Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line

Over the last year I’ve learned a lot about what it mean to be in business for yourself. I’ve dealt with attorneys, accountants and vendors. I’ve assumed the role of salesperson, strategist, customer support person, maintenance man and bill collector. I guess all of it goes with the territory of running a small business.

My biggest struggle has been where to draw the line when it comes to the proposal stage of the relationship.

A few months back I talked to a company about doing some contract work for them. They’re a smaller startup that needed a complete marketing strategy. They had no one in-house that had any idea how to proceed and they reached out to see if I could help them.

The first thing they wanted me to do was drive down to a Panera Bread in Pasadena (they didn’t have an office yet). Even though I live two hours away in Santa Barbara, I agreed to make the trip. I did think it was odd that they would insist on a face to face before we’d even had a phone call, but I went nonetheless. Once I arrived in Pasadena I learned I was one of two consultants they were interviewing that day and that their team would be rotating between us. I have to say it was unusual – a process that is normally staged in a corporate setting was unfolding in a Panera restaurant. Anyhoo…

After spending two and a half hours interviewing, I returned home to Santa Barbara feeling like I had nailed the meeting. I had met with four different members of their executive team and seemed to connect with each of them. They had asked me a variety of questions about my marketing philosophy and put forth some scenarios asking how I might tackle each of them. I felt like we were on our way to a great business relationship.

The following two weeks, I didn’t hear anything from them. I emailed a few times and finally heard back from the CEO. He told me that he was traveling for business and that someone from his team would be in touch regarding next steps. I waited another two weeks and never heard anything. Finally, I just gave up and assumed they had moved on. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that sometimes people just don’t move forward – sometimes it’s because of money, or conflicting organizational priorities or fear of taking that leap. Whatever the reason, I viewed it as DOA.

A few weeks ago I got an email saying that they were moving forward with the process and asked if I’d be willing to research their business, in-depth, and put together a comprehensive marketing strategy that I would then bring to LA to present to them. They also told me I was competing with two other candidates and that if I “won” the business it would be a one-month contract worth between $7,000-$10,000.

I started doing the math in my head. I had already invested about 10 hours in this company prepping for the first meeting and driving to and from LA. Now they were asking me to spend another 30-40 hours doing research, creating a strategy and driving to LA to present it to them. All of this time and effort for a 1-in-3 shot at $7,000-$10,000?

In addition to my hesitation of investing so much time in a long shot, I was also concerned about how much knowledge and experience I was being asked to provide for free. They were asking me to create a detailed marketing blueprint without any compensation to me whatsoever. What was to stop them from taking that information and either subcontracting it out to a lower bidder or attempting to execute it themselves?

In the end I declined to create a strategy presentation. Instead I sent them my portfolio of work and provided them with a list of references they could contact. They wrote back to me saying they appreciated my being upfront about everything and they would contact me if their needs warranted. This week, I saw they listed the same contract project on Craigslist.

So here is my question to all of you: where do you draw the line at how much work you’ll do for free to get a contract? How do you offer enough to demonstrate expertise and experience, without giving your services away? As a one-person operation, how do you allocate enough time for your paying clients while still putting in the work to land new clients?

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  • Rdough2

    This is something that I come in contact with every relationship for new business opportunities. I am a freelance graphic designer and it seems like I continually have to convince the potential client about the worth of my business and my professional practices. In the last couple of years it seems like potential clients think that there is less worth with freelance professional practices and they have more choices. While there is always someone that will do it cheaper, I hope that the quality of my own work speaks for itself and ultimately they find that you get what you pay for. This is always a struggle with my own business. I would love to hear about better ways to make the pitch without compromising my own time, effort and money.

    • I’ve stopped pitching to clients that I have to explain the value to. I don’t have 3 months to spend educating you on the value of social media, community building and the importance of relationships. If you don’t understand those things, I can’t help you. Once a client understands the value of what I do, I them have to convince them that I’m the best person for the job – hence this blog post.

      You’re right though that the inherent value of what we do online seems to be worth less to some. Certainly in my case, and I imagine in yours as well, I’ve seen this attitude that any college student with a Facebook account would able to do the same things I can do in social media at the cost of paying an intern. There’s obviously a million things wrong with that scenario, but so many businesses don’t understand you get what you pay for.

      Thanks for your comment. Good to know I’m not alone here.

  • Tom Arnold

    Hey Scott,
    This post really hits home with me. I run a design/photography/print business here in the UK. Firstly, most companies have dodgy copies of photoshop in their office and someone out of school who thinks they can do everything, secondly, anyone who buys a DSLR thinks they’re a photographer, and thirdly online businesses advertise poor quality print for little cost but to the viewer it looks like they’re getting a good deal.

    Recently i was asked to tender for a piece of design work very similar in cost to your potential contract. In the brief i was asked to show previous work or outline how i would create their document. This was for a large government body for whom i had worked with over the last year. It sucked that there was no loyaltly whatsoever from them whereas i have always gone out of my way to provide a personal service to them despite their size. Anyway i decided that what better way to prove i understood their brief than to create a small portion of their document as an example. Stupid me. I was told within 2 days of an alleged 2 week consulation period that although i was the best value, i wasnt a big enough company. That really stings. I imagine as a small business i actually work harder than those hiding in larger corporations who dont give a shit if something is completed on time. Anyway, the point is that i had provided design which they would easily and probably will have forwarded on to their prefered supplier who cost more than me but probably had to finance a back hander (under the table) payment for the work.

    I wish i had ‘drawn the line’ and simply provided references as you had decided to do (despite the fact they were actually my main reference for the last year!).

    Tom A

    • Hi Tom,

      I feel your pain. To have a proven track record with a client and still have them second-guess your talent and expertise would be a gut punch indeed.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Hopefully we can band together as a creative community and try and find a solution to this abuse we sometimes take. 🙂

      • Tom Arnold


        Maybe we just need to have the courage to say ‘we will produce an outline design, the fee for which is $’. This way it puts a value on our own time which although will lose some work, for some it might show true professionalism? i.e. i value my time and if i spend it on your design, someone else cannot use my services therefore there is a charge. The design in their hands has a commercial value and you cannot take it away once it’s been shown.


        • I think that is the dream for all contractors Tom – be bold enough to ask to be paid from the get go. After all, you don’t tell your architect that you’ll pay him after you see what the finished design will look like…

  • Hi Scott, love the new site!

    Obviously as a designer I run into this all the time. The best analogy I heard was a speaker who came to speak at my college. He said that the guy asking you to design a few pages to see if he likes it before hiring you would never ask the dentist to clean a few teeth before he decided if he wanted to continue.

    Creative work (for all intents and purposes what you do is under that umbrella, you do create) should be looked at as artisanal. We all are craftsmen that have a skill for which we charge. The most we can do to demonstrate that is show our previous work. There’s no reason we should be expected to produce speck work just because our product is digital.

    You’re right to not pitch clients who need it explained to them. Leave that for the recent college grads who aren’t burned out yet. By the time their work is mature enough to charge the big bucks, they too will have learned how to sniff out the bad clients. It’s all a cycle.

    • Hey Justin – Thanks for the kind words about the site. Your opinion means a lot to me.

      Great analogy about the dentist and you’re so right. Thanks for the gut-check and validating that my thinking is on the right track for contract work.

      • The problem you’re facing is a moral one and I know it well. It means you’re a good person who does what you do out of a desire to help people and contribute something good to the world, not just make a buck. The money, while important, is secondary to the goal and outcome and these decisions make you feel icky because it forces you to put money first. Which is necessary. But be proud you’re a good person who wants to do good work and help people, even if gives you moral ambiguity at times.

        • I think that’s a part of it. I think of myself as a good person and want to do good in the world, but I also don’t like being taken advantage of. In fact, I’ve sort of adopted that as a theme for myself this year. I wasted so much time, energy and frustration working with potential clients that screwed me in 2010. In the end, I learned a lot of valuable lessons so it wasn’t all bad. But you’re right, it would be nice to make a fair living and feel like you’re doing good in the world as well. 🙂

  • I think without getting overly touchy-feely about being a good person and feeling compensated for work, you need a personal and situational barometer that you can access in any situation, and make a gut check call on what you feel is the right thing to do. For some projects, doing a little more up-front work may yield a nice long-term relationship, and it may be worth it. For others like the one you described, that’s clearly not the case so you wouldn’t want to invest the time.

    What I find is that when companies are asking you to do “pre-work” on a project, most of the time they want to feel comfortable with your background and skills in a way that no resume or website can deliver. I often give them a proposal that outlines the “shape of what we might do” while also explaining that once we decide to engage, we’ll need to collaborate on a strategy, and that it would be presumptuous to guess at anything more specific at this point. And, usually, it WOULD be presumptuous to do so. This is usually 3-4 hours of work to pull together a thoughtful proposal without engaging in extensive market research or crushing my own profitability.

    Sometimes, folks don’t like that, and for them, working together may not be a fit. But others appreciate the candor, and the work I did put in, and we move forward. Think this will always be a situational and personal thing – and feeling it out is a skill you’ll acquire as you continue to be out there and selling yourself.

    • Really great comment Mike. Thanks for taking the time share so much insight.

      I think a lot of it comes down to using your gut instinct. Is a company asking you to do work without compensation because they are trying to get something for free or it as you said is it more about feeling comfortable with your background and skills? I think you have to use your best judgment in determining intent.

      I’ve had my share of being taken advantage of this past year so I’m a bit more skeptical than your average bear. Is that a good thing? Probably not, and I’m trying to hone my barometer to better tune in to true intent.

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