On more ethical billing

Lionel Martin
Dec 2, 2017 · 4 min read

Dear consulting client,

From next month, you will stop receiving invoices from me. You won’t have to process any of them so we can work better together.

What you won’t see either is an hourly rate, a daily rate or anything that forces you into an investment decision each time you could do with some help.

You’re not a big fan of processing these invoices anyway. I assume this without having to take too much of a punt, have you ever heard of anyone being passionate about processing timesheets and invoices? The fact is no one wants to deal with hourly billing but all got into it at some point, perhaps because it sounded like the serious way to do business.

The other most common method of pricing in our industry is project-based fixed bid. The risk seems more distributed between the client and the provider, and at first seems to be more fair.
We expect that this will create healthy pressure to keep us all on track towards the same goal, but the client and provider’s interests actually go sideways.
After the deal is sealed, the game for a fixed-bid provider is then to deliver the full amount of code fast enough to keep enough profit, whereas obviously the client looks at the bigger picture beyond the deliverable. In the meantime, resources are unwillingly spent on producing a detailed scope. The scope — and the contract — become the center of attention, as if the code was what’s most valuable to the client.
What doesn’t get the proper amount of attention in this case are the two most valuable things: the building of shared understanding and the constant goal of looking for and getting the best outcome for the client. And if we don’t pursue the same goal and work together, when will we ever do our best work?

Indeed the goalposts will change as we go, it is a moving target. Scope is always changing. Even with all the wireframes in the world, the minute we start clicking on the web interfaces for real, the second we put it in front of the end user for feedback, the moment we see it on our phones, we’ll want to improve them.

So how do we work better together?
For the past few months, I’ve favourited a simpler form of engagement, which puts the collaboration back in the center of the relationship. We unburden ourselves of an upfront leap of faith by both parties, the pressure of having to make a big decision, and from the pain of rigorously defining a fixed scope that was never meant to be set in stone in the first place.

Instead, you choose a level of engagement ranging from light support to close-to-full-time engineering work, for a set period of time (a month or usually a quarter) based on the size of the objective.
Option 1 gives you constant access to me for technical advice, to support you in your long term technical decisions on software architecture, roadmapping, interviewing providers etc. This option is used by companies who only need light support to their product owner and developers, saving time and reducing risk on things I’ve done many times before.
Option 2 gives you hands-on architecture and development work, at medium velocity, usually a couple days of my time per week. This option is used by companies going through a critical phase of transition to AWS, hiring aggressively or architecting a product or integration while wanting to minimise technical debt. We usually meet a couple times a week.
Finally, Option 3 gives you all the support from the above options, on the most complex projects that require me to temporarily invest most of my time until a successful launch, migration or a new team structure. This option is used by agencies or tech companies needing to kickstart a greenfield project, at maximum velocity.

So what’s the fuss about it? It fundamentally changes how we work. Each option comes with a fixed fee and establishes set parameters for time and cost. All parties can then focus on maximising results. The cost being out of the way, we focus on creating the most value for the upcoming month, collaborating together, never to fear an upcoming discussion about scope, timesheets or availability. If the project says we need to adjust scope as we go, that’s fine: let the end goal — not a contract — be the ruler.
Under such an arrangement, the consultant is incentivised for increased productivity, and the client isn’t tied to the original scope. Finally, we work together to achieve one goal.

I’ve been favouriting this form of engagement for the last few months and I‘m not looking back. It led to the best business conversations I’ve had and it supports me greatly in my own ongoing objective of becoming a better coder, engineer and consultant, building strong relationships on the way. This is how I’m offering to service you now.

Thank you so much for reading up to the end.

Kind regards,

Lionel Martin

Lionel is Chief Technology Officer of London-based startup Wi5 and author of the Future-Proof Engineering Culture course. You can reach out to him on https://getlionel.com

Lionel Martin

Written by

Chief Technology Officer of London-based startup Wi5, AWS Solutions Architect -> https://getlionel.com