Never start work until you’ve signed the contract

One of my customers contacted me about a new project that had a seriously aggressive deadline, so I scrambled to put together a proposal and doc plan and started contacting the developers for more information. I was hesitant to put much work into it because I didn’t have a contract, but it was a customer I’d worked with before and I wanted a head start on the project.

Over the next two weeks, I was in constant communication with the Director, Marketing, and devs, but I still didn’t have a contract. I had less than a month to finish the project, which included a new Developer’s Guide and updates to the existing Administrator Guide and User Guide. It was the Developer’s Guide that made me the most nervous because I was working with unfamiliar information.

I completed my research, but I still didn’t have a contract. I was putting off the heavy writing, but I was starting to run out of time.

I contacted the Director to go over the contract, and he finally asked me to update our previous contract with the information from my proposal and submit it for approval. For whatever reason, it got stuck in the approval chain.

Then everything fell apart. When I asked for an update on the contract, the Director told me he was leaving the company for a new opportunity. I’d already dedicated a significant number of hours to the project, and now there was a possibility of that work going unpaid.

In my congratulations email, I asked the Director whether I should continue working on the project, who was my new contact, and whether the contract had been approved.

I agonized while waiting for his reply. Although I still didn’t have a contract, I had to decide whether to go forward or not. There was still a lot of writing to do, and the deadline was getting close, I was beginning to doubt whether I could meet it.

I decided to go forward.

There were several factors that led to this decision:

  • I enjoyed working with this department and wanted to continue working with them in the future.
  • The research I was doing for the Developer’s Guide was opening a whole new world for me.
  • The company still needed their documents updated, and they had limited in-house resources. I figured there was a good chance they’d want me to finish the project.

So, I started writing. Two days later, the Director got back to me with the signed contract.

Lessons Learned

This was a somewhat painful situation from which to learn, but I took a couple of things away from it.

  • Don’t start work until the contract is signed.
  • Include pricing for work delays (if you’re going to have to work 15 hour days to meet the deadline, you should get paid for it).

Lucky for me, it all worked out. But I’d much rather avoid that unnecessary stress in the future.

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