Why I'm grumpy today

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.