Why I'm grumpy today

People who are effective at solving problems and making things better are doing valuable work. And nobody can long continue doing valuable work for free, or for stunted compensation, or in an atmosphere of toxicity and disrespect.

Wow. I haven’t been this grumpy about business in years.

It all started a few weeks ago when a mutual friend introduced me (virtually) to this fellow I’ll call Ben. Ben had a Project That Sucked. As you know, Projects can Suck in infinite different ways, and this one was considerably less sucky than most. Mainly, Ben’s client had been expecting a new commercial website that was a bit late already, and Ben’s PHP guy had just left for a cool new job out of town. And there wasn’t really that much to do to finish the site.

Ben got in touch with me about this just about a week ago.

It was one of those classic “90% done” issues. Seen it a thousand times. Shouldn’t be that hard.

Soap Opera. Long story short.

The whole story is full of back-and-forth, and if I told it all it would sound like a teen drama diary, so I’ll just get to the boxscore. Within a week’s time:

  • I’d spent a couple of hours examining the staging site to understand the Suck;
  • I’d conversed a little with the departing PHP Guy to know where some of the bodies were buried;
  • I’d gone back and forth a lot with Ben about the requirements; and
  • I’d given ballpark estimates of the time it would take to resolve each of those requirements.

Oh yeah, I also gave Ben a lot of information about what administrative bits could be safely taken out of my hands.

And I sent Ben a slightly customized version of this really short and simple “engagement letter” that I use in lieu of big complicated contracts.

We discussed fees, and I quickly discovered that Ben’s budget was a bit less than half of what’s normal in this class and region. But hey, it’s a friend of a friend, and I had some free time, so okay. And I was set to start as soon as I got that letter signed and faxed back. Ben was kind of in a hurry.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another

I suggested that in exchange for that really hefty discount, it would be cool if Ben agreed to pay invoices immediately rather than in ten days. It’s a really small company, it’s not like there’s any approval apparatus to speak of.

Oh, wait–it turns out that Ben can’t commit to any particular payment terms either. Could be a month, could be longer. (Which never would have come out had I not prompted it.)

And I had to ask three times about signing that two-page contract/letter.

Apparently that was over the top. Late yesterday came Ben’s three-word response:

We’re done here.

That’s funny, I have a two-word response. Heh.

Go ahead, take a look at the letter. What kind of person balks three times at signing something like that?

Why am I telling you this?

Because part of Making Your Project Not Suck is TANSTAAFL. As first stated in Heinlein’s classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress:

Anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless.

People who are effective at solving problems and making things better are doing valuable work. And nobody can long continue doing valuable work for free, or for stunted compensation, or in an atmosphere of toxicity and disrespect.

It might kind of work for you in the short term, but it’s totally unsustainable for a real business, or for an ongoing consultancy. To get, you gotta give.

It’s that simple.

Now I bet Ben will find someone else to finish up this last little bit of the website. From a technical point of view it isn’t that hard, and there are people who can do it a lot more cheaply than I care to. But! Corners will be cut. Documentation will be sparse or badly written. Security holes are likely. Version control may or may not be used effectively. The consultant may or may not be available for questions or fixes. And he will probably be out of business within a year or so when the economy picks up and better salaried jobs become available again. Or when she gives up trying to make a living doing sophisticated professional work on a nickel-and-dime basis.

Surely Ben will blame it on those greedy consultants.

When you insist on the lowest imaginable fees and attempt to guilt-trip your consultants into doing the non-coding part of it for free, you’re just extracting. You’re extracting the education, experience, energy, and resources of the very same people who have the power to help you succeed.

Just extracting doesn’t work.

It’s inherently unsustainable. At best you might pick up a short-term bargain, but it comes at the cost of depending on a provider who’s overworked, under-resourced, unavailable, and probably more than a little intimidated by you.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to do business. And it’s certainly no way to Make Your Project Not Suck.

19 thoughts on “Why I'm grumpy today”

  1. This was a terrific article. Do you feel better now that you vented? You have beautifully stated the problems that most workers have. Well done!

    I like to think there is a special place in Hell for people like Ben.

  2. Great post. It really is all about the value and having both sides recognize the value equation. I know people that are similar to “Ben” and always try to get something for nothing, but then get upset when someone tries to do the same thing to them. You have to live by the simple rules of:
    1. Treat others how you want to be treated.
    2. Set your price so you’re happy either way – from Gerald Weinberg “The Secrets of Consulting”

  3. Rob, I hope you’re not saying I tried to retaliate by getting something for nothing!

    On your other point, my man Kukral keeps saying it: If you cut your rates, people figure you’re “cheap.” I guess my point is that cheapness doesn’t even benefit the client.

  4. Excellent post. I think it is especially difficult when things are slow to hang tough on pricing, but it is very necessary. I always suggest to potential customers that I would be happy to reduce fees, but only if we are reducing the value as well (i.e. fewer features, etc.) But that is easier for me because I don’t charge hourly and I don’t provide hourly rates to people, even as a comparison point. Some people will focus on the rate because they want to feel like they are getting a good deal.

    Anyway, Kukral is right: if you charge hourly, don’t ever cut your rate (and certainly not by half!) You’re sending signals that you are cheap or desperate, and I’m quite sure neither is true.

  5. Hi Avonelle! You’ve spotted a weakness in the Projects That Suck[tm] concept: When the project already sucks, predicting the time/energy/effort to Make It Not Suck is often unrealistic. More so when much of the work is “clean this up.”

    For those, I do have to charge by the hour. I don’t see any other way.

    “Ben’s” resistance over signing an incredibly simple contract was the big red flag. I’ve done just a few true “handshake” deals over the years and have regretted every single one. Duh: if they won’t sign something there must be a reason for that.

  6. I totally get why you are charging hourly. I think both models are appropriate depending on the work.

    Yep, a big red flag. Smart and reasonable people are not unwilling to sign simple contracts. Which I agree is one of the reasons to provide one – it filters out the knuckleheads.

    I’ve always said, if I could just come up with a crazy detector, that would help me to identify all the bad customers up front, I’d make big bucks. In the meantime, customers who won’t sign simple agreements is a good one. I’d add: won’t agree to reasonable payment terms, expects you to work for free to see if it is “worth it”, and people who call at 10:00 pm without warning and with non-emergency items. Any other crazy detection signs?

    I know a freelancer who was chasing some business referred to him from another client. After he dropped the price twice, the customer still wouldn’t sign on because the freelancer was charging a fixed monthly rate, and they were focused on hourly. Of course, the freelancer had told them at the beginning they don’t do hourly, and after this customer dragged the process out for three weeks, was shocked that they weren’t willing to change their whole business model just for them. Gee, thanks for wasting my time, dude.

    Some people are just nutters. The goal should be to waste as little time on them as possible.

  7. I have a great follow-up to this story.

    I do not gamble, ever. I have a math degree. It just feels completely wrong. I won’t even buy lottery tickets. I’m famous around the neighborhood and family for never, ever buying raffle tickets no matter what cause.

    So this morning, my son–whose actual name, unfortunately, is Ben, and I’m sorry for the overlap here–anyway, I was doing the usual morning routine, picking Actual Ben up at his mother’s and driving him to St. Ed’s, and this is the last day for him to sell this big stack of raffle tickets.

    He had fourteen left, at $5 each.

    Now Actual Ben is, in fact, the sharpest tool in the shed. He’d previously pointed out to me that unsold tickets get added to his tuition, so mathematically it’s in my interest to buy them: “Some chance is better than no chance, right?” were his actual words.

    Fine. When he got into the car I gave him a check for $70. Note that this is the first time I have ever, ever bought a chance on anything. It’s a big deal to me.

    So all the way to Lakewood, on bumpy Cleveland streets, Actual Ben’s quietly sitting in the front passenger seat filling out all those little stubs with my name and address and phone number.

    (By now you’re surely wondering where the hell I’m going with this.)

    Around West 117th Street I finally asked, “Why didn’t you fill those out ahead of time?”

    Actual Ben replied, although I’m not quite sure of the wording, “It’s like you with that guy yesterday who wouldn’t sign the contract.”

    I am so proud of Actual Ben.

  8. There is certainly a special place in hell for people like [Pseudonymous] Ben. In fact that place is filled with people like [Pseudonymous] Ben and they are perpetually trying to take advantage of each other and never quite succeeding. The fear and frustration level must be extraordinary.

    Imagine having to spend eternity with people as awful or worse than you.

    Brrrh!

    Good article by the way, Mark.

    Wishing you a future filled with awesome clients who think you’re a rock star and treat you like one.

    Judy

  9. Mark,
    I was not trying to imply that you were trying to get something for nothing here at all. I was trying to say that people like Ben always think they deserve to get a “deal” or a break on whatever it is, but they are offended whenever someone tries to do the same thing to them. It is not at all what you were trying to do here as you were trying to help someone out and provide them with value (albeit at a lower rate than you normally charge). And to your point in your comment, if people don’t respect you, you’re not charging enough…..or conversely, if you don’t charge enough, people will never respect you.

    I just had a conversation about this with an accountant friend of mine that I could help some people with my spare time with accounting and financial help (an extra skill I have). He said the same thing that if I did it for free or didn’t charge a high enough fee then the people would never see/recognize the value of it.

  10. Funny thing is, Rob, I wasn’t trying to get anything special. Well, okay, you’re right–the zero-day terms is a little unusual. But as it turns out, Pseudonymous Ben wasn’t prepared to agree to 30-day or even 60-day terms, so that was moot.

    I’m not sure the relationship between fees and respect is linear or even monotonic.

    Avonelle, one of my really big red flags is… if you’re going out to lunch together, and he drives, it’s all start/stop, tailgating, that sort of thing. Actually, aggressive behavior of any kind (unless really called for by circumstances) is almost always a negative indicator.

    Harsh criticism of “the last guy” is a big one too. It’s one thing to say, “It didn’t work out, in my opinion for such and so reasons.” Quite another to insult that person or company.

    Along those lines, if they talk about lawsuits a lot. Yeah.

  11. Great story.

    It makes me wonder if the very reason this Ben fellow is in trouble in first place is due to his treating others the way he treated you before you got involved. The reason the original PHP guy may have left was because he was being underpaid, under-communicated with, and guess what – apparently he wasn’t under any kind of contract either (or was he salaried?), to be able to walk away with the job 90% done.

    Ben may get this project completed, but with his sort of work ethic his luck probably won’t last.

  12. I don’t know for a fact, Brian, but I think the “last guy” was not totally okay with how things were going either, although his direct motivation for leaving this project was a job offer out of town.

    And yes, I agree that this “Ben” is likely having similar problems with other projects–and wondering why reliable help is so darned hard to find.

    I don’t have the facts on this particular case either, but a pattern I see a lot is an employer or primary contractor lowballing a bid to get the work, and then pushing the lowballing down to the people who actually design, develop, implement, and test. Which is wrong. If you’re lowballing a project bid to get the work, that budget issue is your problem and your responsibility.

  13. My wife and I enjoy watching those “house flipping” videos on cable and yelling ourselves hoarse at the screen. It usually works like this.

    STEP ONE:
    “Flipper” gets five bids for their unrealistic plans, sketched on a wet napkin. Cheapest contractor gets the job without asking any questions at all. Work begins, stuff is torn apart, supplies (cheapest available) are ordered.

    STEP TWO:
    All forward progress ceases. Contractor nowhere to be seen. An occasional appearance is made by a guy in a bandanna eating a burrito on an upended paint can in the backyard, but communication is impossible without Rosetta Stones.

    STEP THREE:
    They bring in another contractor — this time without even a napkin plan, simply because HE’S THE ONLY GUY WHO CAN START THIS AFTERNOON. (Hint: Ask yourself why he’s not on another job.)

    STEP FOUR:
    Loop to step two and repeat.

    Some of my hints of trouble ahead:

    No real price objections or discussion at all (I’m not cheap)
    Everything goes through some “corporate office”
    Big problem in getting a solid deposit up front
    Won’t communicate in writing (email), only telephone
    Signs off on all major deliverables with no discussion at all
    Goes on and on about IP rights. (Usually hints they’ve been sued.)
    Can’t / won’t connect you with previous contractor for questions.
    Lots of long, meaningless conference calls for me to attend

  14. Hah! So true, “TechHerding” Dick.

    Another sign of a non-project project is when they swear they are doing the most amazing technical thing ever imagined. Sorry, no, you’re just not.

    I had one guy who insisted his new crypto system would take over the world if only I could implement it in code. I looked at the algorithm and said dude, all this does is take a lot more memory and processing power than necessary to crank out something like a 256-bit key. It was literally a calculator trick. (Of course I passed on that one.)

    People who are unrealistic about how awesome their idea is are rarely any more realistic about making solid plans and following through with them.

    I am totally hearing you on the conference calls! Oy!

  15. I once implemented a “one hour per week” limit on a client for conference calls. I don’t bill hourly, so I said that he could buy additional time in blocks of ten hours for an additional 10% on top of the additional budget. As I recall, the project was well over $30K.

    It was amazing how I suddenly could call in at the top of the hour, answer two questions, and disconnect to get back to work.

  16. On days when I’m just a little bit grumpy and want some righteous schadenfreude to go along with it, I check back on “Ben’s” site just to enjoy the fact that it’s still not done.

    Guess what? IT GOT DONE. Three years later.

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