Getting Paid—The Extreme Version

Jonathan Weber, The Big Money

Chris Evans, owner of a small finish-carpentry business in Bozeman, Mont., faced a problem that's all too common for small-business owners, especially in this economy: He'd done the work, but he hadn't gotten paid.

Since last October, he'd been owed about $20,000 by the developer of a troubled luxury second-home development in Big Sky called Spanish Peaks. He was on the brink of financial disaster.

business check

Finally, last week, he decided to try to shame the owner, Jim Dolan, into paying up. He called around to a bunch of other contractors who had been similarly stiffed, made some signs, and with his wife drove to the Spanish Peaks entrance and set up a picket.

By the next day, he had his money, with interest. "They were falling all over themselves to make sure I didn't show up over the weekend," Evans recounted.

Collecting what you are owed is, sadly, a time-consuming burden for many companies, and it can be a life-or-death problem when things are really tight. Sometimes, the people who owe you money are in the same position you are: They're waiting for someone else to pay them, and they just don't have the cash to pay you. (I've been in this position myself too many times; I appeal to my creditors for patience and understanding, and give them my personal word of honor that they'll get their money.)

Sometimes, though, people don't pay you because they think they can get away with it, and in those cases you sometimes have a few options.

Evans' tactic—public shaming—was effective in this case because the aura of luxury and exclusivity at a development like Spanish Peaks is quickly punctured if the help is not getting paid. In my experience, most wealthy people like to think of themselves as fair and generous and would be horrified by the idea that local tradesmen were put out of business in the service of their multimillion-dollar house.

If you're owed money by a business that depends on the goodwill of the rich, you should keep this in mind.

There are a few other methods that I've occasionally found to be effective. One is the simple personal appeal: If your client understands how critical it is for you to get paid right away, it might at least move you up a few rungs on his payment list. You might offer to take a partial payment now and the balance later or otherwise try to work with him if you think he's doing his best.

If the amount is small (a few thousand dollars or less, depending on the state) and you think you're getting jerked around, I've found that small-claims court can be effective. It's cheap and straightforward: If you have a signed contract, that's about all the judge generally cares about, and by seeking a little more (for your trouble) than you are technically owed you might be surprised how quickly people can come up with a check.

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For larger amounts, it's more difficult. It's almost impossible to mount a regular lawsuit for less than $10,000 or so, and the time and stress involved will probably be much more burdensome than you expect. In theory, if you're completely in the right you can get a judgment for legal fees in addition to what you're owed, but that's not automatic.  Most people I know who have filed lawsuits over money have come to regret it.

The best way to avoid these problems, of course, is to get payment upfront. That's not always possible, but we've found that most customers are at least amenable to giving a credit card number as backup. If you think the business you're dealing with is in trouble, insisting on at least partial payment in advance is only prudent.

The irony of a situation like Spanish Peaks is that the development does in fact have serious financial problems in the wake of the real estate meltdown. In fact, as a contractor or vendor, if you make it a policy not to work for any developer who might be in trouble, you might not have any work at all. So do your due diligence and make an informed assessment of the risk. And if all else fails, get those signs out.