It Pays to Give Away

A few years ago, when just starting out in the consulting business, I would have been reluctant to give up any business at all. If someone asked me to write them a tiny script, or a massive desktop application used by thousands of people simultaneously, I would have been eager and raring to go. The bigger the project, the more likely I was to take it on, and I would convince myself that I was actually the right person for the job.

Fortunately, that didn’t ruin my business, but in hindsight, I was running a huge risk. There were certainly projects that I should have turned down for a variety of reasons.

What I discovered during the growth of my business is that there are really only a subset of projects that I personally should be getting involved with. For the rest? I have a nice Rolodex with names of businesses that would love to have those projects, and would do a fantastic job at them.

It’s not that I couldn’t do those projects, but rather, that I shouldn’t be doing those projects. While the short-term gains for me I perceived to be significant, in truth, they probably weren’t nearly as important as I thought at the time. What gains I made through those projects I could have made elsewhere, or made irrelevant through other projects I did.

In any business, it can sometimes be difficult to look at the current situation, and the latest opportunity, and determine whether or not the gains from that option are worth pursuing. What can help with this determination, though, is the presence of a clear goal, and you can look at the opportunity from the perspective of how much closer it gets you in reaching those goals.

For example, a project recently arose in which a client required a fairly complex web application to be built. This isn’t my area of specialty, and it’s not where I would take my business. Reflection told me to pass it on to a friend, who’s business does exactly this type of work.

The return benefits are often late in coming (I rarely take a referral fee directly from handing over a project), but can be more significant that what I’ve given. In this particular case, I landed a dream client I would have never met without this friend.

In other words, giving away a project or client now can have bigger returns. I consider it to be an investment in the relationship I have with the client and the company to whom I pass on the client to.

The client is happier because I forwarded them to someone more qualified. They trust me to tell them about my own expertise, because I’ve already proven that I’m not afraid to say that this isn’t what I do best. Forwarding them to others within my network increases the likelihood that if this client ever has a project that does fit my vision of an ideal project, it will be sent my way.

Likewise, the company who is being referred appreciates the business, and when they come across a project that suits my business more than their own, it too will make its way to my desk.

Oddly enough, this exchange is actually measurable in terms of pure profitability. I try to determine with every project that comes my way how the client found me. Once I do that, I can actually balance the project I got against those I gave away.

To date, I’m still on the leading side of this overall. Sure, there are a few relationships weighted in one direction or the other, but the benefits have far out-weighed the costs overall, and that’s why I will continue to pass along on projects that don’t bring me any closer to my goals, because passing those along is bringing me closer to my goals.