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How To Spot a Bad Project Head

Knowing When a Captain Will Sail Right into the Icebergs

As any media hopeful (i.e. writers, artists, animators, game programmers) might tell you, finding a project to work on helps your career. It gives you experience, pads your portfolio...and gets you used to the fact that not all teams stay together long enough to actually finish said project.

Teams fall apart for various reasons. It might have the stability of a kindergartner's art project. Life pulls a project under like a cinder block raft in the ocean. Creators slowly accept that the world just isn’t ready for a web series that can be described as “Game of Thrones with horrible, animal person sex...”

"No baby, it's cool. This just symbolizes humanity's innate savage nature...and maybe one or two of the creator's sexual fantasies."

This is sadly quite common. (Both teams falling apart and projects revolving around some traumatizing fetish or other. Welcome to the internet). However, as someone who had found herself on many a sinking ship, I can give you tips on how to spot one of the main reasons projects fail—a bad project head.

Red Flag #1: They don't look at your samples.

Let’s say you’re hiring a freelancer. If they have samples (and they should), you would look at them, right?

I mean, it’s not like you’re unprofessional and don’t care about making sure that said freelancer is the right fit for your project. That would mean that you might be putting your project at risk, thus—okay, I respect you enough to not heap on more sarcasm. You get where I’m going with this.

Any project head worth their salt would/should look at work samples, as that shows concern towards quality. Having no such concern can result in things such as loss of morale or distrust in the project head, ultimately jeopardizing a project’s lifespan.

"Meh. Looked at that writing sample for two seconds. Good enough."
And no, not looking at samples does not automatically denote unprofessionalism. They might pick you because your listed rate is very appealing to them and their budget woes. But even then, that doesn’t excuse a lack of concern in quality.

Red Flag #2: People Have a Tendency To Leave the Project

Yes, it is possible that some projects are merely unlucky and have revolving doors attached to their team line-up...

However, it’s also possible to be struck by lightning. Or win big on lottery scratch-offs. Or find a Walmart that’s as clean and happy as they are in commercials.

If the floors were scuffed to high heaven and employees had blank, tired eyes, I'd believe it.

Possible does not equal likely. If people have a tendency to jump ship, it’s likely because there’s an iceberg involved somehow, not because it looks like good swimming weather.

And yes, there are always other possible factors to consider; the workflow structure isn’t the best, other teammates are being disruptive, other projects look more gratifying, and so on. But here’s something else to consider: such problems can be things a good project head can fix. They could revise the way work is done, mediate on conflicts between teammates, and not have their project be as fun as a Slip 'N Slide made of sandpaper.

Red Flag #3: They Sound Shady/Delusional/So On

The internet brings more elephants in the room than a barrel of peanuts. One of said elephants being that not everyone online can be on the cover of Upstanding, Functional Person Monthly.

He doesn't spend his time arguing with teenagers online and he's not creepily-obsessed with some 1990s video game? He's a keeper!

Some are heading a scam rather than a project, some have an ego big enough to have its own zip code, some have a grasp on reality that's  slipperier than a lubricated fish, and they all can become a project head. Needless to say, these sort of people are hard to work with, and if not properly prepared, you can lose your sanity in the process.

This is a red flag that requires you to get your Google sleuth on. I’m not saying launch an investigation that would make the FBI look like slackers, but research can save you from buying a bulk box of aspirin down the road. As for what sort of things to look for:

  • Blog posts. Make sure that it’s written by them, and not someone else. Always consider the possibility of an uncredited ghostwriter; if you're afraid of this, try to find other things written by (as well as about) this potential project head.
  • Comments. How to they react to other people’s words? The comments to really look at are replies to criticism. Gold mines include project pages, social media, and crowdfunding pages.
  • Job Board Feedback. Please note that you should try to get both sides of the story of any given project head; it's very possible that a disgruntled freelancer could talk some undeserved smack. Also consider the possibility that people might only be giving good feedback out of fear they won't be paid.

Red Flag #4: They don't take the project seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, reader. Being laid-back is a virtue for project heads, right next to remembering your birthday and making pop culture references. But like making pop culture references, it can be overdone to the point of wanting to jam something into the person’s mouth before they utter one more dank meme.

If a project head is too laid-back or doesn’t have anything that at least vaguely resembles a plan, it could endanger a project’s morale, progress, and even livelihood. I’ve seen projects fall apart because the project head’s idea of management skills was using emotes and being LOL so random!!!!!

YOU: "Can I take a look at your design document?"

THEM: "dont u mean 'i can haz design doc?! XD lol"

A project head can be chill, but they must also have a plan and actual intention to see the project through. Otherwise, you might be wasting time that you could've spent on another project. What's more, it's very taxing to try to work with people who care more about cracking jokes than your job.

But how does one determine the seriousness of your project head? Aside from looking at the things listed in the previous red flag, looking at the job ad itself could save you headaches. Look out for:

  • Typos. If they don't have the time to seem professional, they might not be.
  • Them sounding like they don't know about the medium they're getting into. They might not know just what your job entails, let alone theirs.
  • They're new at this. Not the worst thing on the planet, but they might be using you to learn the ropes.
  • They're young. Also not inherently a bad thing, but young age could breed immaturity...

Be wary of the uncaring project head, lest they choke the life out of said project like a rogue necktie.

Red flag #5: They don't (or won't) discuss payment.

Like the facts of life, being paid is always an awkward thing to discuss, but it’s still a conversation that must be had. But unlike the facts of life, the consequences are worse than having to learn what sex is from whichever gym teacher had to teach sex ed that week.

...I have no words here.

I’m not saying go into the door screaming “WHERE’S MY MONEY?” There's a tact to this. Once you get a feel for the project, gently bring up any questions about payment. As for projects that belay payment until things like crowdfunding or revenue share kicks in, it’s still not unreasonable to discuss how you will be paid when that time comes.

Unless they only expect you to work for exposure (which they should mention as early as possible), any decent project head should remember that you aren't working for free. If they outright ignore, dodge, or get defensive about the subject, that's (very) rarely a good sign and could mean two things:

  1. They don't know how they're going to pay you. Not having this figured out could (literally) cost you in the future! Mind you, this does not include being paid in the future (i.e. future crowdfunding); only worry if the project head doesn't discuss payment at all.
  2. They're planning to rip you off. Scammers exist and they're the scum of the universe (right next to people who ride their bikes in the middle of the road). Go, go, go with your gut feeling!

Red Flag #6: They Want You To Work 24/7

Guess what, reader? Freelancing is still a job, and a job should come with time off. Because you have a life outside of work. Family, friends, your own projects, health issues that need addressing, hobbies that keep your sanity from snapping in half, thus causing you to go on a demented spree of some kind.

But some project heads don't get that. Some think that by buying your services, they can work you to an early, caffeine-soaked grave.

"I don't care if your kids forgot what you look like. That Adventure Time/Minions crossover fan comic isn't gonna draw itself."
Many of your clients will (hopefully) be wonderful people. Others though, are the stuff of your sweat-drenched nightmares. I don’t just mean doing things like “constantly whining” or “asking silly questions.” I mean “forgetting your basic human needs faster than you can say ‘Well someone’s been reading Dehumanizing Cult Tactics for Dummies.’” There are some project heads out there who will use you. They will bully you, manipulate you, lie to you...


While you might find yourself well into a project before seeing such a nasty side of your boss, a key sign to look out for is if they want you to work for them every waking hour of the week. If they don't accept that you need time to cool off, they don't accept that you're more than a living robot.

The worst client I've ever had, had this viewpoint, and I can tell you that you don't need that sort of pain in your already-stressful life. But that's another saga...

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