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Client asking for the impossible for next to no money

First and foremost, I take responsibility for whatever part of this is my fault.  I have been doing this for 20 years and should know better by now.
EDITED TO ADD: I like this guy and I really do want to help him. I just think the situation is not good.

Client posted flat rate job saying that he wanted a site "moved to a new server" as a "test to see if the person knew what they were doing" and offered a small flat rate payment.  I negotiated him up slightly and agreed to help him.  I wasn't too worried because as I said, been doing this 20 years and pretty good at it by now.
Fast forward to reality, turns out this is a severely aging site with dozens and dozens of VERY LONG PERL CGI FILES, referencing text files and etc, a real nightmare, and it would take literally 100 hours or more to even begin to rewrite everything to work in a new environment.
I try talking to the client and even more concerning, his end client doesn't want to reengineer the site in PHP but wants to "fix" the PERL site.  Literally, this live site takes almost a minute to load.  I could go on but you get the picture.
How can I handle this situation without getting negative feedback - is it fair for him to refuse to pay me a dime because I couldn't do the impossible? I've put in over 25 hours on this and not seen a penny.
Community Member

Kristina, you're between a rock and a hard place so you have my sympathy, but I've done a few website migrations myself, and before I accept such an assignment, I'll request the url of the existing site and details of the new server from the client, to avoid unpleasant surprises if possible. I don't know anything about your client, except that it sounds like he's a middle man since you mentioned his 'end client'. Whether it's fair or not, he's within his rights to cancel the project, in which case you get paid zip but there won't be any negative public feedback visible, although he could still leave negative private feedback, OR, he could give you a token payment and leave you negative public feedback. Either way, you don't want this to continue, so let him know you're unable to complete the job, and let him decide what to do, or if he won't take no for an answer, then maybe there's no recourse but to cancel the job yourself.

"No good deed goes unpunished." -- Clare Boothe Luce
Community Member

@Kristina A wrote:


First and foremost, I take responsibility for whatever part of this is my fault.  I have been doing this for 20 years and should know better by now.

 I'm guessing you forgot to make initial assessment on the site that needs to be moved...


@Kristina A wrote:


is it fair for him to refuse to pay me a dime because I couldn't do the impossible?

I think it's fair, honestly.

If you were able to assess the site, I believe you would have never agreed to do "the impossible".


@Kristina A wrote:


How can I handle this situation without getting negative feedback

I think admitting to the client that you made a mistake and didn't realize the difficulty of this "test" would be a good start. Client's feedback is still up in the air though.

Community Member

By not re-engineering the site, this client is wasting his time, wasting the freelancer's time, and wasting the time of the would-be visitors to his site.


If the site takes a minute to load because it is generated from slow PERL scripts and text files, who is going to want to use it?


The site could be re-done with LAMP (PHP/MySQL) and it could be a fast, pleasant experience for visitors.


re: "I've put in over 25 hours on this and not seen a penny."


Well, that makes no sense, as you already realize.


That is why freelancers should ALWAYS insist on receiving the input files before agreeing to a fixed-price contract.


I NEVER accept a fixed-price contract before receiving and reviewing all input files.

This is exactly what I suggested - to redo in PHP



This client is ultimately going to need to pay the price for his own mistakes.


But you should think of yourself.

Working 25 hours for no pay makes no sense. Continuing to work for no pay makes even less sense.


If this is a fixed-price contract, you should have ended the contract a long time ago.


In a last ditch effort to get paid, you could tell you client something like this:


"Brian, as you know, your site is large and complex. I have put over 25 hours into this. I am willing to continue working on the project, but I need to get paid for the work I have done so far. If you will release payment of the funded amount as compensation for the work done so far, I will be able to continue working on the project. Or we could close the contract with a full refund and you will pay nothing. The choice is yours. Let me know either way."


If the client does NOT respond to this, then you will use the official green submit button to submit your work (or a textual explanation of the work you have provided to him already). If the client never responds to this, you will receive full payment.


If the client does respond to ask for more work, you will close the contract, with a full refund.

If the client does respond, and decides to pay you the funded amount, then will you will graciously express your gratitude. Then you will close the contract, explaining that you will be able to continue with a new contract after this first contract has concluded completely. Then you will wait until the client provides feedback.


If the feedback is positive, then you will offer to continue working on the project using an hourly contract.




No more fixed-price contracts with this client.


If the client hires you using an hourly contract, you will continue to explain why he should re-do his site using PHP and an actual back-end database. This is something you will do for his sake, to help him. Because continuing to migrate the site in its current format wastes his time and money.


If the feedback is not positive, then you will block the client using your Upwork messenger tool.

A responsible, professional, ethical client does not hire a freelancer under completely false pretenses, by wording a job offer in such a way as to deliberately obfuscate the nature of the project.

OK, and so can you clarify for me, if I cancel the project myself and receive no pay, he will not be able to leave feedback? I don’t actually know whether he would do that to me or not. But I did try to talk to him once already and he basically gave me the “you haven’t shown me anything I can use yet” and refused to release any payments. This was after about 15 hours of work.

Zero pay means no public feedback.

@Preston H wrote:
Zero pay means no public feedback.


Zero pay AND 0 feedback (public or private) usually has a significant negative effect on the JSS

Zero pay and bad private feedback always has a significant negative effect on the JSS.


Kristina's JSS is already very low... if this one goes belly up she'll likely drop below the "danger-line" so just giving her part of the picture is not fair.




Community Member

I don't have a vast freelancing history, but I encountered the same problem before, client convinced me to apply for a second job inline, which I was not so sure about and honestly did not wanted, what I did is I returned the money and excused myself, don't know if it was the right move, but at that time I thought it would be the best solution to solve this situation. Everything can happen and everyone can fail.