What happens when trying to help someone totally backfires.

A few years ago I met a small business owner. The owner had a great business, good staff and a product that was very unique and high quality. It was clear that the owner had invested a tremendous amount of time and capital but after several years the business was still unprofitable.

“Let me help you.” That was my response. After all, I am a small business owner and happen to own a branding agency. Peace of cake I said to myself.

Another year passed and the owner offers me a deal. “How about we work in trade?” I think “cool, I love the product and it’s ridiculously expensive, so free is good.”

Things started off great, but over the course of a year the relationship began to go south. The client wants to part ways and would love it if would just tear her invoice up. (Note: we agreed to trade, so there is no cash involved) It was very hurtful to to be dismissed so easily after a year’s worth of hard work, creativity and so on.

The bigger issue for me is why did I take this client on? I really felt like I could help, but in the end it’s a total waste of time. The client doesn’t like the work, which is silly when you look at what they have.

I’m a fan of the scrappy startup, the entrepreneur who is willing to take risks. I love to see the underdog win. My intentions were pure but my decision making process was deeply flawed.

Here is where I went wrong. I have a few rules when it comes to taking on a new client.

This is important:

  • HDco works best with companies and non-profits that have a dedicated marketing person, preferably a CMO or Director of Marketing. The more experience the better. We speak the same language, they have a budget that they have to spend and so forth.

  • The client needs a marketing plan, even a simple one. If not, that’s step 1 before we design or video or animate anything.

  • We seek out clients who want extraordinary work and have the resources to execute ideas.

  • We prefer marketing premium brands. Target over Walmart. Or better yet Neiman Marcus. 😉

The client did not meet any of these requirements. And yet I agreed to work with them anyways because it would be a special, interesting project. A weak justification. I would have been so much better off just writing a check and walking out the door.

Think about all the wasted time I could have spent building my business or working on meaningful pro-bono work. As creative people, time is our inventory, once the hour has depleted, you will never get it back.

This is not the first time this has happened. It happens every 2 or 3 years. I scratch my head move on but don’t seem to learn the lesson.

So I will spend a few hours writing this so you will not make the same mistake. Let me be straight about this. I’m not saying don’t help people! But who you help and why is an important consideration. Don’t take on a project simply because it makes you feel good or because you are getting “free” stuff. It has to make sense from a business perspective and both parties need to mutually benefit from the relationship.

I would ask myself or a trusted confidant the following questions:

  1. Can I really help this person or organization? Do I have the capacity to take on this project right now?

  2. Does the client have the capacity and knowledge to engage? Do they show a pattern consistent communication and follow through?

  3. Is there an opportunity to do something exceptional here? Will you have creative license to do the best work possible? To create work you are proud of?

  4. What is the best way to help this person with my skill set? Maybe it’s just consultation or a limited engagement. You don’t have to be a savior.

  5. Have I been clear about my expectations (deliverables, compensation, schedule, roles, what the client is expected to do?)

If you can’t answer yes to these questions, take a step back and reconsider the project. It’s better to walk away because the perfect match could be waiting for you.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have an experience like this. Would love to hear your story in the comments.

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