As a business owner, my most empowering experience was firing my first manufacturer and walking away from a toxic relationship. Sometimes the very people you're writing checks to are your gateway to an early grave. When your vendors, manufacturers or independent contractors aren't living up to your standards (your reasonable standards) you ABSOLUTELY have every right to say, "buh-bye!" I don't care how new or small your business is, or even how young you are... "SEEYAH!! SAYONARA!! BON VOYAGE!! YOU'RE FIRED!!"
I was so eager to just get my first collection produced that I didn't read the warning signs when I interviewed this potential manufacturer. Good God, the writing was on the wall (shake my head). I was tired of the process and just wanted to get started already. For starters their office, where they held meetings with their designers, was in the middle of the workshop. It was filthy. I mean... I would literally empty out my man bag and sit on it because I didn't want to ruin my slacks after sitting on their dirty chairs. But I thought, "Maybe that's just how this industry is. Maybe they are so good at what they do that they have no need to put on a show." "We can do it ALL," they said. "We've been doing this for 20 years," they said. I was stoked! Hot damn everything was going to be finished in a month and I'll be in business...
Three months later I had a collection. I had a collection that I sent back! Yep, every last piece. The quality just wasn't there. If I wouldn't spend my hard-earned money on a flawed product I sure as hell wasn't going to put my name on it and sell it to someone else. "Don't recast everything. Just make me one sample of each design. If the quality has improved I'll approve and we can move forward with production," I tell them. So, the quality improved for the next few orders. Well, some of it improved; it was hit and miss. I still had one critique that they could never seem to fix, but I was trying to be an easy client and kill them with kindness. I place a big order and wait for the call to pick it up. "We delayed our vacation so that we could finish this order for you, Johnathan," they tell me. Might I just say that making your clients feel guilty for doing your job, the job they are paying you for, is extremely unprofessional. When you tell clients that you went an extra mile to provide a service to them their first thought is, "I don't really care and now I'm annoyed that you felt the need to tell me that." I'm sorry, but it's the brutal truth.
So, I pick up my order, grab a coffee with a good friend in downtown, and begin inspecting every last piece. In a state of complete shock I ask her, "Are you seeing these blatant flaws!? Am I just being picky?" She answers, "No babe, those pieces are clearly flawed. They were being lazy." I was FURIOUS and wanting to cry all at the same time. That was the moment I shifted gears from nice guy to business-is-business guy.
I followed my gut reaction and called the bank to put a stop payment on the check I just wrote them. I went back and forth about whether or not this was the right/ethical thing to do. But I had to put myself in the mindset of a business owner, not a scared kid. I thought, "You know what... no. They had no problem with handing me subpar work that was clearly flawed and taking my money. Why should I feel bad about protecting myself?" I had no investor; I was using my life savings to fund this business. I couldn't afford to allow people to take advantage of me like this.
I walked into their office the next week knowing for certain that if someone was going to lose money for their umpteenth screw-up it was going to be them, NOT me. I sat down and said, "Here's what's happening: I'm going to return the pieces I can't sell, write you a new check for the pieces I'm keeping, and that will conclude our business together."
"Oh, we don't take returns my friend, you can have a credit for what you don't want," they tell me. (Wrong answer.)
I think I literally heard the last straw snap in my head. I shot back, "This isn't a discussion! You can either take a new check for what I'm keeping or take it ALL back, your call. I gave you clear, detailed instructions from day one, I expressed my concerns and provided you with everything you could possibly need to do the job properly."
I walked out of that office and couldn't help but smile to myself. I was proud. I didn't feel like a boy playing businessman anymore. I felt like a man... A real businessman.
I wanted to use my experience as an example so that I could effectively relay this:
Despite the fact that you're a newer/smaller business, you have every right to call an underperforming contractor on bad behavior. They will walk all over you if you give them half a chance. In addition to being the CEO, creative talent, PR team, graphic designer, HR coordinator, etc., you must also be a f*@king lawyer. Don't give anyone any room to say that you didn't effectively communicate your wishes. To accomplish this you must:
- Give clear and concise directions via email (paper trail). Include measurements, examples, screenshots, photos, and detailed notes of what you want your end product to look like.
- After sending an email make it a habit to follow-up with them via phone call.
- Pay them on time and according to your contract terms if there is, indeed, a contract in place.
- Maintain a good relationship with a representative at your nearest bank where your business account is held. Keep them on a first name basis so that you can call and immediately cancel a check when your contractor tries to pull a fast one on you. Remember: This business is your baby and every dime counts. If someone can't hold up their end of the bargain, they are going to lose money -- NOT you.
When trying out a new contractor read all the warning signs. Lookout for:
- Bad communication skills. Are they responding to your emails and calls in a timely manner?
- Do they try to rush you off of the phone or out of their office?
- Do their prices change willy-nilly?
- Are they managing your expectations? I can tell you from experience that you should never trust someone who says, "Oh we can do it ALL. We aren't Cartier but we've been doing this for years, don't worry." Translation: "We can't do it ALL and we're going to give you crap on a platter." An honest, sound contractor will tell you what they are and aren't capable of upfront.
- This one is VERY important (again, I know from experience.) When you talk to them... Does it feel like you're talking to a wall? Like maybe you've had more intelligent conversations with your cat? Are they actually comprehending the words that are coming out of your mouth?
- If you're having to research the 'how to' when it comes to the mechanics of your project then you've hired the wrong person for the job. Your job is to provide them with clear details. Their job is to execute. If they utter the words, "Hmmm... How do I do that?," it's time to hit the hills running.
IMPLEMENT THE 3 STRIKES RULE
- Strike 1: Err on the side of, "Maybe I screwed up." Communicate with them! "What happened? Did I screw up? Did I not communicate my wishes as effectively as I could have? Let's put a new system in place to avoid this problem in the future."
- Strike 2: Meh... Maybe I'm not crazy. Maybe you are completely ignoring my emails and wasting my time. Now, you're allowed to let them know, "I got your number and you're skating on thin ice."
- Strike 3: Buh-Bye
The truth of the matter is that you will be intimidated at first. You're going to be having conversations with people that have years and years of experience in their fields. However, always be prepared to walk away from a toxic relationship. You're still the customer with the vision and checkbook. If you're losing sleep over their poor performance then something is wrong. Your time is too valuable to be doing your job and their job. It may not seem like it at the moment, but there are 150,000 other professionals that do exactly what they do, would be happy to have your business, and may just do a better job.
Avoid the clear and present danger by reading the signs, addressing the problems, and knowing when to walk away. -JC