Entrepreneurs bend the rules. It’s not malicious, we just see the world a bit differently.
I was fired from my first job, shortly after starting, where I worked as a member of the IT staff at my high school. While most would simply accept it and move on, I didn’t. Instead, I called a meeting with the school headmaster, stated my case, and was rehired with a 100% raise. This taught me that simply accepting what is given to you isn’t always the way to go.
Four years later, as a sophomore in college, I started my first business. By senior year I had my first full-time employee while taking an 18-hour class load and working full time. We only had $2,500 in the bank and couldn’t afford to take it easy.
I worked during classes, left for meetings, skipped class and missed exams. It was incredibly difficult, but those experiences taught me the value of being cautious about who you take on as a client, because a poor fit could mean the end of a fledgling business for busy founders.
How (and why) you should vet potential clients
In the early days, we decided to take on a client despite our innate reservations. Yet, we ignored these instincts and found ourselves working with someone who didn’t care about us finishing his work, just how much he could get out of us.
For example, in the middle of building the website, he decided he wanted a second website for free. When I let him know that wasn’t in our discussions or agreement, he replied, “Well, the way I see it you’re a young kid, and I can sue you. Would you rather be sued or build a second site for free?” We built the site, and I learned to trust my gut.
Fast forward 11 years, and I still take that lesson with me into every prospective client meeting. Rather than seeing every potential sale as a must-have, we instead treat the meeting as if we are looking to hire a new employee. They have to check the boxes for us: be good, honest and genuinely interested in succeeding the right way. They have to recognize the value in our work and be willing to let us bring our creativity to bear to help them. If any of those criteria aren’t met, we’ll refer them to another developer.
If they check the right boxes, we then ask the question: “Is this the best opportunity possible given the limited time we have available?” Under these filters, we have turned down approximately 75% of the companies who come to us.
Benefits of being picky with clients
On the surface, vetting clients might seem completely crazy, but consider the costs that come from clients who aren’t a fit. The amount of emotional energy trying to satiate a client who will never be happy, time spent doing things you knew weren’t in their best interests because they didn’t trust you to guide them — these are real costs that cannot be understated. Now consider the power you have to prevent from partnering with toxic clients in the first place.
I won’t claim we’re always 100% accurate on this, but making the decision to actively avoid those situations wherever possible has allowed us to grow into an awarded and recognized company, while creating work that makes our entire team proud.
There’s no shame in turning away business, because no matter who you are or what you do, the fact is you won’t be the best fit for everyone. Recognize and embrace that fact the next time you take a sales meeting. Instead of making it about why you need the business, make it about what makes that organization special and whether they will be a true fit. If so, you’ll knock it out of the park. If not, have the courage to send that business to someone who you know will be a better fit based on their needs.
Jeff Jahn is a seasoned entrepreneur with a passion for pushing the envelope on what can be achieved through technology. He has been recognized with the 2015 Entrepreneurial Spirit Award (Berry College), and as one of 20 Rising Stars Under 40 (Cobb Life Magazine). His work has been featured by national media outlets including Fast Company, Adweek, Fox News (national TV + web), CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, ABC News, The Next Web, Time Magazine, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, GOOD, TUAW, Comedy Central, Gawker, CBS’ The Early Show (national TV), Reuters, Politico, and GQ.