A life experience that I could have skipped

I’ve worked in the public relations industry since 1982, in my own consulting firm since 1991. I guess I’m lucky that until this past year, I’ve never had a serious problem with either a client or a vendor.

That has changed. I’ve been locked in a dispute with a web programmer that I hired to create a personal business (a fun website) since the beginning of the year.

One of my attorney friends has told me that everyone needs to live through a lawsuit once. That it’s part of life’s essential experiences. I must say that while this hasn’t progressed quite that far, it’s something I could have easily lived without!

I’ve always thought of myself as a fair person. I try to give my clients good value for their money and, if I sometimes underestimate the difficulty of a particular job, I live with it. When I’ve hired people for client work I’ve also tried to be fair. Many times I’ve gone back to clients and asked for more money when I’ve seen how hard people have worked on their behalf.

For several years I dreamed about building a website that would let me turn a favorite hobby into a small business. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest so I chose to hire a local web programmer who was known to several of my colleagues. He hadn’t built a site exactly like I wanted (it is a database driven site, so not as simple as a standard site), but he expressed his desire to expand his capabilities and collaborate with me on the development.

We agreed to proceed in phases. Each phase had a budget which was submitted to me in writing. I approved it. If something changed, he sent me an updated budget to discuss. This system worked fine.

Until it didn’t.

When we started the fourth phase of the project he gave me an estimate that gave me pause. It was considerably more money than I had anticipated and more than he’d originally told me I’d have to spend. We discussed it at length. He explained why he felt this phase of the work would be so expensive and eventually I agreed. The phase took several months to complete. There were frustrations when essential functions (such as search) just weren’t working the way they were supposed to.

Finally, those problems seemed to be solved. I started to talk to him about the final phase. The one that would turn my dream site into a real viable site.

Then I got a new invoice from him for the just completed phase. The amount was more than twice what I had agreed to pay. I was — and still am — stunned that someone, especially someone with whom I worked for a year, would send me an invoice for what represented more than 100 hours of his time without ever discussing it with me. I consider the work to have been part of the scope of the project. It was programming. Something that could have been outsourced to India and done for a pittance. Had he come to me and explained that he was having problems that he would charge me for . . . I could have taken control of the project and decided what it was worth to me. Instead, he said nothing. He simply handed me a bill.

I paid what I had agreed to pay. I even offered to pay 15% of the overage. It didn’t satisfy him and so far I’ve gotten no satisfaction, either. In fact, I’ve gotten the everything but. Every month I’ve received letters trying to intimidate me into paying the overage and demanding interest on funds (not) owed. I’ve been threatened that I’ll be liable for attorneys fees, collections fees, etc. I’ve received a letter from a collection agency. I’ve learned that despite the exorbitant overages (that I haven’t paid) and the amount of money that I paid, I was left with a website that was rife with errors . . . that I’ve needed to pay another firm to fix the problems. At that time I discovered that many of the changes I’d been told were not possible were indeed just simple programming. They’ve been fixed for a relative pittance.

By a professional.

I am embarrassed that after so many years of evaluating vendors that I so badly miscalculated on the skill and integrity of someone who was supposed to work on my own project, the one that I cared the most about.

I’ve looked at the laws in Massachusetts and am contemplating whether it’s worth the emotional energy and the additional funds to consider a suit against him. I’ve gone through the exercise of consulting a lawyer and am fully aware of how quickly legal fees would add up. Mostly now I want him to go away. I want to put my project aside until I can look at it without feeling betrayed. I’d like to get my dream back.

Anyone in the Boston area who would like to avoid the problems that I encountered are welcome to contact me so that I can share the name of person with whom I am in dispute.

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