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how to ditch bad, small potato clients?

I had a job as a university research programmer not so long ago. During this time my boss there hooked me up with a couple of side projects. Each was a tiny web/database site to assist some university researchers in other departments with data collection and analysis. The projects were fixed cost, due to very small budgets in those departments.

Fast forward to now, and I'm doing two different contract jobs for big clients who are paying me 2 times as much per WEEK as I was making on the side projects. Thus I really want to make my new clients happy. However, phone calls and emails from the old side projects have recently become more frequent. They want additional features. I neither have the time nor the desire to deal with the old clients. Especially since I know exactly how much money they would be able to pay, and it isn't very much.

My current strategy has been to just continually put off my old clients. I don't care so much about any kind of reference from them, since they don't really have any sort of pull in the real world. However, I'm concerned about making my old boss look bad in recommending me. What is a good way to phase out these old clients, without making my boss, and secondarily, me, look bad?

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Hook them up with a new programmer who can take over your work with the smaller clients.  Maybe post some fliers at the University Computer Science department and see what you get.  I think you'll find a couple who are looking to put some "experience" and good references on their resumes.

Mattias Thorslund
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

It's simple: find someone who is (just like you was on that time) starting up and would be happy with their money and their project, and indicate him to your old customer.

You may even help this guy a bit until he get in sync with the work. It will pay off: the guy will be happy, your old customer will be happy, and you will be free to pursue your new ventures.

Whenever I can't accept a job (from previous projects or even brand new), I make my best effort to find out someone who can handle it. It's good networking practice.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Here's an great new word that you will find enormously helpful in your situation: "no".

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Tell them what your new rate is.  If they don't like it, offer to help find them a replacement.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I agree with Alyosha` here, though I wouldn't be quite as blunt.

The next time one of these "small potato" clients call, explain politely that you're no longer interested in working on their project.  If you want, you can explain that you have new customers who are keeping you busy.

Look at it from their perspective.  Which would you rather have:  a developer who might do the work but keeps putting you off and never does it, or a developer who's professional enough to say that he can't do it so that you can start looking for another developer?

If they have problems with that, post their response here and we can troubleshoot a proper response.

The Pedant, Brent P. Newhall
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Find out what they want. Tell them your rate.  If they balk you could supply them with references of people who might be interested (just be prepared they may actually want you to do it). 

If you really don't have the time/are not interested, tell them so.

Don't avoid them, that is very unprofessional.  Most people would rather know the situation than be run around.  They'll respect you for it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Good one, MikeG!  Talking to them then quoting a rate will reinforce your position as a professional.  And the sticker shock just might keep them from calling back and trying to wheedle you back.

The Pedant, Brent P. Newhall
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

They may or may not have pull in the real world, but they may have connections, spouses that do, be careful

Daniel Shchyokin
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

It's a small world.  Never piss anybody off if you can help it.  (But don't let yourself be known as a doormat either.)

Richard Ponton
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

thanks for the tips. i'm almost certain nobody involved has connections in the real world, but I do not want to have anyone mad at me. :-) I'll see what I can do about setting them up with a replacement.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003


I am not a programmer, nor do I hire any, so you might not care what I have to say. But I happened across this thread. It seems to me that how you handle this situation will say a lot about your character, possibly to future clients but more important to yourself and your friends.

Maybe I am wrong, but it sounds like these old clients helped you get your start, if not through their business then through the cash their business provided you at a critical time. Now it sounds like it would be materially beneficial for you to leave them in the dust.

If I were a client, on the other hand, I would prefer dealing with companies who reward and are grateful over time for my business, and who have the honor to continue to support and extend their prior work for a reasonable period of time. Because that sort of behavior indicates to me that the bussiness in question has a commitment to quality and excellence for its own sake. If the business is overwhlemingly motivated by a desire to make money, how do I know they will not cut corners? How do I know they can be trusted? If they will cut and run as soon as they grow, why would I recommend them to a friend?

In any case, you have not said you have decided to cut and run. Nor do I have any idea how much support and extension work you might have already done. So understand I am not passing judgement.

But knowing a thing or two about how much decency and character and reputation matter, and about how interconnected the "real world" is to "unreal" worlds like academia, family life, personal life, etc., I would recommend at a minimum communicating clearly and promptly with your old clients about your ability to take on new work. Do they have a right to expect a low-cost expert (a slave, really) at beckon call for life? No. Would it enhance your reputation not to completely ditch them at the first opportunity now that you have new clients, to show some loyalty to your original clients? Yes.

How long you continue to work with them is up to you, but communicating clearly WHATEVER you decide will do far less harm than blowing them off. This holds true in any sort of human relationship, all the more so for a business where money was once involved.

Perhaps put yourself in their shoes. Try to honestly answer how much long-term business availability *you* would want, at a minimum, from a fast-growing custom services vendor, like the architect who builds your vacation home. (Myself, I'd be happy if they returned my calls, fixed any problems, honored any past promises to build something if I wanted it built in the future, and provided referrals for new desired work if they couldn't do it for whatever reason.)


R Tate
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

How about meeting with your older clients, defining the work to be done, and then hiring someone else to do that work? You could find yourself being the owner of a multiple-person consulting business.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

This intruder you wish to eject has a name, opportunity.

One would assume an enterprising lad like yourself would have some ambitions to go with his work ethic and yet you're focusing on the problem, not the solutions.

I sense much fear in this one, yeeees.

Increase your rate for the old client, only a little, get a competant student and to do the work. 

You manage and quality control his work.

If it's work for academics then it's specialised nature may seem much more impressive to others than you expect.

"Online Salinity mapping gis information repsitory" (yes we know it's just a website with a database, shhhh) etc

1 - always make a profit.  If somone is asking you to work for a loss THEY ARE EXPLOITING YOU.  Doing a quality job shows your ethics, doing work for a loss shows your weakness.

2 - View all these little problems as natural issues that are bound to arise in the course of you getting where you want to go.  This is a success based problem, the best kind.

3 - Always offer a solution.  Even if you are left with no option but to tell a client you simply cannot do any more work for them ever, at least make a call and offer them the contact details of somone else who can help.  Even if you have to warn this other provider that the customer is difficult.

4 - Always high five Braid_Ged.  Always.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

R Tate -

I wouldn't feel in the least obliged to work at a low past rate or terms nor to justify one's higher aspirations.  The more you talk about why you're doing something, the more you lose.

Your reasoning is well thought out and passionate, and everything you state in terms of values and "karma" is quite commendable.

However, the blunt truth is that *everyone* is motivated by self-interest. Also, a sense of obligation verging on guilt is counter-productive to progress in one's own business.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's very possible to be too introspective and nice for your own good, especially in this business where many times the available funds simply can't support someone doing the work who is past the "will work for food" embryonic career stage. 

I would basically recommend that the OP not think too hard about the ethics or morality of moving on and the impact to past clients.

I've had bad, cheap clients in the past who: lowballed me; verbally treated me like sh*t; demeaned my work and my character and my talent, all the while continually coming back for seconds; and eagerly hooked any sense of decency  on my part to play a big fat guilt card. And if I worked my nuts off doing their work, they would still badmouth me to others.  THIS is the terminal case of being too nice to some people.

I'm not saying that any of this applies in this instance. I'm simply saying that *everyone* else lives and dies by market forces and "what have you done for me today". In this instance, the 'market' of one client and one programmer was favorable to that programmer doing these research projects. Today, a different story applies in this fellow's case.

I do agree that leaving the low budget old clients hanging is not appropriate. The situation simply demands to be resolved with a combination of frank discussion, stating terms of any new work, and some effort to find replacement contractors.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, July 30, 2003


>> Increase your rate for the old client, only a little, get a competant student and to do the work.
>> You manage and quality control his work.

Ouch, this is suicide.

First, a canonical rule of software development is that you need to budget at least 40% for project management. "only a little" increase (what, 10%?) is simply not enough.  And 40% represents no risk premium for non performance by your own guy. 

So, in order to not lose money, one would need to beat down the new guy's rate to even lower than the OP was originally earning. Which limits the quality of the candidates that the OP could consider. Which is exactly how the scumbag IT service bodyshops filled with lying, self important recruiters work.

Secondly, the OP said that the work was fixed price and wasn't even very good money at that level.

With so little money available, making this a "service contract" is simply not scalable to a one person operation, sorry.

So....  I vote that brokering a new candidate, perhaps working out a referral fee from a new person, and getting out of the picture entirely, is the best approach.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Your biggest mistake, which presumably you'll never make again, is accepting fixed price on a project that was not defined to within an inch of its life.

Rule number 1: Never do fixed price work. People always find more stuff to do. If they're paying you a fixed rate, they think you're getting well paid anyway so should do everything they ask.

In this case, don't get involved in sub-contracting the work unless you want to stop developing and start running a people business.

You have to call a meeting with each of the old clients and explain the situation. Try to give them an option. Offer to do a certain amount of work to get to certain stages, but for extra pay. As a gesture to them, make this at a discount on your new rate and make sure they know this.

Always, charge by time spent, unless you know what you're doing and the task is described in a 100-page document.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Richard Ponton,

That little tidbit is probably some of the best advice i've ever seen on this site.  Its something a lot of people preach, but don't quite practice.  Its something i've learned over time.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I think if you simply tell them they are bad, small potato clients you won't have the problem.  Truth hurts.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003


You could also raise your prices to make it a price worth dealing with the hassle

Don't fudge the issue, as this will piss them off more than a straight no, or I'm not available now

S. Tanna
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Let me see if I get this straight:

- You had some fixed price deals that were delivered.
- Now, they want to work with you again, extending the work you did before.
- At this time due to the structure of your business you can not handle the extra work, and they can not guarantee enough recuring work to risk expanding your business.

As others have mentioned I think the best thing in this situation is to decline the offer gently, and try to get them set up with someone who is interested in getting their business. Make sure however that they are the contact to the new business, and that there is no implied relation between you and that other business. This wil prevent a situation whereby you get a stream of questions your way about the implementation of the existing system. Otherwise you will have to decline getting involved again, since you do not have the time, and from the clients point of view this will make you look bad again, which is precicely the thing you wanted to avoid in the first place.

Also remember that until very recently you were an academic nobody with no "real world" connections too.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, July 31, 2003

First things first...get off your high horse about your former clients being "nobody".  That's a crap attitude.

To handle this properly, either a) decline the work and suggest someone they can call instead, or b) or quote them at your new rate, and give them a schedule that starts their project after your current projects are done.

Yoou're certainly not obligated to do the work if you don't want to.  But at the same time, blowing people off just because you perceive them to be powerless is rude, unprofessional, and speaks very poorly of your character, IMHO.

And don't be so sure that these people have no connections.  EVERYONE has connections of some sort.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

jeeze. the people on this forum read a lot into things. were you all beat up alot as children? i never said the people were "nobody", i said i was pretty sure nobody there had any connections.  and I think I mentioned that these people were university researchers, which means they are either associate professors, or GRADUATE STUDENTS, which means that they really don't have any connections. if they had connections, why would they be in graduate school?

in any case, the burning issue is that they need work done, and they don't have any money. i'm on friendly terms with these people, so suddenly adopting a hard-ass business stance with them would be kind of weird. what I did was say that I can host their project for free , and I showed one of the researchers there how to modify the system himself. thus, they don't need me , nor do they need to replace me with some other programmer.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Sorry ...,

I think phrases like

"bad, small potato clients",
"I neither have the time nor the desire to deal with the old clients.",
"I don't care so much about any kind of reference from them, since they don't really have any sort of pull in the real world. "

might have given most readers the impression that you were not really "on friendly terms with these people, so suddenly adopting a hard-ass business stance with them would be kind of weird".

If you are on a "friends" type of relation with them you can just explain that it is time for you to move on, and you migth also want to explain to them that in general these custom web things are not something that you develop once and then use for eternity, but rather systems that need continuing loving and caring.
It is amazing how many times I have seen these little homegrown dedicated mini CMS type of systems, developed on a shoestring one time budget, where the client thought that this was just a thing they would pay for once and then use for eternity. It never ever is.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, July 31, 2003

"I mentioned that these people were university researchers, which means they are either associate professors, or GRADUATE STUDENTS, which means that they really don't have any connections. if they had connections, why would they be in graduate school? "

Hey, they might still drop out and start a multi-billion dollar company ;-).

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, July 31, 2003

Bored, I actually think we are in complete agreement. I would not recommend doing something stupid and long-term detrimental for some arbitrary morality. It's just the doing the moral thing often means doing the thing that is in our long term best interests.

Our gut often tells us it feels "wrong" to do something, and it usually pays in the long term to listen. In this case, the original poster seems to have some little voice inside telling him it feels wrong to blow off an old client, so he asked for help here. The voice has a point -- completely ignoring the old client seems quite risky for original  poster's long term reputation and thus to the original poster's long term interests. The golden rule -- do to others what you would want done to yourself -- is ultimately about self interest. Some people believe in this so much they do things that feel right even when they can't imagine how it would ever benefit them. (What's cool is sometimes is does benefit them.)

Even if you or the OP is not one of those people, I think you'd agree it's usually pretty easy to see the personal benefit of the choice that also happens to be "morally" or "karmactically" correct if you widen the perspective beyond the short term.

Reading the second post, this seems to really boil down to a communication issue. We could all communicate better, and would benefit from it in financial terms, and taking the time to give it a try on this project seems like a winning proposition. Being able to communicate, "As much as I would like to help you again for free, I need to earn money so that I can eat and have a nice life and do what I enjoy for a living" seems like an important step, particularly as more difficult messages are almost gauranteed for the future.

Climbing way, way down off his high horse,

R Tate
Thursday, July 31, 2003

PS - Bored, I'd add that I agree there are also lots of time to ignore your gut, especially if you are the sort of person who tends to take on too much guilt. Usually in these sorts of cases I would think you could apply the golden rule and come out OK.

All my mumbo jumbo is just a long way of agreeing with Richard and Vince -- try not to piss people off.

R Tate
Thursday, July 31, 2003

What's a potato client?

(I think you're missing a hypen in there somewhere.)

Thursday, July 31, 2003

One who connects to a potato server. :)

T. Norman
Saturday, August 2, 2003

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