Some of my regular readers are aware that I’ve got a side project going. I’d like to write today about some of the (learning) experiences that my business partners and I are having in this crazy entrepreneurship adventure and try to come up with a few lessons learned.
Our latest episode comes out of a point of contention where a client thought we were going to (or would be able to) deliver a certain functionality in our final product, despite the fact that it was not in the proposal (original or revised). The client had mentioned it in passing in a single email, and again on the phone, both times we were quick to dismiss it as outside both our expertise and our proposal’s scope.
Despite our instance, however, it has come up again, this time with the caveat of “and that’s why I chose you guys.” This is likely not true (mostly because it’s not even in our proposal), but it does mean that we’re not living up to our client’s expectations – even if they might be unrealistic.
The challenge then becomes being able to balance the reality of your contract/skills/ability/deliverables, and your desire to keep your client happy. Especially as you’re just starting out, the desire to keep the client happy can be overwhelming – it’s much easier to say “Yeah, we can do that,” than admit that you don’t know how to do it, it’s not in the contract, and it would cost extra even if you could. But that’s business! Striking that balance is definitely a learned skill, and something that comes from experience. This is just the first time of many client issues, I’m sure.
Here are a few other things that this experience has taught me:
- Put it in writing. A contract, typically done based on the accepted proposal, and hopefully including some sort of work breakdown structure, is better for everyone. These can be tough to put together initially, but are really in everyone’s best interest. Plus, once you have one put together, it’s relatively easy to re-work it for similar clients/projects.
- Incorporate ASAP. There’s a reason that people seek the legal protections offered by an LLC, or other incorporated entity – they don’t want to get personally sued because of a business dispute. Once you reach the point where a wrong step could wipe you out financially – i.e. this contract is bigger than my savings account – incorporate. There are some fees and responsibilities associated with this step, but they are well worth the protection that they can offer you and your company.
- Communicate. Many problems arise out of a simple miscommunication. When you realize that you and your client aren’t on the same page, communicate this fact in the quickest and most professional way possible. Here’s a huge hint: this is typically not by email. Phone is good, but in-person is best. The dialogue that can take place on a voice-to-voice level will get more done than any email when it comes to communicating about a problem. There are, however, a few exceptions, including anytime you’d like to have the conversation in writing for the future. If you’re to the point where you’re worried about keeping it in writing, however, you’ve probably already lost the battle are may be better served by looking for an exit strategy.
- Be realistic. Obviously, this becomes easier as your company becomes more established, but being realistic, up-front, and transparent in your dealings makes finding success much easier. As a new venture, clients are either trying to put one over on you or simply unaware of your limitations – it’s your job to let them know. Nobody would ask Microsoft to build them an airplane, and conversely, nobody would want Boeing to build their operating system. Don’t let the client put you into a position where you can’t deliver – then nobody wins. Be up-front early, and head-off anything with this potential.