How I Ignored Every Rule Of Freelancing And Became the CTO of a Freelance Platform
It’s been two years since the most peculiar adventure of my life, that lasted seven months, has ended.
I’ve been dreaming about traveling around Asia ever since I first went to India in 2011. So, in summer 2016, when I saw the cheap tickets to Istanbul, I decided it was finally time.
I took off in September and been traveling Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India, Malaysia, and Hong Kong until April 2017.
In this post, I want to tell you about an adventure that’s happened to me in my last four months of my Asian voyage and taught me all the things about the clients who freelancers see in their nightmares. Buckle up!
Early December 2016
It’s been 3 months since the start of my journey. I’ve just run out of money and was supposed to go from India to Malaysia. Everything was going according to plan. I knew I was going to spend my savings in the first 3 months and had to find a freelance gig so I could travel off that.
And so, I take a train from Varkala to Kochi, Kerala state. The money I’ve got left is just enough for a bus to get from the airport to Kuala Lumpur.
I’ve almost finished with a small project, and I ask the client to pay at least part of the money so that I wouldn’t be completely broke throughout the first couple weeks in Malaysia.
I arrive at Kuala Lumpur and find a hostel where we make a deal with the staff: I’ll be giving concerts a few days a week in exchange for a free bed in a dormitory and breakfast consisting of fried eggs and jam on toast.
A few days later, I was sitting with my laptop on the hostel rooftop. A black-haired woman approached me and asked what was I doing. “Coding”— I said, — “I develop websites and mobile apps.”
“Oh!” – She says, “That’s exactly what I need! I’m looking for a developer who could make a couple of fixes on my website, and then I’ll need to develop an app”.
“Okay,”— I say, “No problem.”
She is 37. From Romania. Her name is Adriana, she is skinny, almost bony, has black hair. Her distinctive English accent sounds like a mix of Italian and Slavic. She tells me a story that led her to that exact hostel. She was on Penang Island in Malaysia, where a biker stole her purse along with all the money and credit cards. So now she had to issue a new card from her Singapore bank and wait for it here.
And she needed a developer because she was right in the middle of a legal process with an Australian agency she’s been working with for the past 5 months, that’s been charging her $10 000 a month but did nothing and only fed her with excuses. So now she’s suing them for the money and the moral damages.
She then provided me with all the accesses, and 15 minutes later I was done with the first, fairly simple, fixes. We agreed she could pay me by the hour.
We met 2 weeks after I came to Malaysia. But in 2 weeks I had to return to India. I’ve completely run out of cash and started using my credit money.
Early January 2017
I spent the whole month in India waiting for the first payment for the tasks I’ve completed and expecting additional info and accesses which I needed to start actively working. I wasn’t looking for any other projects, because Adriana was just about to send it all out and I didn’t want to take on too many overlapping projects.
During my last week in Varkala, Adriana has finally managed to buy the needed domains and new hosting, and I could start working. She’s been trying to send me a few hundred dollars, but it wouldn’t work. There always were some problems with Western Union.
My 30-day Indian visa was running out, so I decided to go back to Kuala Lumpur. My credit card debt was growing, and I assumed I could volunteer again in that same hostel and save a little. I wasn’t too happy spending the credit money.
Adriana sent me a ticket from Kochi to Kuala Lumpur the night before the flight, and I flew back to Malaysia. I settled at that same hostel and started volunteering just like I planned. From what Adriana explained, she had agreements with several airlines, including Air Asia, the one that issued a free ticket she sent me.
In about 5 days after my arrival, she finally managed to transfer $500 to my Payoneer account through her mom’s card. At last, I had money to return the debts to my friends and the bank.
I continued working on her projects, and we agreed I would work for her 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. She was supposed to pay me $1250 by the end of the month, of which I had already received $500 but was waiting for the remaining $750.
Adriana offered me to meet her business partner, Mo, who lived at the Penang island.
Mo was a very nice and friendly person. He was a Malaysian Chinese, a master of Chinese metaphysics — feng shui, BaZi, Qi Men and other arts he’s been practicing for 27 years while also running a successful business. In their with Adriana mutual business, he’s responsible for everything related to metaphysics, and Adriana does digital marketing.
When I came to Kuala Lumpur this time, she’d just found two more people to join the team: Max and Nati, a married couple from Argentina. Max and Nati worked as administrators at the same hostel I volunteered for. They’ve already spent a year there, and their visa was running out. They were looking for a job that would let them travel at the same time. So Adriana’s offer was an incredible opportunity for them. I felt pretty much the same way. Now, I could work and get a salary on a steady basis without being tied to any particular place.
Max took on the responsibilities of A’s travel website. I started to teach him how to work with WordPress.
I flew to Penang island again, met Adriana there, she paid for all three days of my stay at the hotel and other expenses, and introduced me to Mo. Every day I visited Mo at his house. He taught me the basics of Chinese metaphysic arts and showed how to calculate the BaZi tables. Mo made the best first impressions. He was 54, looked 35.
During my stay on the island, we talked over the new conditions of our cooperation and agreed on $1980 a month since my new responsibilities included not only the development but also teaching Max, finding the designers and front-end developers and pretty much the whole project management.
By the end of the month, I was supposed to receive $750 from Adriana that she owed me for the job I’d done in January and another $1980 for February.
While we still were on Penang, she said she went to Hong Kong a week ago to start a company to manage her travel business and to transfer the money from Singapore bank to Hong Kong. So there shouldn’t be any problems or delays with the payments.
I returned to Kuala Lumpur alone to continue working on the projects. Adriana stayed on Penang.
And so, I’m back to Kuala Lumpur, working. Adriana also flies in. She says that her lawyer is coming from Singapore in a few days and he’s bringing $3000 for me. Great news, but in three weeks since he’d arrived to Malaysia he can’t manage to find the time to get to our hostel because of a million reasons.
One day he’s too busy at the court because he’s working on a case for a wealthy client who wanted to commit suicide, and that’s why the process goes on until late at night. One of these days Adriana shows up. She’s very emotional and shows me a Facebook message from her lawyer. He says he’s “in deep sh*t” and will explain everything later. I’m not happy about it at all and ask her to find a way to pay me the money she owed.
Her mom sends me $2500 from Romania via Western Union. I go to a Western Union branch to receive the money, but it turns out the tracking number Adriana gave me doesn’t exist. She calls the customer service, and they say that the money got blocked in Bucharest since her mom has already attempted several large transactions addressed to me and this time Romanian side got suspicious about why she’s been sending so much money to Malaysia.
Adriana tries to solve the problem and unblock the transaction but gets no luck. Nervous, I again ask her to figure something out because I never got the money neither from her lawyer nor from her mom. She asks her cousin — a doctor who lives in London — to transfer the funds with Moneygram. He sends the money, this time she’s supposed to be the recipient. We go to the Moneygram office, but they ask us to come back later. Next day, they can’t find the tracking number. It’s changed due to a phishing danger. Now, the money coming through 3 different channels are just hanging in the air.
My 30-day permit to stay in Malaysia is almost over. Adriana says that there is a possibility the money in Bucharest may release. But I’m the only one who’d be able to receive them. I decide to wait another day realizing that I’m basically breaking the law. I google Malaysian regulations along with some stories of other travelers who’ve overstayed too, and figure nothing that bad will happen in 1 day.
I’ve found the information that in case of overstaying for up to 7 days, I’ll just have to pay a fine of 30 ringgit ($8) for each day of the overstay. But if I stay longer than that, there is a good chance I can end up in prison for 5 years. Well, 1 day, isn’t gonna hurt anyone.
My former colleague, Svitlana, comes to Kuala Lumpur and settles at the same hostel. Svitlana is a front-end developer, and she’s a perfect match for one of Adriana’s project I’m working on, so I introduce them.
March 10th, 2017
My 5th day of overstay. Morning.
I can hardly keep calm. I’m almost completely out of money. I’ve emptied down my credit card. And I have to leave Malaysia immediately. I have barely enough money to get to the airport and pay the fee.
I tell Adriana I can’t wait any longer and that I’m leaving. She says “Okay, sure,” and offers me to go to Hong Kong where I can get the money she’s already transferred there from Singapore. She says she’ll settle everything over the phone, so I could go to the bank and withdraw $7000, for her and myself. I agree, of course, but ask her to get a ticket to Hong Kong for me. She says “No problem,” and sends a message to her friend Katrin who usually arranges all the tickets for her.
According to what she’s said and her Facebook feed, in my 35 days in Malaysia, Adriana has traveled to three different countries:
- Hong Kong where she starts a company and gets an account at Citibank.
- Afghanistan to meet with the representatives of Ariana Airlines, and manages to do the round-trip in 24 hours. She posts awesome pictures on Facebook.
- The Maldives, where she signs an agreement with the local airlines.
Three hours before the flight to Hong Kong
I still don’t have a ticket. We’re in the hall of the Birdnest guesthouse. I’m sitting at the table with Max, Nati, and Adriana She’s stressed out and trying to figure out the situation with the ticket. I can’t wait. I say that I’m leaving now because the road to the airport will take another hour and I hope that while I’ll be on my way, the problem will be solved. Max lends me 250 ringgits, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
I arrive at the airport. One and a half hours before the flight, still no ticket. I have a plan B — my old credit card issued by a Ukrainian bank with a damaged magnetic stripe, which I can’t use to withdraw cash but still can purchase online. I decide to get the ticket online, but it turns out they stop online sales 2 hours before the flight. My only option is to buy the ticket at the registry, but I don’t have enough money on my primary credit card. I text Svitlana and ask to borrow $110, I have another $50 left, so that should be enough. I go to the cashier and they ask me to show the return ticket because if they sell me a ticket to Hong Kong without a return flight, they can get fired. Sh*t!
I nervously text Adriana. She makes a fake return flight reservation through Expedia and asks Max to send it to me. I show this ticker to the cashier. It worked. They sell me a ticket to Hong Kong. Half an hour before the flight.
I run to the customs — a line. Time flies by and waiting seems to take forever. My turn, I go to the inspector. He looks at my passport, then at me and asks: “What are you doing here? You’ve been here for 35 days instead of 30”.
I tell him I’ve been waiting for the money and couldn’t leave, and that’s how I got the overstay. I try to explain the situation, but he is not convinced. “Let’s go to the boss,” he says.
We come to his boss’s office. He says to sit and wait while he’s doing something on the computer. I say I can be late for the flight, and he responds that it’s my fault. In 5-10 minutes he tells me to write an explanation on why I’ve overstayed. Asks why my name is Anvar. I say my dad was from Uzbekistan.
– Muslim? – he asks.
He puts a stamp on my passport, writes something there but doesn’t make me pay the fee.
20 minutes before the flight.
I run to the gate. I made it.
Adriana made a reservation in a Hong Kong hotel for me in the morning and promised to pay for my stay. When I arrived, it turned out the payment didn’t go through, so I had to pay with what was left from my own money.
I arrived on Friday night and was supposed to get a call from Adriana in the morning and go to the bank to receive the money. After that, I had to meet her, Max and Nati at Dubai Airport and go to the Maldives to focus on the project since the deadlines were close.
Saturday morning. I woke up at 7 a.m. so I wouldn’t miss the phone call. I spent the whole morning texting back and forth with Adriana. She says the bank needs some additional papers from her, and after they get them, I can go and take the money. Everything’s postponed till Monday. I am shocked and need to scrape some money to get through until Monday. My tiny hotel room costs $34 per night, other $10-12 I’ll need to buy food and water.
I message my friends Alex and Nastia, and borrow again. My debt at this point is around $1500.
Adriana texts Svitlana behind my back and asks her to borrow me $200. Says she’ll give them back tomorrow. I am so mad at her. I apologize to Svitlana and tell her not to worry. If anything happens, I’ll return the money myself.
Adriana also asks some American friend to send me the money through Western Union. But the attempt is unfortunate. Her friend doesn’t send the money. On Monday everything delays until the next day again. The same thing repeats until Friday. On Friday I realize I’ll have to wait till Monday again.
This week, some friend of A’s from Italy sends me a Moneygram transfer from Italy, 210 euros. I send $70 to Max and Nati so they’d have what to eat. They still haven’t received the money. Not from the lawyer, nor from mom, nor the doctor-cousin from London.
In Hong Kong money disappear in a blink of an eye. Everything is expensive. It’s already the second week of my stay in Hong Kong.
The day comes. I check out from the hotel and go to the bank with all my belongings. I wait for Megan, a bank employee. I will have to sign the papers, get the money and go to the airport to fly to Dubai where I’m supposed to meet the rest of the team.
The beginning of the second week in Hong Kong
I come to the bank a little early and decide to grab lunch. In the meanwhile, I get a message from Adriana. She asks me to arrive at the bank 30 minutes later. I go to the bank, wait for another 30 minutes and text her asking when will someone meet me. I go to the nearest park, play my guitar for another half an hour and go back to the entrance. Another half an hour later, I go to another park, come back, no one is there. Four hours later no one showed up. I am furious. I go back to the hotel and check back in.
My second week in Hong Kong is passing. The bank is delaying the meeting. I have no idea what’s going on and what to do next. I have to leave Hong Kong because the visa here is for 14 days only. I have just enough money for a ferry to Macau and back, but I get the lifesaving $100 from Google Adsense. Now I have enough for the visa-run and to get through another couple days. I successfully cross the border and return. I don’t take anything with me, leaving everything in my hotel room.
The beginning of the third week. 11 a.m.
I am at McDonald’s drinking coffee, scrolling through my Facebook feed. I see a post written by a girl who used to volunteer at the hostel with me, Lucy. She writes that there is a woman who’s been living at the hostel for a couple of months now without paying. That she pretends to be a tough businesswoman, hired a few people (Max, Nati and me) to work for her but doesn’t pay them, so those people (us) are in limbo. Also, she writes, that woman makes fake posts about her traveling. Lucy’s friend has calculated that it was impossible to fly to Kabul and back as fast as that woman presents on her Facebook page. Also, he discovered, the photo of her wearing a bursa she posted, wasn’t real. And he had found the original.
Lucy mentions Adriana’s friend — Katrin and says she’s nothing but a fake account that has been liking and commenting all of the posts Adriana’s made.
After I see Lucy’s post, I check some of the latest posts on Adriana’s Facebook page, and see for myself: she got all of her pictures from the internet. Lucy was right. Everything was fake.
I realize now that there is almost zero chance I’m getting paid in the end. At that point, Adriana owes me $4350, and my debt is about to cross a $2000 line.
I also think that, most likely, I’ll have to return to Ukraine now and find a 9-to-5 job to work to pay out all the debts.
What else I realize is that now when I know what’s been happening, I’m curious about what happens next. So I come up with another plan: to buy music equipment and try making money off music. In Hong Kong, it may be a profitable idea. And, in case it doesn’t work out, I could always sell the equipment in Ukraine for the same money I spent here, and pay the debt off.
I text Adriana and tell her that I’m sorry but I have to go back home to handle my debts, and I can’t wait any longer. She calls me back (which was weird), says I’ll get the money on Friday, and I agree. But, in the meanwhile, I decide to check out my new plan in action.
March 24th, 2017
I message my friend Sasha from Kyiv and ask him to borrow $700 to buy music equipment. I also borrow $500 from my aunt to purchase a ticket home if nothing works out.
I receive the money and go to a music store where I purchase a guitar amp, a microphone, a mic stand and all the cords I needed, and the very same night I go to play in an underpass in Tsim Sha Tsui district. I make around $20 in the first hour. Not enough to live off that, but still something, so I feel a little more motivated.
Next day I made $45 and got the hope that under these conditions I could manage to make a living and even pay off the debts. Although, I’ve calculated that I need to make at least $100 a day to do that.
It’s Friday. Traditionally, Adriana asks me to wait until Monday. She says she’s coming to Hong Kong to solve the issues with the bank herself. I agree but tell her I’m not doing any more work on the project until I get the money. I still play guitar on the streets. I’ve been playing for 5 days now. In total, I’ve made $120 so far.
March 28th, 2017
Monday. Adriana messages me and says she’s arrived and is heading from the airport right to the bank. As soon as she’s done there, we’ll meet and head to the airport. From there, we’ll go back to Kuala Lumpur to meet Max and Nati and, finally, go to the Maldives together.
That day, except for playing on the streets, I dedicate all my time to a detailed analysis of everything connected to Adriana. I feel like in a cyberpunk movie.
I’m in a 7-million people Asian megapolis, the district I’m in looks a Babylon inhibited by Chinese, Indian, Arab, African, Philippine and European people. I’m in a tiny cold room on the 10th floor. I’ve got no money, but the internet connection is super-fast, and I’m on my laptop, collecting all the data I can get on someone who appears to be not what they’ve pretended. I analyze her Facebook feed, personal messages, photos, flights, and accounts that have liked and commented on her posts the most.
After 2 hours of research, here’s what I’ve found:
- Almost every photo from Adriana’s Facebook page related to traveling was stolen from somewhere online and cropped a little so that it wouldn’t show up in automatic Google image search. But if you scroll down the page and look through the results manually, it can still be found.
- When she was supposedly traveling from Kabul, she posted on her Facebook page she was departing, and 3 hours later texted me she’d already arrived at Kuala Lumpur. A direct flight takes 6 hours. She said she had a joint flight through Pakistan which would have taken her 9-11 hours. Meaning, she didn’t go to Afghanistan.
- I make an assumption she didn’t go to the Maldives and Hong Kong either but I can’t find proof. Maybe only some fake pictures from those trips.
- Three of her besties on Facebook are fakes. Two of them have joined Facebook on the same date. None of them have any posts other than those in which they’re with Adriana. They all have the same writing style. They all like and comment every Adriana’s post and sing praises to her, which mostly sound like this: “you’re the best boss,” “way to go,” “show them what you’ve got.”
- One of these fake accounts is her lawyer who’s been trying to deliver me money from Singapore for three weeks and never got to me. I find the real person from his profile photo on LinkedIn — an underground Japanese director. The fake has the director’s last name, and his first name is a woman’s name.
- Another fake person is Katrin, A’s friend who’s been getting her the flight tickets but couldn’t get me a ticket to Hong Kong. Now I get why.
- The third fake was ripped off some Japanese actor.
Now I doubt A’s mother ever sent money through Western Union, and cousin tried to transferred anything through Moneygram. Most likely, if Adriana didn’t really go to Hong Kong, she doesn’t have a bank account here, and my illegal overstay in Malaysia was all for nothing. And my 3-week stay in Hong Kong and my debt that grows each day don’t make any sense either.
I can’t express how angry I was when the reality of this whole story hit me. The thing I couldn’t understand the most: why was she doing this and what was she trying to achieve? My work was only 50% finished, she can’t make money off me, why bother?
I read about pathological liars, and that this might be a sign of schizophrenia. My brain at this point finds more and more clues to justify this theory: how aggressive and sometimes even hysteric she was, how mean she was to people, and especially the staff, and all her rants about how she had a mission to change the world. I also remember she said her arm was numb, which can also be one of the symptoms. I also add up all her fake accounts to the equation and imagine how she talks to herself using all four of her profiles. It gets scary.
I decide to share all of my discoveries with Max and Nati. They are still at the hostel in Kuala Lumpur. They add up some facts to the picture and confess they’ve been having similar thoughts but didn’t want to look suspicious and were afraid to say something to me. Now, the three of us are convinced Adriana isn’t really in Hong Kong. We are trying to guess where she really is.
Max thinks Adriana will pay us because the day before she asked him to make a website for her business partner Mo. Also, Max believes she went to Mo to get the money for that website.
I still don’t believe I’ll receive the money, so I go to play on the streets again.
That night Adriana says that she’s solved the problem with money but she still needs to sign some papers, so tomorrow, on Tuesday, she’ll go to the bank again, first thing in the morning, and will get done with all the remaining issues. She’s lying. We’re 99% sure at this point: she wasn’t in Hong Kong. But we don’t have proofs yet.
March 29th, 2017
Tuesday morning. I wake up angry and annoyed at myself for letting this go so far, and getting into such trouble with a possibly unstable person. I take a shower, and I get an idea: to use her IP-address to figure out her physical location. I still have access to all of her websites, so I code a script and place it on one of her websites.
On Friday I told her I wouldn’t be working on her projects until I get the money but now I need her to go to the website so I could catch her visit. I need to somehow lead her to that. So I make a minor change to the project and make sure it causes an error to grab her attention. I text her I’ve fixed something on the website and ask her to take a look. She notices the mistake and texts me back. She swallowed the bait. I’ve got her IP, OS version and all of her browser parameters.
According to her IP-address, she’s on Penang island. Max was right.
Tuesday afternoon. Adriana messages me she’s dealt with the problem and sends me a ticket to Kuala Lumpur. She tells me to take a flight, and she’ll come a little later. Okay, I don’t care which city I’ll be flying from back home. So I pack my bags really fast, check out from the hotel, and spend my last $30 to get a cab to the airport.
March 30th, 2017
Early Wednesday morning.
I arrive at Kuala Lumpur and get stuck at the customs. The inspector takes me to his boss because I have a mark about overstay 3 weeks ago in my passport. Before that Adriana told me once she’s talked to her friend from the migration office and he told her I wouldn’t have any issues if I come to Malaysia again. Here it is.
The boss asks me what I’m doing in Malaysia again, and I tell him I’ll be flying to Kyiv from here. Where’s my ticket? I don’t have one yet. He says to buy the ticket and show it to him, so I go online and buy the ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Kyiv in 5 days. I show him the ticket, and they let me in.
I arrive at the hostel around 2 a.m. Adriana’s already there. I ask her how she managed to get here so fast.
“You were still at the bank when I was getting on the plane.” – I say.
“Oh, that’s one hell of a story, had to take a joint flight from Bangkok. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.”
“Ok,” – I say. I don’t show her I know she was on Penang island.
Next morning she gathers everyone on the rooftop and pays us. I’m shocked because I get everything she owes me including the $200 she borrowed from Svitlana for me. Now I had utterly no idea what was going on. The only thing I understand is that everything around her was built on lies and that she probably got the money from Mo and promised him to make a website in return.
In a few days, I find out that British girl Lucy wrote her Facebook post for me to see it. But I wonder why didn’t she just write me a personal message.
Another girl says Adriana has also been offering her a job. But it turned out they had a mutual acquaintance who used to work with Adriana on TV back in Romania. She said that even then Adriana had some mental issues. This girl also says she had met a local journalist in India who used to write articles for A’s travel website and didn’t get the money and tickets to Bali she was promised.
In a few days, Adriana flies to Pakistan. But her IP-address shows she is in the nearby district of Kuala Lumpur.
April 4th, 2017
I’m back in Ukraine.
Since I left Malaysia, Adriana has been to Seychelles, Dubai, and Qatar. Again, her IP-address showed she was in that same district, or even in Chinatown which is very close to the hostel and where she could have been noticed by someone from the hostel.
She owes me money for Hong Kong. I tell her since she doesn’t transfer them, I won’t be doing any work. She calls me, cries on the phone and asks me how much would I need to finish the project (one of the most critical projects for Mo). I remind about the money she owes me for Hong Kong and say I’ll need $1000 on top of that. She agrees and tells me she’s gonna send a wire transfer.
It’s been 2 years since then. The transfer’s still pending.
Months after this story has ended, I’ve been offered an opportunity to become the CTO of CodingNinjas —a freelancing platform for vetted developers, that ensures that both sides of the client-freelancer relationship are happy and protected from the series of unfortunate events such as the ones I’ve had a chance to go through.
And I took this job. Because I believe that despite many unreliable people you meet throughout your career, one trustworthy partner can be enough to change the way you do things. And that’s what our team strives for:
- we vet and test every developer who applies to join our network
- we debrief every project with the client and provide the estimates
- we handpick developers for every project to ensure their skillset and availability matches the clients’ requirements
- we ensure that the initial orders have all the necessary details
- we keep in touch with developers throughout the projects to make sure the deadlines are met
- our live support team actually helps with troubleshooting
My advice if you don’t want to find yourself working with people who don’t keep their promises?
Choose a reliable partner.
and be the first to know it all
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