Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Why I Don’t Bill My Clients

I’ve done web development on and off for a many years now, and worked for all kinds of clients. In general, those clients were good to work for, but every once in a while one would come along that would make my life miserable. For whatever reason, despite a very specific quote, people feel free to change, append and rework their requirements as the project progresses, asking for minor but time-consuming changes, and generally assuming I would be available at their beck and call whenever they wanted.

I found that writing and maintaining code in these situations very stressful, and have, over time, been more selective in choosing clients and turning down work. However, there’s still a sense of control that any client has when you’re working for them that tends to inhibit me. For example, if I’m asked to add a feature to a site (designed by someone else) I might want to rework a section of particularly ugly / unmaintainable code. But I’m not getting paid to rework the code, so I have to limit myself to the objective, even if as a result it takes longer. Or, for example, I might want to add a feature the client hasn’t requested. But I don’t want to set a precedent that I always deliver much more than they pay for. Billing sometimes is a hassle, and people don’t always seem to want to talk about money openly.

So about 6 months ago I decided I didn’t want to charge clients for web development anymore. Hosting (I’m a reseller) yes, new design no. I’d read an article someone wrote about this, and thought it would be a good solution to my issues. Here’s how it’s worked out.

Case 1. A new client was looking for a new site for his business, eventually e-commerce. He did not understand anything technical about the web, nor did he have a good idea where a website fit in his overall business marketing plan. We talked a while about philosophy, and the work/time involved in setting up a site. He wanted to know about “typical” costs, and was skeptical about my “no fee” policy. He about choked when I said that it would not be unreasonable for local companies to charge $5000 for a starter ecommerce site from scratch. I should have walked away then. Instead, we talked about completing it in phases, and I started with phase 1, a simple 5-pager. Trying to pull information from him was very difficult, and I instead made a CMS backend so he could edit content himself, which he eventually did. I never heard from him again.

Case 2. An existing client was looking for a new website for another business venture. She had a pretty clear outline of what she wanted (including an online subscription product), though we discussed through a number of details. She was initially skeptical about the “no fee” idea, but agreed to give it a try. I’ve been working on the site on and off for a couple months and it’ll be ready for release in about a month. She’s got a business and marketing plan, and funding. It’s been a lot of fun working on the site, adding things as I wanted to, spending as much time as I want on features. I welcome additions and changes from her, as my focus has changed from working according to a spec, to working toward an excellent website. We’re more like a team, rather than a contractor/client. She sent me a $3500 “down payment” check yesterday.

Those are the only two clients I’ve had since my original pivot, and the clients and situations were so very different, but I’m so psyched about how things have turned out with the latter one. Working on her site is still *fun*, and I’m enjoying writing code without stress.

I’ve done a number of jobs on eLance in the last few months, and most have been stressful; most all the clients are looking for the most they can get for the least amount of money. There are some exceptions, to be sure, but it’s a totally different kind of work – fairly high-pressure, low profit. I wish I could get a “Client 2” job three or four times a year; that would be 100% satisfying in every way.

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