I’ll never undercut my own work for any client again.
While growing my design firm I’ve adopted the philosophy that digging in and bringing my A-game to every project is the best strategy for building a roster of quality clients willing to pay reasonable rates for excellent work. Getting up to speed with a new client always involves a significant investment of time needed to research their industry, corporate approach, and aesthetic. I’m glad to put in this kind of extra work because I know that demonstrating that I ‘get it’ ensures my new client will never go anywhere else. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I needed to carefully vet my potential clients before embarking on that initial investment, because some people just aren’t worth working for.
Not all opportunities are created equal
My firm focuses on information design, and we often create high-end infographics for clients who use content marketing. I had identified a growing company (let’s call them Interweb Consultants) with a consistent content marketing strategy that often used infographics in their messaging. I saw that their graphics could be vastly improved, so I pitched them, sharing our custom-made, richly researched pieces that have been so productive for our other clients.
The signs were there from the beginning
Interweb Consultants responded immediately that they liked our work — but they have been working with a design firm who will produce infographics at less than ½ of our price. They’d consider using us for a new brand they were launching if we were willing to drastically lower our rates. In return they’d give us a new infographic to design every week .
This kind of frequency would be HUGE for us, so I set aside the queasy feeling I got from severely lowering our price and went for a job that would provide a consistent stream of work over the next 12 months. My expectation was that once they saw how effective our higher quality product was, they’d eventually be willing to expand their budgets. But, I should have trusted my gut, because not everyone’s goals include producing great work.
I know that the minimum viable product (MVP) strategy, where only the bare requirements are fulfilled before launching, is gaining popularity in many industries. But in the design world, MVPs just don’t hold water, and producing less-than-excellent products goes against everything I believe in. My partner and I work with a range of budgets, driven by the understanding that we’ll grow with our clients, and our budgets will increase as our clients see an improved bottom line as a result of our work. But this plan only pays off if we hold fast to providing top-notch work no matter what. So I was caught off guard with Interweb Consultants when I realized that an MVP was the ultimate goal.
As I started on our first project together, one of the two principals of Interweb Consultants was immediately breathing down my neck for a quick turnaround, referring to their ‘other design firm’ like a veiled threat. And after providing a first draft before the agreed-upon deadline, I received unprofessional feedback a teenager might give – full of ‘LOL’s and ‘uglies’ – making me think, ‘Who are these people anyway?’
The answer was only a quick Google search away
Without revealing any names, I stumbled upon a recent article detailing how the two principals at Interweb Consultants claimed that spending over $150,000 on their individual wardrobes led to an instantaneous, massive sales increase for their consulting work, and over six figures of additional income per month. My direct contact at Interweb virtually chuckled about how this trick snowed people into closing expensive consulting deals, and that a fake-it-‘til-you-make-it philosophy had provided he and his partner with luxuries like a Lamborghini, $5500 velvet shoes, and NBA courtside seats.
I didn’t even get through the whole article before feeling the waves of nausea that comes from recognizing that I had made an enormous mistake. It had been a long time since I felt this taken advantage of at work, and I sat there stunned at the realization that the time I had spent away from my family on recent evenings and a whole weekend trying to impress these people was completely wasted.
They would never see the virtue of top-quality work when they apparently felt no need to provide it themselves.
Though I had invested a ton of uncompensated time already, it only took a quick conversation with my partner to decide to fire Interweb Consultants as a client and move on. I sent a quick note referencing the article I had seen, saying I no longer felt comfortable working for them, and that, in fact, their other designers would be a much better fit for their new brand.
Making sure your good work finds the right outlet can be worth waiting for, especially if your values don’t line up with those of who you’re working for.
Christina Empedocles is a personal finance blogger at Sm*artly, Art + Personal Finance, and co-founder of Crux Information Design.