As a freelance RoR developer, I run across all kinds of clients. My favorite kind of client is the type that will actually get his application into production. Beyond the rate that he pays me, a running-in-production application is what I want. We’ve all seen sites where people show off their work; you know the portfolio page that just shows thumbnails and an application description. Well call me crazy, but I want to see more!, and your next potential client will want to see more too. Ideally, you’ll be able to show off your hard work in all its splendor! Therefore, you need to work on projects that will launch.
There are clients, however, that want your services and are willing to pay, but won’t be able to give you another nugget for your portfolio. Most likely, the client is too emotionally attached to accurately weigh his chances of launching, but by running a few filters you’ll get an idea. A little disclaimer, none of these filters are right all the time. This is fuzzy logic. Use them as signals or cautionary flags.
1) The client doesn’t have wire-frames or any user interface mock-ups.
I described this in detail here. Essentially, if your client has mocked up his application, he has passed an important gate. If there are no mock-ups, then at a minimum he has some work to do before you really get rolling on the app-dev side.
2) The client would rather describe the application to you over the phone instead of with a document.
This is even worse than not having design. He is one of the most frustrating clients you can have, because he has probably seduced you with the big idea. You probably like the guy enough to overlook the fact that he has no written plan. But by taking this guy on, you become an enabler—you have set up your client to let you down. Put some gates out there before it’s too late and help him help himself. Don’t promise to work with him until he can show what he wants in writing.
3) Creating this application fulfills a personal mission for the client
Everyone has their white whale. Parents, past failures, messianic complexes, we all have something we want to “overcome”. If your client is on a personal mission, then he is polluting his business mission. I once had a client who basically said to me that he didn’t care if the application failed in the marketplace because he “had to do it.” Serious!? If this thing doesn’t launch, how am I going to show my next client what I’ve been doing for the past couple months? Aren’t therapists cheaper than Rails developers?
4) “Are you interested working for equity?”
Run!! The project you’re working on is so far from production, it’s not even funny. What’s funny is that you are still working on it, and haven’t been looking around for new clients to bail you out! I have a friend who was working for a database startup that was going to kill the relational database market with their new “organic” database. When I pressed him to describe the product in simple terms, he couldn’t. When I asked him who the beta customers were, there were none. That’s when I told him the writing was on the wall. Later that week, they laid everyone off, asked them to work for minimum wage in cash, collect unemployment, and work for equity. Later that month, the primary angel investor was arrested for funding the company with embezzled money.
A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Always take money before equity. Only take equity if it’s on top of your full rate. If they try to cut your rate and offer more equity, the project won’t make it to production.
5) After a payment or two, the client asks if you can reduce your rate.
Oh man, this one is sad. Bad vibes fill the air here. You can just feel that your client wants you around, but that you’re eating into his financial bone marrow. For God’s sake, shoot ol’ yeller and get a new contract!
6) “I’m going to lean on you heavily to tell me what this application should do.”
I fall for this one all the time. Being involved in business decisions is really fun for me plus it makes me feel important—it’s ego-stroking. But am I the one who should be figuring out what the user of the application wants? Look, it’s great when the client values your opinion, but beware. Your client should bring the business/customer expertise, and you should bring the technical expertise. Start tapping your network for contract leads if you find yourself telling the client what the product should do.
7) The client doesn’t have a customer who wants to use the application before it’s built.
Evaluating this differs depending if it’s b2b or b2c. If it’s b2c, then the client should have a marketing plan that you can read and understand. It should breakdown who the customer is, how many there are, and what they’re willing to pay. Your client should also have a few regular joes ready to sign up. If it’s a b2b app, absolutely do not sign on until your client has businesses ready to go before the app is built.
There are many signs that your project won’t make it to production, but these are a few that either I or my friends have ignored. Are there any I forgot? Let me know in the comments.