April 2, 2022

The secret to not failing in a client-based business

Over the past few months as I’ve told people about our journey building and now selling our agency, a number of curious entrepreneurs have asked something along the lines of, “What was your secret? Why did clients work with you?”

Honestly, there isn’t a great answer. Every client had their own reason, and most of them are probably subconscious. And like every service business, we also lost more things than we won by at least two or three multitudes.

But that being said, I find myself referencing this one little quip that I heard back during our first year in business. It’s from a truly delightful commencement speech delivered by author and artist Neil Gaiman at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May of 2012:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

The whole address is wonderful, you should give it a read/watch/listen if you have a few minutes and want to smile.

As Gaiman says above, in business you can do three things:

  1. Do great work
  2. Be on-time
  3. Be a pleasure to work with

If you can check all three of the boxes, great. You’re going to be successful. But as he says in the speech, you can get away with two of them.

At various points in our run, we’d screw up. A deadline might be missed. Sometimes work might not have been up to the standards wish we hoped for. We always felt miserable when these things happened.

But the one thing that was always true was #3. We were always a pleasure to work with. We genuinely liked our clients and our clients genuinely liked us. It’s easy to forget in the beginning that business relationships are also always human relationships, and that people want to work with folks that they enjoy the company of.

As we matured, we nailed #1 and #2 more and more. But we never forgot the importance of kindness in our journey. That was our insurance against failure.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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