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I’m Not A Bank

September 21, 2011

Continuing my series of posts on business topics, one of the things you find as a solo freelancer is that everyone has a story.  Everyone.  Sometimes stories are straight from the heart and other times they are complete facades.  Reality is most often somewhere in the middle.  Part of the challenge in any initial set of discussions is discerning what is fact and what is spin.  The goal is to both properly sell your services and mitigate risk.

I’m a developer and mathematician so the first thing I look for in a conversation is whether or not the prospect talks to me like a mathematician or developer.  It’s always good for a people to be enthusiastic and optimistic about their business, but I’ve found code words like ‘this is going to be big’ or ‘this will revolutionize’ or similar phrases to be warning signs.  Charlie Van Loan at Cornell once told me at a supercomputing conference that “there’s really nothing new under the sun.”  I’ve come to understand the wisdom of those words over the years.  There are so few truly ‘big’ and ‘revolutionary’ ideas that on the basis of probability alone, the likelihood of the prospect’s claim is small at best.

And, what difference does it make to a developer?  Big does not describe the programming or math problem to be solved.  If my rate is $X per hour, then it’s still $X per hour whether the prospect’s idea is ‘big’ or ‘small’ or somewhere in between.  Big may sound like there is lots of money to be spent, but in reality ‘big’ is likely a setup to entice you into compromise now in exchange for possible future gains.

Trust me when I tell you emphatically that if you compromise today, you will compromise tomorrow and forever more.  There are no big gains in the future, except for the client that consistently takes advantage of your good will.  That sounds crass, but it comes from personal experience and the experiences of hundreds of other freelancers via private communication.

Big or revolutionary is not a story told to a developer.  It’s a story told to a bank, VC, or Angel as part of a request for funding.  I’m not a bank.  I’m not a VC.  I’m not an Angel.  I’m not a savior of any organization from its past mistakes or experiences arising from bad luck.  Don’t  tell me that the development budget is exhausted because of some unexpected complications or that the pitfalls of outsourcing have only just been understood or that a partner just withdrew from the organization.  That’s what you tell a financial organization or investor as part of a solicitation for a cash infusion.  Don’t make your very first question to me, “what is your rate?”  Why should you care if you have yet to determine if I’m the best person for the job?  Don’t tell me that you have such a hard time collecting payments from your clients.  That’s just fodder for a later excuse that my invoice will be paid after you receive payment from your clients, which is nothing more than a form of implicit financing via floating payables.  Financing is provided by banks, VC’s, Angels and other financial sources.

I’m not a bank.  I’m a developer.

If someone understands that you are an artist, copywriter, developer, or other service provider and they talk to you like a bank, beware.  That conversation is simply designed to provide an initial cover that is later used as an excuse to dilute the value of your time through free or heavily discounted services, or by implicit financing via arbitrary float of their payables.

Now, having said that, I do often help local business that have experienced some bad luck, but I do it with the attitude that it’s one step away from pro bono work.  Like the admonition to not gamble with money in Vegas you can’t afford to lose, I don’t help anyone with time I’m not willing to write off.

So, in conclusion, pay close attention to how people address you.  Do they talk to you like a service provider or a bank?  If it’s the former, then keep talking.  If it’s the latter, then be careful.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not a bank.

Good luck with your business!

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  1. September 21, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Perfect!

    The last time a potential client said, “This is going to be huge!” I replied with, “I don’t care.” And went on to explain to him pretty much what you just said. I’m not an investor. I’m a developer. Good for you if this turns into the next Facebook. I’m going to get the same rate regardless of your success.

    I also love the enticement of, “And when, blah, blah, blah we’ll hire you as a full time employee blah, blah, blah.”

    That’s a good sign to end the conversation.

  2. September 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I think these people -are- looking at you as a potential investor or angel; what you have is expertise and time as opposed to money. I still wholeheartedly agree with your points, though. I think developers – or more specifically the perception of developers – is at an interesting place right now. While we’re receiving more and more recognition where it’s due, I believe it’s still mostly superficial in nature – akin to the ecosystems of professional sports and professional music. People notice the big success stories and want to emulate them without much insight on how. “Idea people” and hobbyist developers show up in droves for their chance at success, thereby largely driving the startup/incubator/angel/vc/investor ecosystem. Most of these people, however, will not go on to be the sports or rockstars of tech. While I’ve no problem with non-technical people stepping up to the plate, I feel like the chances of their reasons being wrong are pretty high. It sounds pompous to assume I know the right reason but in my opinion money ain’t it. Especially interesting notion when you consider that both Facebook and Google – the stories a number of these people consider themselves to be emulating – started not for the money but for a pure appreciation of the craft. Well, I dunno about Facebook, Im just going off of what I saw in The Social Network😉 Google definitely, though. Those guys seemed to be doing everything possible to -avoid- starting their own business for awhile before finally taking the plunge.

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