Fritz Desir took people’s money for my workshop but he won’t pay me

Update (March 9 )— I received an initial payment from Fritz.

Update (May 6) — I received an additional payment from Fritz.

Update (June 17) — I received an additional payment from Fritz.

Update (July 5) — I received an additional payment from Fritz.

Update (March 28, 2017) — I received an additional payment from Fritz.

TL;DR

  • I taught a half-day workshop for the Delve conference in October
  • Five months later, Fritz Desir, Delve’s organizer hasn’t paid me
  • This is not an isolated incident and these are bad for the design community
  • We should stop keeping quiet when this type of thing happens and seek more transparency in how events are managed

I taught a sold-out workshop at Delve

In early October 2015, I led a half-day workshop about Designing for Unmet Needs. I was invited by Fritz Desir to teach this as part of his “Masterclass” at his Delve event.

Months before the workshop, Fritz and I negotiated the cost (a speaking fee plus my travel expenses), and he decided to put this workshop on as a separate half-day event and charge participants an additional cost to attend (the cost schedule is quite complicated).

After we nailed down the details I booked my flight and Fritz sent me the money for the airfare quickly. He had asked if he could pay the rest of my costs later and I had agreed. When October came, I flew to New York, checked into my hotel in Brooklyn and the next morning I got ready to walk over to the venue.

As the day broke, I began to see signs of chaos and disarray. There was an email that morning to all participants with the day’s schedule. The times were different than what was on the website and what was on my slide deck. Not only did I have 30 minutes less than I had planned for to get ready and get there, I had to open up my slide deck and make a number of edits so that the recurrent agenda slides would be consistent with the schedule. When I arrived, the room was jammed full of enthusiastic participants. More than sold out, it was oversold. Participants expected no more than 20 people, as did I. Perhaps any of us might have felt ripped off by that, but everyone came together to teach and learn, with a positive attitude. Although I was to lead a four-hour session, there was no place for my laptop, and as we discovered, only an LCD TV to show slides on. The venue brought in an old shelving unit that we adapted as a podium, and while we continued to sit in the crowded and sweltering room waiting for Fritz to give the go-ahead, I had to re-edit my slides to match the new time. I like to go into a talk feeling confident in my preparation, but last-minute changes to the schedule and facility can easily throw everyone off. But I dealt with it well, thanks in part to the motivation of the extra-large crowd. Everyone maintained a focus on the reason we were together and enthusiasm ruled the day.

The rhetoric of rip-off artists and scammers

After the workshop ended, Fritz was thrilled, and then advised me he’d need some time to wrap up the whole event (there were two days of talks still to come) before paying me, but offered to pay my hotel immediately and the fees by the end of the month. He has paid neither but at the time I thought that seemed reasonable as most events don’t hand speakers a check before they leave (notable exception being the UIE events).

And with that promise began a cycle of having the same conversation over and over again, with apologies, excuses, reassurances, deferments and then silence. If you’ve ever tried to get someone to pay you what they owe you, you’ll probably recognize this pattern

Steve: The deadline passed. I haven’t received the money you promised - and I haven’t heard from you.

Fritz: a) I’m sorry. I plan to pay you. I can’t pay you right now. b) Here’s why I can’t pay you (hardship story goes here). c) Here’s the new payment schedule: I’ll send you the first amount on…

This pattern played out consistently, over and over again. Each time, the date passed without ever getting even the first payment (only a drop in the bucket of what he owes). More telling was the lack of any proactive update. Fritz never reached out to me around the time of a due date (one that he entirely dictated) to let me know the status. I would wait for each deadline to approach and then pass, and then hope that I’d get a payment, or at least an update. But it was always silence.

In life, things go wrong, and people understand that. It’s how you approach making it right that reveals character. So I strove to be understanding with Fritz and accept his new dates. I wondered if I was being a chump but defaulted to trust over suspicion.

But soon came the next clue: the promise of a promissory note - a legal instrument that you can use in court to collect money. After months of this cycle, Fritz upped his game by producing a promissory note with the latest payment schedule. He didn’t sign it or have it notarized and of course did nothing by the this new deadline. When I followed up, he simply updated the promissory note and ignored my request to have that document executed.

There came an ineffable moment where I stepped away from my natural empathetic reaction, imagining Fritz’s economic struggles, how underqualified and thus overwhelmed he must be, or how he must be too embarrassed to reach out to me when he doesn’t have good news. You definitely know what that moment is from television. It’s that moment where a woman, talking to her best friend about her long-running love affair with a married man cries out “He’s never going to leave her, is he?” That realization is devastating because not only will we not get the thing that we want (me - to get paid, TV woman - a real relationship with this man) but through the normally admirable qualities of being understanding, we have enabled this person to take advantage of us. Fritz was not being honest. The apologies and pleas of hardship were a finely-honed tactic. Fritz actually had no intention of ever paying me and I’d been participating in a long scam.

This scam - promises made then ignored, then escalated only to be ignored again - is best depicted by the this Kids in the Hall sketch. It’s funny because it’s true and it’s terrible because it’s true.

What to do about all this

You can look at this as an issue between Fritz and Steve, and move on with your day. I’m hoping you’ll back me up because it feels like the right thing to do. You can also look at this as a larger issue impacting the way the design community gets together to share and learn - if we allow trust to be eroded, a lot of the benefits we derive will be at risk.

Here are my suggestions

  1. Don’t speak at Fritz’s events. Speaking at his events sanctions his behavior. Even if you aren’t exposing yourself financially (say, because you aren’t being paid), you should question whether you can trust him and consider the risks you are taking.
  2. Don’t attend Fritz’s events. We express our values with our wallets. While I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency between my loss and the profound suffering of others, we often discuss what not to support, because of ethical concerns (e.g., sweatshop labor, blood diamonds, Chick-Fil-A, etc.). Giving Fritz money and attending his events gives financial support to a dubious enterprise and endangers the livelihood of other people in the community.
  3. Do tell Fritz this isn’t acceptable. Fritz has positioned himself as someone who facilitates the UX community. But doing this hurts the UX community. If you paid Fritz money and he kept it instead of paying me as promised, you should let him know. (Hopefully it goes without saying that speaking out doesn’t mean the hateful scary shit that we see people doing online, it means being emphatic, direct, and clear, but not unkind.) - @fritzism, fritz@matestudio.co
  4. Do tell others. You can help reinforce the high standards traditionally displayed in the design community in terms of how events are run and how speakers are treated. After all, speakers make these events what they are. People who predate on others (in this or in any context) rely on our silence. Speaking out is embarrassing and hearing about it is uncomfortable and most of us don’t like confrontation. But tacit assent is still assent. 
    A related side: I hear from friends that a gigantic UX event owes a lot of people a lot of money and has perhaps suggested that talking about being ripped off will ensure they never get paid. Is that the kind of thing we want in our community? We have to talk about this. We’ll probably all still end up ripped off, but we have to talk about it or these people will continue to profit off our dedication, passion and hard work.
Legendarily ferocious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant fought and threatened to make sure his band wasn’t ripped off. Most of us don’t have a Richard Grant in our corner

For a community that likes to refer to its members as “rock stars” we might want to take a look at the original rock stars. The music industry, built on handshake deals, was notorious for ripping off artists. As the industry matured, artists and the people putting on events both changed their approach (like Van Halen’s “no brown M&Ms” contractual stipulation, a detail that served as proof that the document had actually been read and thus complied with). It may be time for the design community to establish new standards and best practices for events. Perhaps a greater level of transparency (for example, to more accurately distinguish volunteer-run community events from for-profit conferences) is one place to start. We may also want to give consideration to previously unthinkable terms such as payment up front, with the goal of protecting all parties. While this represents a change, and thus a loss, it’s time for all of us - people that speak at events, people that attend events and people that organize events - to have this conversation out in the open.

How else might we take steps to address this, both in this instance and more broadly and in the future?

Heartfelt thanks to the brilliant and kind people who gave input on an earlier draft of this article.