Hanging by a thread

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A lot of people in my family have started their own businesses. My mother's father started a magazine company. My father's father started a printing company. My father started a consulting and training business. And I have a few aunts and uncles that have started other various small businesses.

Pretty much everyone I know who has started their own company has stories about the various ups and downs that inevitably come with launching something on your own. And when they talk about the challenges, looking back on them, they almost talk about overcoming these with a greater sense of pride than any specific accomplishment or success they may have had.

I'm bringing this up because I find myself and my business in a bit of a weird place lately, and I got a bit of unwelcome news this week. A project that I've been working on has been de-prioritized, and with it, my level of involvement will also decrease. I'm still working with this client on some projects, but just to a lesser extent.

In a weird way, this is actually a bit of a success. At the beginning of the year, I wrote about how I was no longer going to charge hourly for my services. Instead, I have different tiers of engagement on a project. I wanted companies to be able to use my services as easily as I'm able to use Software as a Service tools. So,

So now, when I'm on a project, it's at a tier of either:
  • "Monitoring and Maintaining" where I provide a little help to good teams that just need assistance keeping things coordinated
  • "Lead and Manage" where I run a project, lead sprints, and all the normal things you'd expect, or
  • "Repair and Relaunch" - where a project that's all messed up needs a massive overhaul.
So just like I may sometimes downgrade a Software account for a few months, and then upgrade during others, my clients can now do the same. I think this model is the future of not just project management, but all types of services.

I'm really grateful that this client came on board with me with this new approach, and the fact that they could easily change my level of involvement with their company for a little while, in many ways, validates my idea.

And, I have no doubt there will be a time in the future that they want to bring my company back up a tier when they have another important project they need help with. Everyone who owns a small business should be as lucky as I've been to have a client like this one.

The challenge is, in the grand scheme of things, I'm still just getting started with this approach. One client I had wanted to keep me on a project I was working on for another month or two after a contract ended, but was unwilling to go with this new approach. I've also had a number of people call me about opportunities where the discussions ended almost immediately just because they couldn't, or wouldn't, wrap their heads around the fact that I wasn't charging hourly. I'm fine with this, because I truly believe it's the right thing to do, and the right way to set the proper course for my company.

Now, there's a valid argument that could be made that would basically say something like "just go after business that pays hourly, what's the big deal?" It's true after all, if you don't survive this month, who cares what your course might be in a year. I've struggled with this because the logic is sound. The problem is that all it does is perpetuate the status quo with my business. It does absolutely nothing to advance my company, or position me for the future.

There's a business quote I read once that went something like "You need to determine how you're willing to fail, not how you want to succeed." The point wasn't that you should want to fail, or even take lessons from failure, but that you should ask yourself this question to act as a barometer for whether you believe in what you're doing. I think there are a lot of "successful" people who are less proud of the paths they took than they might otherwise be.

Where I'm at right now is that I'd rather fail at this approach than succeed by taking another hourly paid gig. I don't believe in that model, I think the incentives are misaligned with the customer's, and I think it puts the value of a service in the entirely wrong place.

Most people are unwilling to absorb a little pain and discomfort in the present in order to be better positioned for the future. It's why trillions of dollars have been given to banks, why the US government now owns car companies, and why we are still entirely dependent on foreign oil, and protecting our access to it with the largest military the world has ever seen.

I will not go down that path with my business.

I'll wrap up shop and work for someone else's company that I believe in before I go down a path I think is wrong just to keep my business alive for another year.

I hope this post didn't come off like a complete downer, because I don't mean for it to. It's just that I've been pretty open with my beliefs, how things are going with my business, and my general opinions on things. I just didn't think it would have been right to omit the fact that, financially speaking, my business is going to sort of hanging by a thread for a bit.

The irony is that with some of the side projects I've been working on, and my new endeavor to learn Ruby on Rails, I'm more excited about the future than I have been in a long time.

So, if any of you out there are looking for someone to help you get your important stuff done, I hope you'll consider shooting me an email. Just like software companies, I even offer a 3o day trial period. If you're not happy with what you see after a month, you don't have to pay me a nickel. That's what I mean when I say I want my service to be like software: Flat fees, no long term contracts, and 30 day trial periods. Can you see why I think this is the future of service companies?

Who knows, you may be the topic of conversation a decade or so from now when I'm talking with pride about some of the challenges my little business had to overcome.