Too Many Checks and Balances Spoil the Broth

I enjoyed Paul Graham’s recent essay on corporate bureaucracy, and how there’s such a thing as too many checks and balances:

Checks on purchases will always be expensive, because the harder it is to sell something to you, the more it has to cost. And not merely linearly, either. If you’re hard enough to sell to, the people who are best at making things don’t want to bother. The only people who will sell to you are companies that specialize in selling to you. Then you’ve sunk to a whole new level of inefficiency. Market mechanisms no longer protect you, because the good suppliers are no longer in the market.

In thinking about my day job at Capulet, this article really resonated with me. We’ve been lucky to have no shortage of work over the past few years, and the luxury to be pickier about which clients we take on.

We’ve got sundry criteria for what makes an ideal client. One consideration is the formality of their processes.

When talking with a potential client, I start to worry if they ask for a lengthy, formal proposal. It’s rarely worth our time to write such proposals (and, you know, they’re no fun to do). More importantly, such a request tends to imply that the client may be running a formal and (at least in my experience) inflexible operation. That may work for them, but we like nimble, open minded clients.

Generally our proposed strategies can be summarized in a longish email message. If that, plus referrals to existing clients, isn’t satisfactory, we’ll often take a pass. This is why, for example, we’re not likely to get much work out of the Olympics.

Another sign of this issue is if they want us to talk to a half dozen people in an organization. If they’re not respectful of their own staff’s time, they’re unlikely to be mindful of ours.

UPDATE: On a related note, Jeffrey Zeldman writes about 20 signs you don’t want that web design project.


  1. Ditto for my business. I’m an independent consultant. I haven’t got the time to write lengthy proposals in response to RFPs for the government, and if I were to change suddenly and start doing that, I’d have to hike my rates at least by half if not double them entirely to cover all the time I’m proposing instead of billing.

    The reason I can serve my small business clients and stay within a budget that suits their needs is that I’m not required to jump through a thousand hoops in the sales process. I talk to the decision-maker openly about what they need, and I show them (in a proposal that probably tops out around 3 pages) what I’m going to do. They sign it, hand me a deposit cheque, and we’re in business.

    Governments and large corporations pay much more for consultants because they expect way too much from them for free up front.

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