Monday Consulting Questions: First-Timers, Humor and Crappy Design

Q. I am not a techie.  I work for a small business in a real-estate-related industry.  I have been put in charge of having a new website created for our company.  We will need it hooked up to a database of some kind.  I’ve never run a technology project before.  Where do I start, and how do I keep from being taken advantage of?

A. Welcome to the world of technical project sponsorship!  To answer your first question – where to start – I suggest you start by reading my article The 5 Laws of Choosing a Software Developer.  All the same issues apply to choosing a freelance web designer/developer as well.  Let me recap the article here, in case you don’t have time to read it.

  1. Demand Experience. Past performance is a great indicator of future results.  Make sure you get someone with at least a few years of experience doing the kind of work that you want to end up with.
  2. Demand References. Trust, but verify.  Make sure the person or firm you hire can really do (and has really done) everything claimed.
  3. Demand Value. Be as wary – if not more so – of the guy who charges too little as you are of people who seem to charge too much.  You really will get what you pay for, and both the too-low and too-high providers are telegraphing their flaws.
  4. Demand Communication Skills. Don’t hire anyone who is so wrapped up in their domain – whether that is the domain of the programmer or of the artist – that he is unable to speak to you like a normal human being.  There are a lot of broken individuals in this industry for one reason or another.  Don’t bet your project on someone who is incapable of returning your calls.
  5. Demand Availability. Try to find a freelancer or firm that is dedicated to their business full-time.  There are a lot of very talented folks out there who do work “on the side” in addition to their day job, but if you’re not accustomed to managing technology projects you will find them exasperating to work with because they will be out-of-sync with your schedule.

To answer your second question – how to avoid being taken advantage of – is a little tougher.

If you adhere to the guidelines outlined above, you will find a competent provider.  But will you find an ethical one?  That’s the real question.  Because the barriers to entry are very low in the freelance design/development business, there are a lot of what I call “transient professionals” milling about.  They generally have the technical skills to do the work but lack the intangibles (such as drive, ethics, or time-management & planning capabilities) that are the real mark of a useful provider.  It is not hard to find and hire one of these types and end up watching your project disappear into a black hole.

The best advice I can give you is to push hard on the references and verify both the portfolio and work habits of the provider.  This goes for firms as well as individual freelancers – you need to make sure that the provider has actually completed projects like yours, not simply worked on them.  It is an important distinction.

Q. I see that your LinkedIn profile photo is actually a South Park-style avatar of yourself.  That doesn’t seem very professional.  What do you think that says about you?

A. That despite my dry blog and (some would say) boring professional niche, I’m a guy who has a sense of humor?  That I want my LinkedIn profile to be a bit more memorable than just another real-estate-style headshot?  I don’t consider business to be a humor-free endeavor, and I hope you don’t either.  Note that even when I’m trying to be humorous, I can’t completely let go of professional rigidity – in the un-cropped version of the graphic, my avatar is wearing a tie.  🙂

Q. I’m kind of new to consulting.  I have a new client who is asking me to do a small project for free, while promising that if I do well, they’ll have a lot of other projects for me to do at my full bill rate.  Am I being set up to get screwed?

A. First off, welcome to consulting.  It looks like we have a first-timers theme going today, perhaps I should put you together with the first-time project sponsor above.  🙂

Second, I absolutely guarantee that you are being set up for a screwing.  What you are being asked for is called “spec work” (the spec stands for speculative, meaning you have to do the work first and then the client decides if they want to pay for it or not), and it is absolutely the bane of the industry.  I want everyone reading this who has ever been subject to the same kind of “work for free now and get real work later” proposition to stand up.  Go on, right now, stand up.  Now, I want everyone who has ever made this kind of a proposition work out favorably in the end to sit down.  Ah-HAH!  You’re all still standing, aren’t you?  Of course you are, because speculative work arrangements never work out favorably.  Not for the provider of the work, at least.

Now, I can see giving a new client a little bit of a price break as a “get to know you” rate on a limited part of your first project together.  I don’t necessarily like the practice, and my company doesn’t do it, but I can at least understand it when you’re starting out.  But never, ever, ever work for free based solely on someone’s promise that doing so will result in you being rewarded with paying work later.  Just.  Don’t.  Do.  It.  The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of “there is no paying work later.”  I – and every other freelance consultant out there – have seen it happen a million times.

Q. a) Is this really your new blog design?  b) Are you trying to be a designer now?  c) I thought you were a programmer.

A. a) It appears so. b) No, but I am trying to increase my design IQ. c) So did I, but then I went and turned into a businessman.