Charging people to get their own money

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UPDATE: After significant pushback from its freelancers and coverage here and elsewhere Contently has scrapped plans to institute a fee for getting paid.

“I want to thank you for your coverage of our announcement last week and the perspective you offered,” Contently CEO Joe Coleman wrote me in an email. “I spent the past few days reading all the feedback we’ve gotten from the freelance community, and I’ve realized that the fee was a mistake. It will not go into effect.”

Here’s the email they sent out to their network today:

I'm sorry. Last Wednesday, I emailed you announcing a new mandatory service fee we’d soon be charging freelancers. That fee was a mistake. It will not go into effect, and as CEO, I guarantee one like it never will.

Here’s what happened: I’m implementing a larger plan to turn Contently into a profitable business while continuing to increase the number of quality assignments we secure on behalf of freelance creatives. The move was intended to help us fund these initiatives and develop additional resources for the freelance community.

But during this process, I failed to consult the freelancers who contribute to Contently’s success. As a result, I didn’t truly consider how it would affect the people who are the backbone of our company. So we’ve decided to find other ways to fund improvements to our network.

To everyone who voiced concerns over email and social media, thank you. As I spent the past few days reading every message, I realized we need to recommit to the values Contently was founded on: putting freelancers first and helping them earn a living doing work they can take pride in. We won’t just make this right; we’re going to set an example for the rest of the industry. To start that process, we’ve published a contract with the freelance community that will live on our website. It promises to do a several things, including:

  • Never implementing any mandatory fee to freelancers.

  • Ensuring freelancers keep getting paid quickly and fairly.

  • Launching a Freelancer Advisory Board that includes people from the freelance. community to ensure we get better feedback.

  • Continuing to support The Freelancer, our blog for freelance creatives.

  • Developing more resources like our portfolio tool and freelance rate database.

  • Investing in workshops, meetups, tools, and more for the entire freelance community, based on input from you.

We hope these efforts will be a good start. We also want to hear your ideas on what we can do to better support you. Please share your ideas with us here, and we promise to keep you updated on our plans.

:)

As we learned back in September when I wrote about WorkMarket, the payment platform for contractors used by publications like the Huffington Post and many others, the concept of tech company middlemen charging freelancers and gig workers a fee to be able to access their own money is clearly a space that more and more companies are going to look to move into. Why not man fuck it no rules. Who wants to work when you can connect people doing work and put up a toll booth. Whenever there are cuts to be made it’s usually freelancers, who have none of the protections of staff, which are admittedly slim enough in most cases, that tend to be the first to be bled dry. What are they gonna do about it tweet?

The latest company to dip their toes into the charging people to get their own money game is Contently. Contently is a company that connects very rich and fancy brands — Marriott, American Express, Coke and Pepsi, to name a few of the many they’ve worked with — with a stable of freelance talent to write or photograph or design content so the brands can tell their fucking authentic story or whatever horse shit it is brands want to do who can know the mind of a brand.

Being the middleman Contently naturally has long taken a little taste for their troubles. A Contently freelancer explained it to me like this: “Basically if I ask for $1,000 in a pitch the client sees [a price of] $1,150 (e.g. $1,000 + 15%) and then Contently gets $150 and I get $1,000.”

Now they want to wet their beaks on the other end as well.

I’m not gonna do a whole history of the company and do the background five paragraphs you’re supposed to do in stories like this and make sure to hear their side because I’ve already written that story and I don’t care what the reasons for it are. Some tech guys raised money and then lost money is how I imagine it goes and now they’re like ah fuck we gotta stay in business another nine months somehow fuck. Here’s a story from 2014 called “Contently, Riding Corporate Media Wave, Raises New Funding” where it talks about how they had just raised $9 million in funding which is very cool.

What I am interested in is that today Contently announced to their pool of freelancers that beginning in April they would be scraping 4.75% off of the payout to freelancers so they can continue to grow the business or some shit and whatever the reason they have for doing that is wrong and fucked up.

Here’s how they explain it on their site.

Hmm you sure that means the rate isn’t changing?

I emailed with Contently’s rep Adrienne Todd today to ask what the fuck their problem was.

I was wondering if you could tell me more about the new cash out fee and explain why your freelancers are now being charged money to get the money they are owed?

TODD: Thanks for reaching out. Below is an answer to your question from Joe Coleman. Please let me know if you have additional questions.

“There are considerable transaction costs associated with instant payments--before assignments are actually approved--and through nearly any payment method, including PayPal. This fee is simply meant to defer some of those costs from Contently so we can continue to grow the business in a profitable way.”

Thank you. Are staffers there also being charged a fee for paychecks or just freelancers?

TODD: By staffers do you mean salaried Contently employees? The cash out fee applies to those who are paid via a PayPal account.

Yeah I meant salaried Contently employees. So I guess my other question is why does Contently think it’s ok to put the burden of the company growing only on freelancers and no one else?

Then I said can we talk on the phone and they said Joe Coleman the CEO could talk maybe in the next few days or early next week but I didn’t feel like waiting. They sent me another quote from Coleman though and here it is:

“These fees are directly related to transaction costs for payment processing and other benefits we offer our network. This will help us continue investing in products and services that help our contributors.”

It is unclear if the 4.75% will be on top of the traditional 2.9% PayPal takes.

Needless to say people who rely on Contently for regular work are red-assed about the whole thing.

"It was very helpful in finding clients when I was first starting a few years ago,” one regular freelancer on Contently told me, asking not to use their name for fear of jeopardizing their working relationship.”

“But now I have a sustainable business with clients who've been with me for years, so I'm really just paying a tax on a relationship that Contently hasn't added anything to in years. The platform is difficult to use, especially if clients don't understand it. I'd honestly prefer to just pay them a fee to find me one or two clients a year, without all of the intermediary technology they've squeezed in."

Patreon attempted to pull off some similar type of dog shit about a year ago that would’ve put the onus of transaction fees on the fans paying for artists’ work and everyone freaked out so they eventually backed down.

Contently tried to mitigate some of the anger today but it didn’t seem to work based on the replies to this tweet.

Pam Mandel, a freelancer for about twenty years from Seattle, was the first to bring Contently’s new policy to wider attention on Twitter today. She’s worked through Contently — not for or with, mind you, but through, which is how this confusing system works — for a while now. I asked her what she thought of the changes and to explain how the system works for freelancers.

How does writing through Contently actually work it’s pretty confusing.

On my side of the equation as a freelancer -- and I might only see 25% of what happens --  I see it as a content management system. There are two things it does for me: It’s a place where my portfolio lives [a sort of writers’ home page] for all the copy projects I do as a freelance writer. I do some tech writing and journalism, and copy to make a living.

Contently is one of these places where my clients have a place where I go and I write the story inside of Contently. I use it as my CMS. I hit submit when it’s done. The other thing it does, which is great, is as soon as I hit submit when my work is done I get paid. It’s crazy!

Well that part sounds pretty good.

It’s a huge pain in the ass to get paid as a freelancer. One of the clients I write for is Marriott Traveler. They have a content arm and they commission a bunch of stories, and Contently is the system they use to manage those commissions. I get an email from my editor and it says we just assigned you this story on 5 Seattle Museums. I get a notification that says the story is ready, and I log in, type the story in the browser CMS, and I submit it to my editor. There’s messaging and editing tools in there. I see editors’ comments. When it’s done they accept it or send it back for changes. As soon as it’s been accepted I get paid. It’s awesome. It says your money’s ready.

When did you find out about the new fee?

This morning when I saw the thing come out I went to look and I had $800 waiting for me. I went and got it, and it transfers it to my PayPal account. I think that’s the only option. It’s unclear if I’m going to be charged by PayPal and Contently. What it said in their email was they would be taking 4.75% out at the time I took my money out. Today I would’ve lost nearly 5% of that $800. It’s basically on any transaction. Any time I get my money it costs me 4.75% less than I’ve been paid. It’s not clear what that 4.75%. is going for.

Do they take money from the brands too?

I don’t know, it’s not super transparent. I cannot tell you if Marriott pays Contently, say, $1000 and I get $350. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s some markup in there. What I know is my editor tells me how much I’m going to get paid, and that’s all I know. The editor says we’ll give you $400 and when I’m done I get it.

I certainly bet there is some markup. Is the editor working for Marriott or Contently?

I don’t know.

Who are some of the other brands you’ve worked for?

Bayer Health and a cruise line. I’m on the list for Hilton Honors.

Do the calls for work go out to a big group and it’s first come first serve?

Sometimes they go out to group and it’s first come first serve. In other cases they ask for people with specific knowledge of a topic. The story I did for the cruise company asked for people with knowledge of a specific region. I traded emails with the editor just like you would on a normal pitch.  

Do you have to use Contently to write for these brands?

In many cases I have long term editorial clients who I work with but I knew them before Contently. My Marriott editor I work with her through Contently now. I worked with her before she was with Marriott.

It’s not even like it’s this source of work, it’s just a format in which we’re interacting and our contacts were in place before we started using Contently. The matchmaking doesn’t take place inside Contently, we knew each other outside, just like any other time your editor changes jobs they email and say hey I’m at the Wall Street Journal now please pitch me there.

You can’t go behind their back to pitch them?

I don’t know. I never tried before since there didn’t seem to be a reason to. My first reaction was: If they’re going to take almost 5% can we just not use them?