This is a guest article by Zoe, front-end web developer at ZoeRooney.com
My entire business model is based around relationships. I don't market my work nor do I take clients directly. All of my work comes through the relationships I've built with designers and through previous clients' referrals. I have absolutely had my fair share of business relationships that end up feeling icky. On the flip side, I have a number of really wonderful relationships that have lasted years.
Things Not To Do
There are a couple of things that I'm pretty sure always go badly when building relationships (and I think these can apply to business more generally as well):
- Ignoring your gut. Every single time I have ignored a gut feeling telling me "I'm not sure I want to do this," I have completely and totally regretted it. I don't have gut feelings about every potential project or client, and this isn't a threshold that every project passes. It's more that if there's a "no" voice anywhere in my head I've learned to listen.
- Overvaluing the cool factor. I've had clients ask for a lot of value for a discounted price because they're well known or doing something cool. While there's absolutely value to high-visbiilty projects, I've learned to be super careful in these situations. There's a very fine tipping point from "everything is awesome" to "I'm being taken advantage of," and the only way to avoid the fall is to be extremely careful about not overvaluing the cool factor.
Things To Do
On the flip side, I've found a few things to be consistently helpful:
- Doing Unto Others. I try to put out there what I want to get back. When I was first contacting designers I wanted to work with, I cold-emailed them with a message that was all about how much I admired their work (with specifics). Then, I'd end by saying I'd love to hear from them if they needed extra development capacity. It's never about what I can get from someone else. People can tell when you're selling to them and it doesn't create a relationship, or at least not one that will last. Similarly, I don't try to sell myself to clients. Either we're a fit or we're not, and it's important to me that both sides reach that conclusion without sales tactics muddying things up. This is tricky when a client is struggling in one way or another and takes it out on me (happens occasionally), in which cases I try to remember my friend-via-business-relationship Meg's advice about client good vibes. Doing unto others also covers things like sharing via blog posts and answering every single advice-seeking email.
- Telling it like it is. Telling it like it is with regards to project costs, time frames, availability, whether or not I want to work on a project, whether I can even do what someone is asking me to do, etc., can be hard. This is especially true when it involves saying no, particularly when the person has asked really nicely and with great enthusiasm. I find that thinking long-term helps. Perhaps I have to say "no" right now, but by doing so honestly and nicely (and by offering suggestions for where to go next), I'm still building a relationship with that person in case the next time they ask it's a "yes."
- Keeping business as business. Business is not personal. Even when the relationship with the client is friendly and we're all telling it like it is, the work is not personal. In my experience, the more I can clarify and come to agreement with people I'm working with on the project goals, scope, specifics, and outcmes in advance, the better. Each business decision doesn't have to also have a huge impact on the relationship, but the relationship starts to filter in when things are unclear.
For me, I think it all comes down to keeping it real. We're all people here and we're all doing the best we can. My role is to keep doing my best and to do what I can so everyone I work with can do their best, and at the end of the day we'll all feel good enough to keep on working.
Zoe Rooney runs a small front-end web development company focused on working with talented designers to create beautiful, functional websites. She works mostly with WordPress and Shopify, and for creative businesses and bloggers. She is also a wife and mom to two little boys.