Creative Collections

by Translation Guy on March 26, 2013

What do you do when your client won’t pay?

For programmers, it’s easy.  Hack their website.  That’s what web designer Frank Jonen did to Fitness SF, a San Francisco Bay-area client who wouldn’t pay for the work done on their new website.

On Valentine’s Day this year, visitors to the site in search of a free intro pass were greeted with the kind of letter that every freelancer has dreamed of nailing on the door of their deadbeat clients.

Dear Fitness SF Customer,

Fitness SF preferred to ignore our invoices instead of paying them.  As a result this website is no longer operational.

Do you hear the people sing, who will not be paid again…

I am also writing this on the behalf of the tens of thousands of freelancers and small businesses out there facing larger corporations who can afford to starve them out. In the movie / visual effects business this is already prevalent. Large studios awarding work to smaller studios or freelancers in the hope they won’t stand up to them when it comes to loads and loads of unpaid work.

What Fitness SF is trying here is exactly the same ploy. Give a barren advance, rake up a huge bill and ignore every invoice. Rush fees, heavy overtime and weekend work are expected to be free.

You don’t get to sleep for days on end, but you do get to wait on your money forever.

It’s people like this who cause company after company to go bankrupt.

Oh, sweet revenge. Nothing is more infuriating to a small business owner than a client who won’t pay. Freelance translators, the small fry at the bottom of the localization food chain, are particularly vulnerable when working for overseas clients since international collection is almost impossible.

It’s definitely a feel-good collection strategy, but I doubt it’s the best route to go. Gail, our smoky-voiced collections tiger, does more purring than roaring. It’s the unrelenting stalk and not the angry pounce that pays in the darkness of collection night. Making people feel bad is no way to get their money.

Fitness SF was certainly not amused. They told Adweek, “On Wednesday evening, our domain name Fitness SF was hacked and stolen by an individual named Frank Jonen.  Frank was hired on May 16th, 2012 to develop a functional website for our brand.  A $5,000 payment was made to him on the same date.  In his proposal, he stated that the website would take 10 weeks to complete.  He missed numerous deadlines including our brand launch in September.  In December, he voluntarily passed the incomplete and non-functioning website to our new design firm.

“Now, Frank is attempting to portray himself as the victim when truly the victim is Fitness SF as he attempts to get paid for work he did not complete and has decided that blackmail is the way to accomplish that.”

Clients are apt to get upset when you don’t deliver.  Missing deadlines and not executing deliverables can really complicate the collections picture. Perhaps Jonen is the wrong hero for cheated translators?

I have a little fake stone on my desk given to us by Stew Leonard, Jr.  It is inscribed:

Rule 1 – The customer is always right.

Rule 2 – If the customer is never wrong, reread Rule 1.

That’s my default, much to the frustration of my operations team, so I was quick to throw Jonen under the bus for the high crime of service failure. But you can’t always believe what you read on the Internet. Last week, Jonen posted this joint statement on his blog.

Regarding a recent incident involving the website, Fitness SF and a website designer hired by the company, Frank Jonen, have resolved all disputes between them amicably and to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. Fitness SF and Mr. Jonen regret any inconvenience caused to Fitness SF members, and are pleased the interruption of web service was promptly rectified.

Looks like Jonen’s collection strategy was spot on. I wonder what their next collaboration will look like? I can’t wait.

I hope commenters will post some of their own creative collection stories for the edification of those owed money.


  1. I had to resort to posting on a client’s facebook page one time for all his friends and family to see, basically calling him a deadbeat, it didn’t really help matters; in fact it made things worse.

    • Ken says:

      shame is an emotion we are ashamed to even talk about. The usual response is fight or flight, which is no way to get your check.

  2. A little petulant, but it worked.

  3. Fern Gorin says:

    I certainly have never gone to such lengths to get a bill paid, but I certainly am going to have to rethink my strategies for debt collection at this point, think more outside the box as it were. Plus, he got some free publicity out of it.

    • Ken says:

      but was it good publicity? I would never hire that guy.

  4. Alilee says:

    I actually saw this story over on adweek, I think, anyways the story had comments by the guy Frank and it seemed like there was a lot of ambiguity in the contract and the final invoice, basically he added a fews things to the invoice that weren’t in the contract. So while I’m with him in spirit, I think it provides a teaching point about everyone being clear on contracts.

  5. Jackie says:

    Illegal and irresponsible, but hell, I’ve been there when you just mad as hell over getting stiffed by a client so it does give me smile.

  6. Sheila says:

    It certainly is a pretty fantastical and over the top way to go about getting paid, although it doesn’t seem the best way to advertise yourself to future clients though.

  7. Andrea says:

    Airing a private business matter between two parties in public? That is bad business and while it doesn’t necessarily mean he uses the same judgement in other areas of business, there is no reason that a potential client (especially larger entities with more liability risk from their clients) wouldn’t have pause about doing business with him. They have to assess risk when picking vendors and I can tell you from experience, the clients that can pay the most would not put up with this type of behavior.

  8. Beth Styne says:

    Wouldn’t this guy be basically advertising he is breaking the law, I mean hacking is illegal right?

  9. Lilian says:

    I did once take an ad out in the local paper highlighting the fact a client had neglected to pay for services, not sure if it really helped as the fight about the money went on for some time after that.

  10. Well… I’m not quite sure if this guy is a genius or a madman, I guess it depends on whether you focus on the fact his bill got paid or that perspective clients might be a little leery about hiring a guy who likes to put things out in the street, I lean towards genius, even the hacked website looks slick.

    • Ken says:

      We don’t know that he got paid though, do we?

  11. Chuck Danes says:

    The company came back pretty strong with an accusation of blackmail, that is a big word to throw around if you are just going to capitulate, not sure most lawyers would advise that.

  12. Susan Nelson says:

    He’s lucky he didn’t get sued for libel, a website is basically a company storefront, and he made some claims that can’t necessarily be backed up.

    • Ken says:

      That joint statement was interesting. There is something going on there.

  13. Triumph says:

    Good for him, and great article by the way.

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