recently found out that this guy has shut down businesses in the past to avoid paying people. I can’t let him run away from me like that.
Me: I can’t believe you let him get into you for $50K.
Of course, Helen didn’t let that client get into her for $50,000 all at once
It happened slowly, over 18 months. She explained…
He’d miss a payment on one job. But pay fully on the next, promising to make good on the missed job. Then he’d start paying late but make up a portion of it later. Finally, for the last 6 months when she’d start making noise he’d find just enough money to shut her up and make promises about future jobs already lined up.
And since he was keeping her fully booked—she was busy, unlike a huge number of her freelancing friends. But now, she’s owed $50,000 and is terrified her client is going to disappear on her.
Our conversation turned to billing practices:
Helen: Doesn’t everyone bill Net 30?
Me: I stopped doing that. Once the job is done, I’m just a line-item expense—they’ve got no incentive to pay up.
Helen: Tell me about it. And I had no idea he was going to delay paying me until his clients paid him. I had done a few small gigs for him and he paid on time. But now, I’m at the mercy of his clients and their ability to pay. You know, I’ve got one invoice that’s a year old. He says his client went belly-up—but he’ll make it up to me when the next big job rolls in.
I felt bad for Helen… and mad at her.
It didn’t have to happen this way. Helen didn’t have to find herself in this terrible situation (not her real name, but the $50K number is accurate). And that’s what this Insight is about.
Helen got herself into this mess because she followed poor business practices
She followed the business practices espoused by Business School graduates who fail to realize that their advice is designed for multi-million dollar businesses. Business School financial practices completely disintegrates on sub-$1 million businesses. This includes advice on leverage (borrowing money) and advice on billing practices. It’s advice I despise because it completely discounts RISK.
This is especially true of NET 30 payment terms. I call it: The NET 30 Trap
We’re going deconstruct why the NET 30 payment terms for freelancers is fundamentally flawed
In this Insight we’re going to cover:
- What is NET 30 payment terms?
- What is the NET 30 Trap?
- If you must, how can you make NET 30 work for you?
I’ll also cover some common objections I hear from professionals in post-production about why they can’t move away from NET 30.
Let’s start by answering, what is NET 30?
I found this good definition of NET 30 (the emphasis is mine):
In the business world, “net 30” refers to the length of time (in this case, 30 days) that a customer has to pay their outstanding bill. Many companies will extend short-term credit to their customers by performing a service or selling a good, and then billing their customer after the fact.
Notice, if you offer NET 30 billing terms… you are extending credit to your clients. We’ll come back to this in the next section of this Insight. Now – when it comes to paying in 30 days, there’s a complication as you can read in this NET 30 definition from the question/answer site, Quora.com
Suppliers can set their payment periods to start from either (1) each individual invoice date or (2) from the end of the month in which all the purchases for the month are collated and summarized into a statement.
In other words…
NET 30 means different things to different people—and it’s more complicated than that
If you’re going to extend credit to your clients you can modify your NET 30 terms to incentivize them to pay early. In accounting, that incentive is called a Discount Term and here’s a good explanation from AccountingTerms.com of how’d you show the Discount Terms on your Invoices:
Discount terms. This is a two-part statement, where the first item is the percentage discount allowed, and the second item is the number of days within which payment can be made in order to receive the discount. Thus, terms of “1/10 NET 30” mean that a discount of 1% can be taken if payment is made within 10 days.
For a great little table showing different NET invoicing schemes, be sure to click that link for AccountingTerms.com.
If Discount Terms are the carrot, is there is stick?
In a NET 30 billing scheme there has to be a penalty for late payment and that’s called: The Interest Rate. If you use a computerized accounting system, then it’s super easy to set up your interest rate and have that calculated automatically for you. The key is to charge a high enough interest rate that your client has a big incentive to pay on time. All you need to do is research at how much consumer credit costs and you’ve got a good idea of what an ‘effective’ interest rate looks like.
There’s only one problem.
How many of you reading this who bill NET 30 charge interest on late payment? My guess: None. And if you do, are you charging consumer credit interest rates? Almost definitely not.
And that gets us to the next part of this Insight, why NET 30 is a really bad idea for most small businesses and creative freelancers.
Understanding the NET 30 Trap
If you’re a small business or freelancer, NET 30 is almost always a trap for a very simple reason. Again, from AccountingTools.com (emphasis mine):
A large customer may use its purchasing power to force a supplier to agree to terms that are more favorable to the customer, such as a longer period of time in which to pay the supplier, or relaxed rules for returning goods.
NET 30 is a power play
You, the small business or freelancer, are extending credit to your client… because both of you believe the client has the balance of power. The client has work to be done. The client (in theory) has the cash. You? You’re one of many. There’s a ton of other freelancers and businesses that want the client’s business. If you don’t take NET 30, surely someone else will?
Is THAT any way to start a relationship?
It’s like when I take on a ‘free’ job. I never do a job for free. EVER. I always require some kind of token payment (not a barter, but real money transacting hands). Why? It sets the tone. I’m a professional. Even when I do a ‘free’ job, it’s not truly free. When a client hands transacts real money for your services—even if it only pays an hour of two of your normal billing rate—the relationship changes. Completely.
What if you refuse NET 30 and the client walks away?
How much did that client value YOU? Your specific talent? And how likely do you think they were planning on paying in a timely manner?
And let’s take it a step further…
If you currently offer NET 30, are you charging interest?
I don’t know a single freelancing creative that bills interest to their NET 30 clients. And even fewer sub-$1 million businesses that build an interest rate into their terms. Why?
Talking about charging interest is extremely uncomfortable!
Suddenly you’re not only negotiating your rate and the cost of the job, you’re negotiating the payment terms. Who the heck wants to do that? And yet, if you’re not willing to have that discussion then, frankly, you have no business extending NET 30 credit.
Think about it: Where else in life does credit get extended without the threat of interest? Yet clients constantly gawk at the notion of paying interest to their vendors if they pay late! The horror, I know.
Have you defined when NET 30 actually begins?
Does NET 30 start on your invoice date? The date the client gets the invoice? The date work was completed? The 30 days after the end of the month you posted the invoice?
Or does NET 30 start 30 days after your client invoiced their client?
Early in my career—when I extended NET 30 before understanding that NET 30 is extending credit—this happened all the time. At 45 days I’d call my client and they’d tell me they just invoiced the client 5 days ago and we shouldn’t expect payment for at least 45 days.
45 days?!? AFTER my NET 30 invoice is already 15 days late? That’ll put payment 60 days late!
Seriously: Who precisely are you extending credit to?
It drives me nuts when I extend NET 30 only to discover my client has no intention of paying me until THEIR client pays them! And the reason I got surprised? I trusted them and didn’t have this discussion with them.
If you extend NET 30 to your clients, before they hire you are you asking if they’re going to pay you without regard to their client’s pay schedule? If not, you have no business extending credit to your clients and you WILL get burned.
Again – think about real life. Why do we need to provide Social Security numbers whenever we want to take out a loan? Or get a credit card? It’s so financial institutions can run background checks and check to see our repayment history.
Are you willing to ask your client for their Social Security number so you can check on their payment history? And if they’re only going to pay you after they get paid… then you’re not only extending credit to your client, you’re extending it to your client’s client!
NET 30 is a trap if you don’t have the resources (or stomach) for due diligence
If discussions about payment schedules, interest rates and when precisely your client will pay are not part of your protocol, then extending NET 30 will destroy your relationships with your clients. You will get burned. Frequently. Your clients WILL pay late. Or never. You’ll have to learn how to navigate small claims court. Or even hire a lawyer.
It. Will. Happen.
And after being burned so many times, you’ll come to distrust EVERY client who walks in the door. You’ll hate freelancing (or running your own small business). You will experience Famine more often than Feasting. But if you’re afraid of moving off NET 30, what can you do to be more successful at it?
How to make NET 30 work for you (if you must)
Let me make clear, in Part 2 of this 2-part Insight I will offer a much better alternative to NET 30. It’s an alternative that’s an accepted practice in the television and film industry. It will help you maintain a healthy relationship with your clients and with yourself, as a creative professional running your own business.
But there are times when NET 30 can work for you, if you’re careful and diligent.
- Only extend NET 30 to new clients if they are legitimate, multi-million enterprises: If you read about this client in the financial section of the newspaper, that’s a huge enterprise. These companies usually have strict financial controls in place… which include using their market clout to force favorable terms upon their vendors. BUT they also expect your invoice terms to include a carrot and a stick—which makes it easier to accept NET 30 terms.
- NET 30 must include a carrot: If your client is big enough, their corporate charter may require them to pay all invoices early that include Discount Terms for early payment. Don’t ask. Just include 2/15 NET 30 (or something similar) as part of your quote.
- NET 30 must also have a stick: If your client is big enough to make the financial news, it’s big enough to expect to pay Interest on late payments. Include that on your Invoice. Talk to your accountant about what interest rate their other clients are charging and then make that as part of your Quote. If a client objects to paying ANY interest on late payments… that’s a red flag you should not ignore. For trusted clients, I’ve been known to negotiate away interest payments.
- Don’t extend NET 30 to new clients: Again, this invoicing scheme is you extending credit to a client. 30 days after you’ve performed your work, you’re just an expense—they no longer think of you as an asset. If you haven’t built a relationship with this client, with a proven history of prompt payments, simply state, “I don’t extend credit to new clients.” If they can’t accept this answer, consider it a red flag that you should not ignore.
- Ask point-blank: Will you pay me before (or after) you bill your client? Their answer can be very instructive. If they say anything other than, ‘I’ll pay you within 30 days of your invoice date’ you can be sure you’re not getting paid on time. And remember, if your client only pays after they get paid then you’re not only banking the creditworthiness of your client you’re banking on the creditworthiness of their client… which elevates your risk even more.
- You must be willing to walk off a job for non-payment: Remember Helen and the $50,000 her client owed her? She should have walked off the job the minute her first invoice went unpaid. At what point should you do the same? That depends—how much money can you afford to lose? The bigger your savings account, the longer rope you can hand to your client. But know that number up front.And if your client hasn’t paid and walks in with a new gig? Make working on the new gig contingent on full payment of the old invoice… and don’t accept NET 30 on this new job. NET 30 is a privilege to be earned—it’s a courtesy. Once the trust is broken, NET 30 is re-extended only after a period of prompt ‘on delivery’ payments.
Wait Patrick! I’ll never get jobs if I don’t take NET 30
What’s the point of working if you don’t get paid? The one asset you’re truly selling that is un-recoverable is: Time.
A client who pays late? They’re stealing your time from you. They have benefited from the fruits of your labor and are now refusing to compensate, as agreed. That’s why NET 30 invoicing is so reliant on your client accepting Interest Rate Terms. It helps compensate you for not being able to use the money they promised you. And it helps you ‘red flag’ a client who doesn’t intend to pay (if they loudly object to paying interest).
If you’re not having a discussion with your potential NET 30 client about payment terms, timetables, carrots and sticks—then you’re not executing NET 30 the way it’s supposed to be executed.
In Summary, NET 30 is extending credit
When large corporations agree to extending NET 30 terms to their clients they have people on staff who research the creditworthiness of their clients. They perform due diligence to minimize the risk of extending credit.
Are you performing the same due diligence on your NET 30 clients? Or are you blindly hoping they’ll pay you? If you’re not doing due diligence then you’re not executing what’s being taught to those corporate MBAs.
Also remember: You must be willing to cut off clients who don’t pay on time. Keep accurate records in your accounting software. Read your aging reports. Timely payment is more than just a courtesy. If you keep working for clients who never pay on time, then you need to own your misery. It’s not your client’s fault. It’s yours.
And what about Helen? I ran into her 2 years later. She was still miserable. She was still ‘freelancing’ for the same guy. And no, she didn’t change her billing practices. Beyond that, I can’t say… I couldn’t continue our conversation.
Up Next: Part 2—Several Alternatives to NET 30 Invoicing
It would be criminal for me to put all this doubt into your mind about the much-too-accepting practice of extending NET 30 to our clients without offering a few alternatives. That’s precisely what I’ll do, offer two big alternatives to NET 30 in Part 2 of this Insight.
The cool thing: One alternative follows the standard practices of film studios and television networks to their production companies. If you offer your services following these protocols, you won’t be asking for crazy payment terms. You’ll just be asking to get paid the way your clients get paid themselves. And if your client is looking for a signal of professionalism, asking to get paid this way is a huge signal that you’re a working professional.
The second alternative I’ll suggest is a little more non-standard but can work for new clients if you’re getting hired on an hourly basis by a corporate client. The key here is to time your payment schedule to their salaried staff payment schedule.