Talking over the years with people working in my same field — web design and development — I’ve recently outlined a recurrent pattern and hopefully learnt a couple of strong lessons.
If you’re building your own business, sooner or later you’ll find yourself stuck with some dodgy clients. It’s no surprise at all. Somehow you will try to make it through, without losing too much patience, money, or in the worst cases: health. Of course, the time you’re going to waste with no tangible results for your business, will be another serious collateral damage.
Regardless of a double digits years’ experience, a proven record of quality and success, despite many public endorsements and recommendations on networks like LinkedIn or similar, you’ll be facing two kinds of situations, in which someone will try to heavily undermine your confidence in your own skills.
The first situation is particularly stressful, and the worst in terms of damages to your company image and portfolio. The villain, this time, is not the client.
A client hires your company because of your specific skills, and/or because you and your colleagues have built your business over a reputation of adopting a modern approach. Yes, sometimes you find brilliant clients that know the difference between being a dinosaur and trying to become up-to-date.
In the web field this usually translates into trying to get over obsolete technologies, old-fashioned design, or both. You can find yourself explaining what is a 2014-savvy web approach compared to a 1998-sucky one.
The “ex” syndrome is when the client wants to join the nowadays web, but is still tied up with the previous IT supplier. Let’s call the latter “T-Rex”. The nickname is due to a couple of facts: it’s proudly on top of a 1990s-like way of thinking and working, and has an undeniable aggressive attitude towards everything new.
The concept of “new” is key here. Of course, since the client just hired your company, advertised as “modern”, you are the one to be blamed by the T-Rex. And to be indirectly attacked.
The T-Rex is not trying to prove a point, it just defends its territory (read: money). Feeling trapped, it acts fast. Its strategy is going to put you in a corner for a long time. The “how” is very simple and somehow remarkable.
The first step is openly laughing at you, like you don’t know what to expect next. Which is true, by the way. You don’t really get the point, and you’re so naive that you still think it’s going to be fine, because it is the client that hired you, not the other way round. You were doing just well before, you simply valued the client as interesting and liked how they wanted to improve their web image using your renowned skills. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? T-Rex disagrees.
The second step is to wait. Patient, calm and silent, it waits in the dark. Meanwhile, you start to work and you’re galvanised, the client’s happy to join this new different approach, and maybe the client even likes your way. Everything’s gonna be alright.
Then, the time to deliver your work finally comes. So the T-Rex awakes. In this scenario, clients and situations may be different but the pattern is always the same: the T-Rex usually retains the “last mile” of the job, or the technical power to do something that’s fundamental for the project to go live.
The dinosaur puts its lard arse all over that “last mile”, and starts to make up an ever growing multitude of “problems” that exists only in its own fake circus. It doesn’t attack you directly, nor your company, it choses to block the project at the very end of it. In this way it’s putting you under the blame spot.
At first it simply feels odd. Or weird. A bit irritating, but nothing that cannot be solved. Naive you. At the second round of “problems” you and your colleagues begin to realise. At the third round you get unnerved and suspicious. At the fourth it’s clear that this had been thoroughly planned before. It becomes really evident for what it is: someone’s openly boycotting you, simply because you’re taking over their previous shitty work, and above all: because you’re uncovering their ineptitude to adapt to a world that’s different and more evolute. The reality is: you’re just doing your job at the best you can. There is no power play, no game in your mind: a client hired you, you’ve done the job and that’s it. Naive, again.
Since there is still no such thing as a huge meteorite in the web design and development world, the fucking T-Rexes, with their resilient strength, will continue to flourish.
Another success key for the T-Rex is: the client, usually with insufficient technical knowledge, is in between two fighting sides and it is understandably hard to evaluate which one is right at some point. In this kind of situation, the natural risk is to fall into trusting the “good old T-Rex” (also: don’t forget their contract with Rex, which means money already invested).
The ultimate philosophy of the T-Rex is simple: we served well in World War One, who cares if today there are automated drones with Cruise missiles, they would fail against our rifles. Incredibly enough, in web design this complete bullshit sometimes still wins.
Results: you’ve done a great job, potentially something that could figure great on your portfolio and make the client very happy: all vanished under a pile of fabricated bullshit, petty accusations and ridiculous attempts to put your company under a shadow of incompetence, and drag you into a useless blame game in order to convince the mutual client that “old is more secure”.
The lesson here is: stay away, if you can, from clients trying to hire you to overhaul their previous IT supplier’s work — if the IT supplier is still seizing a substantial power, in the form of a tying contract.
In the next episode: The Muppets Show.
The sources for the anecdotes used to write these fictitious stories wanted to remain anonymous. The narrative have been adapted. No (extinct) animals were harmed during the filming.