Morgan (Host): Hey, everyone, welcome to the latest edition of the client-horror-stories podcast. I’m honored today to have one of my close friends, and I use that word with very few people, Manar here. I invited him on because we were chatting the other day, as we do almost every week of my life, which makes me very happy, and he was talking about this crazy client situation as Divoom challenging, and he had a couple of years ago, and I said, “Wait, wait, this will be perfect for the new podcast. So Manar, let’s jump and talk about your client-horror story. Let’s go.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Thanks, Morgan, and it’s a pleasure. It is always fun to chat with you, and I am very happy to share some of the crazy things I experienced. I think anyone who’s been in any kind of Client Services has got their fair share. And the one we were chatting about is definitely at the top of my list. So one of the things that happen, I guess, if you’ve been around a little while, you know, a few people, you occasionally get calls out of the blue.
So this is one of those where we got a call out of the blue on a Friday, and literally, someone just said, “Hey, a person we know told us that you might be able to help us with our problem. We are launching an off site on Monday and we were wondering if you can help us.” Take note that we received the call Friday afternoon.
Morgan (Host): So the one that called you wasn’t your client yet?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, at this point, the call was from someone who became our client on this story. So we got a call on a Friday saying, “Someone said you might be able to help us as we’re launching a site on Monday. The website all works perfectly in terms of all the pages and everything, except if you get two users on the site, everything falls into a hole.” So the problem with their website is that it only works if you access one page at a time. Their problem was a huge performance problem, and if that problem isn’t going to be solved, they won’t be able to launch that site on Monday, considering they called on Friday.
The caller was working on a fairly sizable media company that was launching their new site, and they couldn’t delay the launch. It was coordinated with some activities on their TV channel, so it was like they didn’t really have a choice but to launch on Monday. So for their company, it was very, very valuable for them to launch on Monday and it would have been very problematic to delay it. So we went from a simple first client conversation to “Okay, what is the project? What are the terms? Who can we get to work on it? Starting work?” Like we got called during lunchtime roughly on Friday, and you know, obviously, you need to get started pretty quickly if you’ve got less than 48 hours to try and complete the project.
Morgan (Host): By the way, I just want to pause there and make the observation that in my experience, anything with such an extreme urgency already comes to the red flags. Like extreme urgency alone, forgetting anything else, it’s like, okay, for them to reach the point where there’s such urgency, that means someone fucked up massively before. It could be the vendor, but it could also be that they don’t know how to manage work with people and plan—so knowing nothing more than that already, like my alarm bells are going off.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): You don’t wind up in a situation like that without something having been a problem. So, you know, we were only on the project for a number of days, so I have some guesses. But you were correct If you were implying that there was already a supplier involved, which was an agency that had built the site for them.
Morgan (Host): I guess that if they were launching on Monday, they had to have someone who built out before.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, I mean, I guess theoretically they could have done it in-house. But more normally, it was done externally but not what was the case here. So our role was to work with that company. They were to be at our disposal with any questions that we had; we would hand in our gloves. So the first phase of this was like, “Look, can you help us?” And the first gotcha that we managed to avoid was basically, (we’ll come back to this later) but making sure that we got into that project in a way where it is like, “We will work on this, but this is crazy, we can only do our best efforts.
What does that look like? And also to give us half a shot, we don’t know how much it’s gonna cost. We don’t know who we’re going to pull in.” So how do you deal with starting a project where it’s like, we don’t know if it will succeed, we don’t know how much it’s gonna cost, and you want us to start like you want to get the contract signed and that’s the start, you know, in a few hours, you know, as possible. So there’s some stuff that we learned from earlier projects where we were in a position where we were in the business for a while, so we kind of know-how to start projects quickly if we need to. I think something I might have mentioned to one of our chats once was all lifesaver, which was something we called “The consultancy services agreement or the CSA,” which was the idea of putting into a one-page document, something you should give to someone that looks reasonably innocuous, in a sense that it’s just describing what you agreed on the phone call or the kind of in-principle conversation that you had with the business person.
But you know, it has a URL, so when someone signs that they’re signing up to our 14 pages, the terms and conditions and you know, we send it as a PDF, they can click on it, we’re not trying to quite massively hide it. But it tends to be easier for clients to feel like they have got to sign the contract off.
Morgan (Host): I see. It encourages them to read the short version. Even though there might be important details in the long version, but the long version, it’s not hidden; it’s still right there for them to see.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): It also makes it really clear that the long version is our standard terms and conditions. It’s on a URL, it’s on our website, and anyone can punch that URL in and get it. We didn’t make up a bunch of terms just for them, and some people will still want to negotiate it. Anyway, what that meant was we were pretty comfortable, and all we needed to put on the CSA was some pretty blunt terms. But still, you know, best efforts, “We will charge you this.” and also we anticipated some of the issues. So it’s pretty common that if you’re charging time and materials, which obviously this would need to since there was no doubt to anyone that we were committing to other than best efforts. We literally asked him, the project manager, that we would deliver them twice daily.
I mean, bear in mind, that’s only like sending me like five or six occasions, but a twice-daily report, including timesheets and information on why we made the decisions we did so that there will be a maximum of like six hours of project elapsed time when they hadn’t received report what was happening, which is pretty extreme, but like, you know, we were starting on a Friday afternoon and trying to finish it by Monday. We potentially racked up quite a bit of billable hours on that basis, and the rate was not cheap, so we felt it was important that we were giving them every opportunity to say “Wait a second,” They weren’t willing to give us a budget to work through anything that’s like, we just got to get this fixed.
So greedy and alleyway, we told them where we thought we were going to start, and we told him that we needed to bring someone in. So I mean, do you want me to focus on the crazy, the thing that kind of like really stood out or like you want to short kind of headed ahead of the project from start to end?
Morgan (Host): I think we should jump. I think it’ll be fun for all three people who listen to this to hear the narrative form. So “this happened, and this, then this,” So maybe begin from the short form of the narrative, until we get the other crazy part where you can expand it in more details.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Okay, cool! So there was like, probably, we got the whole contract thing nailed within two hours, including getting to know what the project was, asking some information, a bit of scoping information about who are we gonna be working with, and other things that were like a phase. Then I wanted like half an hour to confirm that I could get a bunch of people to work on the weekend, so that was like another two hours included.
We were like going to a bunch of staff and saying, “Look, guys we will pay you a bonus and we know it’s a bit crazy. If you say no, it’s totally cool, but he was an interesting client and it’s always fun to do something a bit crazy.” After that, I got two or three members of staff to agree to come in and work the whole weekend. I also called on a bunch of people that I knew, and basically, I created a team of seven or eight people who were willing to work during the weekend before for a decent amount of money. Everything was on the basis of hoping that we’d get something done, and if we don’t, we don’t.
That was the first two hours; then we got to work. So that was the usual stuff just on the accelerated timescale like getting access to systems, trying to work things out, and understanding of tension or sweat. Anyway, I won’t go deeper into any of the work stuff, but it was very unusual. It was just a very compressed-normal project. But the thing that really stood out and took out some of the lessons learned was not only the crazy experience, but there’s one very visceral moment that I remember, which is partly because it was on the weekend. But as a kind of the founder and as the one who’s running a sort of moderately sized agency that had about 30 staff, you get pulled in a lot of directions.
And there was something about getting paid a lot of money to work over a weekend, which I was, well, at least theoretically taking most of off work. So the first thing that I did, once we’d signed the contract, as I went, and I found a box. I carefully swept everything on my desk into the box; my desk had all sorts of things on it, and mentally and physically swept the board clean. I was like,” I’m not going to read any emails and I’m not going to do anything.” You know, it’s like that one of those plugins where you like focus plugins. But from that point, until we finished the project, I genuinely took my partner to the people who were like, okay, there is nothing in my life that I need to think about, except for this one thing.
Morgan (Host): I liked it when you stated that you removed everything that was on your desk. The act of throwing everything inside the box is like these physical representations of emotional seats are important for the soul.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, I mean, I didn’t realize at the time that it was a practical thing that I have been doing. I always wanted to have space on my desk to put pads in and have everything that I was looking at about the project. Well, looking back at it even a day later, just to look at the sequence, and that’s the first thing that we got to work. I essentially crisis managed it, so I didn’t do any of the technical work I got people on.
Also, we would meet every two to three hours so that we could discuss what we had learned, discuss the right things to do on the troubleshooting, who’s going to look up what, and we’d literally divvy up tasks. We’d spend anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes speaking, reviewing what we’d learned, agreeing on what we needed to learn, agreeing on what we needed to validate, and agreeing on what we needed to get access to.
We literally had this cycle, we worked 12 hours a day, the next few days, and it was just a cycle of getting together as a group of six or seven people in a room. Whiteboard took things out; what are we learning? What are our suspicions? What are our questions? What do we think we’ve learned? What do we want to validate? Literally every two to three hours, we would sit down and do that, discuss what our theories were, discuss what we needed to relearn, validate further or explore and get access to agree who’s gonna do what. And then in those two to three hours, in between each of those, I would basically write up, make sure everything was very clear for the team, put a lot of work into making sure that it was as easy as possible to digest so that there was no chance that anyone was not on the same page, look at your cross-references, and what we’ve learned before we’ll be missing something like absolutely hooking over the detail of, are we missing anything? Are we being as productive as if we should be? Where should we be putting our attention? And is this clear and straightforward for anyone to digest and pull things together where I think 100% of my time was on that.
Morgan (Host): As a side note, I never saw you in a crisis management role, but I really like this sort of framework of you having a meeting every two hours, and everyone gets to work well; you organize meeting notes and track everything. All that takes so long that by the time we get done with that, it is now already time for the next meeting. That was great!
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): I mean, that was pretty much it. There’s something really joyful about a problem being valuable enough to solve, where you can, you know, really expand almost every sinew, every piece of the effort to just squeeze every piece of value out of getting it done as quickly and as well as possible. And that’s something that came out of working through the.com era, I guess; I just got used to these crazy situations where it’s funny with startups in those days. At least, I guess to some degree now as well, a little less. But you are either in this horrifically cash-starved phase, where you did everything you could to try and make progress without spending any money, and then you would get to this point where all of a sudden some VC would invest, and you get this entering into the ’90s, and in the early noughties, you’d get this incredible amount of money just dropped on you. And the change in what was appropriate to try and do it was just crazy. So I think some of the things honed in that period were like, you know, you just needed to get it done by date.
Morgan (Host): By the way, sidenote one, I’ve never heard the noughties in a phrase again before, or I’ve never out loud because it was never written. So I think it means that at least one person actually says it. Two, constantly, surely for a good cause, cleaning up by my hundreds of open browser tabs on one of them, I read a quote from some South African tribal, per se. (I think it was I forgot who), that made the observation that “What characterizes a warrior is his speed.” wasn’t the exact words, but to that effect. And I feel like that definition where it describes the Warriors are supposed to make decisions fast and does it like they are always in a battle situation; you have to do it quick. As opposed to most people, oh, let me ponder that, let me follow the strategic plan. So you’re in full warrior mode.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): The key thing about that is when the situation becomes life or death, right? And it’s immediate, like if you don’t survive this next combat, or if you don’t make use out of this next short period of time. So another aspect of clearing the Deck is like there is no space for equivocation or sort of broad-spectrum strategizing when you’ve got a really tight deadline, that’s, you know, a couple of days away. And there’s something really magical about it, so by the end of Saturday, for example, it was weird because I was working my butt off like crazy, but actually, it was the easiest, most fun, and the lightest thing I’d done for months because I was only worried about one thing. Intensely worried about one thing, but only about one thing.
Morgan (Host): This reminds me like you are in full flow that even if you are under super-high pressure or you are facing a high-stakes client project, there is a joy that comes from that.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Absolutely. Anyhow, fast forward to Saturday evening, Sunday morning. Saturday evening, we finished with a moderately high belief that we thought we uncovered the issues and we could resolve them. My apologies, I think it was Sunday evening. So Sunday evening, we think we’ve nailed it, we ran a few tests, we basically woofed and all that kind of stuff.
Like obviously, there was lots of pain, ups, and downs. But those are kind of just an accelerated version of what happened on a normal project. The crazy thing that happened was this; we all left, we did a little bit more work, but basically, on Monday morning, we were pretty confident that we were like in the last two to three hours. Basically, we were just mopping up, and we were doing a little bit of validation work because we were pretty confident. We said we did that before we kind of convene for our first meeting, we all got in early, kind of excited, and we were waiting for the client agency. So the agency that we were doing stuff, they were working in our offices whilst we were doing this work.
Morgan (Host): Wait, the client’s agency came to your office to do the work together.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, actually, there were two of them. Sometimes even only one of them and they were much more design-led, which was one of the reasons why there were issues. They were design-led in the website development, and there’s a whole other thing that is slightly geekier of us that can revel in a little bit. But anyhow, obviously, they had all the context of the information. They were nice, smart people, so they were able to contribute to mainly one person. There was also one other person who was there for a chunk, like their tech, lead type person who wasn’t super tech.
We’re waiting for them to turn up for the first meeting, and we’re doing some other things, and then someone said, “Hey, did anyone else get kicked off the server?” There were like five or six servers. “Did anyone else get kicked off the server?” And someone said, “Yeah, it’s rebooting.” “Oh, that’s weird. Okay, well, you know, it’s not live yet , let’s wait a few minutes.” And then, like five minutes later, it’s like, my login wasn’t not working. “Oh, there’s another server that is rebooting.” Okay, there are five servers, and two of them rebooted, so I called the client, but there was no reply. I then called the client agency, and still, there was no reply. This point where we were expecting them to be here by now as well, so they were slightly late. Not suspiciously late, like 10 minutes later or something. But they’re incommunicado, and then we’re literally sitting there waiting.
Morgan (Host): At that moment, if I were in your shoes, I’d be in total freakout mode.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Well, we were in crisis mode anyway, right? We thought we solved it, but we were there, and we’re like, “This is weird.” I suspect we’re being kicked off, which is rude and strange because we think we’ve nailed the problem, we’ve nailed the diagnosis, but we haven’t actually fixed the problem yet. They’re not replying, so what are they scared off or what’s going on?
We did have a little bit of worry because we spent, very low, but still six figures over a three-day period or in dollars anyway, build in pounds. So it was, you know, high 10s of 1000s of pounds in two and a half days, but still a decent slug of money. And we did wonder, that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to make sure that we gave them two sets of timesheets and numbers a day so there was no way that they could say that they were surprised by the number. So we had a bit of a suspicion that maybe there was just a problem regarding the numbers.
Morgan (Host): By the way, when you said before the timesheets every few hours, I thought they were demanding that to be controlling. But now I realize; actually, you like doing that because it minimizes the risk of raising suspicion like maybe they would say, “You guys didn’t do anything,”
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Not even about the content, right? Very often, timesheets are about like I did the work notice. But there’s more that they can’t really complain about, you know, four sets of timesheets later about what happened on the first timesheet.
So yeah, from memory, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m fairly sure that they might not even ask for the timesheets. I think it was our requirement that we would report to them because we wanted to have the assurance that they couldn’t say, “We had no idea.” Well, they could say, “We have no idea,” but it will be like, “Well, that’s because you didn’t read our twice a day report, that’s not on us.”
Morgan (Host): You know my stomach is churning, you’re all kicked off, and you’re like 10 minutes late.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): I know this is the thing, right? So this is the crazy thing, and I think this is probably a bit of a geek mentality here. But like, we have this period of time where we’re getting kicked off, or we’re getting kicked off one server at a time. So I’m guessing there’s one guy who’s going from one box to another. So someone said, “Shall we lock everyone else out from the other three servers, so we can’t get kicked off? Do you want me to put another account in so that if they try and purchase? Like, we were probably more competent than the people kicking us off, and we still had root access on the three boxes.
For starters, they didn’t kick us off all the machines at the same time, which is definitely how we would have done it if we really wanted to kick someone off. So we had a window in which we could have maintained access to the three servers; we also had the capacity to think about ways that we might be able to regain access to the other two that would have basically involved some pro hacking. But at this point, we did not know other than through reasonable guesswork, but they weren’t getting hacked. The client wasn’t answering calls, so they hadn’t told us they weren’t available. And we had signed the one thing we were on the hook for, the one promise, commitment, and deliverable we had, was that we would try our best efforts to make sure that site was off in about four hours from this point in time, and it’s very hard to do that if you’re not on the books.
So there was a part of me, and this is what I meant by it’s almost an objection of geek mindset, is like “Well no, I didn’t do everything that I could have done and we hadn’t been taken off the project.” So there’s something very literal or something like it’s not zero, and it’s not a one, right? It’s got to be one of those two; it’s like something black and white, when I said, “I promised that we would do what we could, we haven’t been taken off the project, so we gotta keep trying. And it got to the point where I’m like, so we decided that that was a bit crazy. We sent messages, but we didn’t take action to retain access or regain access because it seemed most likely that the client was just being weird.
Also, we only had like 5 or 10 minutes or something to take that. But then they still weren’t there, even when they were done. We’re like, “Okay, they’ll get done,” and then they’ll talk to us. So we sent an email saying, “We think you’re taking us off the project, could you please confirm? Because until you take us off the project, we are contractually obliged to keep working and to do everything we can. And there are things that we could do.”
Morgan (Host): You’re using reasonable best guesses that they’re taking off the project, and they’re not responding to any communication?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, it was the most credible explanation. It was very strange that they wouldn’t just tell us; I can kind of get why they want to kick us out of the boxes. Because if they feared, I don’t know, like, depending on how, you can see how they’d go there, right and completely false, but find whatever. They want to take us off; they want us to stop work; they didn’t want to say “Stop work” and still have access to the box. It’s a bit like, you know, when you fire someone when they’re working in an investment bank, someone walks over and says, “You’re fired. I’m going to stand here, I’m going to switch off your computer myself. I’m going to stand here until you’ve taken everything.” It’s extreme, but you can kind of get it, right? But after they theoretically removed access to us, I think that we felt like there was still a way back in which we didn’t take.
I can’t remember, I think I might be making that one up, but I think there was. There certainly was a period in which it was clear that we were being kicked out. And we still had the ability to like, stay on at least some of the servers, so that’s pretty incompetent. But anyway, after that, surely they’d say something after that. So fast forward, like 15 or 20 minutes, and we’re like, “Okay, let’s send the messages. We’ve been locked out and we’d like a confirmation that it was intentional. We clearly need to do things if it wasn’t you. We are very happy to stop work, but the contract requires us to do our best efforts. Unfortunately, we’re one of those annoying people who take those things seriously.” Still, no one was replying. You know, if you want us to stop work, just tell us to stop work, that’s fine. Like, we put that into an email or a text message and send it to us; we would be fine by that.
Morgan (Host): Clarification, when you started, there was a signed contract in place, right?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): We don’t do work without a signed contract. Yeah, I definitely won’t do any kind of project without a signed contract. That signed contract, the one deliverable we had, as I said, was our best effort. We had not been given a stop, so we have contractually obliged the one and the only thing we needed to do, give our best efforts. It was very weird, but then the unfortunate thing happened, which is I realized that we could probably continue working because they hadn’t locked us out from DNS.
And one of the contingencies that I’ve taken on as an advantage of being in the industry for a while and having a lot of good friends is how they can help me in situations like this. I spoke with my friend, who was the CTO at a company, and he had a stack of kits. He had several $100,000 worth of very high-powered equivalent to an Assan Unix box, right? So they were running on Sun, and most of the stuff was open source. So I was faced with this. Hang on, wait a second over the weekend, in case it was needed, I’d asked a friend to like, “Look, if we really needed it, could I basically use all of your “already online,” 300,000-pound server, on a fast connection that turns out that we just need to throw hardware at it. He said, “Okay, yeah, sure. We’re not using the server, and you can use it for a while.
That’s fine.” So going back, we could still do something about the project because we still had access to the DNS, we had access to the code, we also had my friend as my contingency plan, so there were still things that I could do. I could still access the books, install the software, fix the site, and even switch the DNS if we had to fulfill the more powerful box. Yeah, and it’s not right because it was almost certain that the client was telling us to stop. It was very strange to keep going, and It’s a bit like being ghosted.
Morgan (Host): It’s totally being ghosted, and you’re like the super, super loyal boyfriend in the dating metaphor. it’s like the girls ghosting, and you’re the one that’s like, “Oh my god, is she in the hospital?”
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): No, because you know it could happen, right? It could probably happen to her.
Morgan (Host): She could have been hit by a car, and it happened.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): But it’s probably not the case; I’m not an idiot, right? So we’ve been ghosted, I never thought of it that way or put it that way before, but we’ve been ghosted, and it’s like, or maybe they really you know, it’s like, but except in this instance, we even signed a contract. So we genuinely spend like 5 or 10 minutes like, “It’s a bit not, and it’s probably completely ridiculous. It’ll cost a lot of money, and they’ll probably really regret it; they’re still on the hook for it because they refused to tell us to start working.
They will have to pay for another half a day of us doing a bunch of stuff that they completely don’t want us to do, probably. But technically, that’s what the contract said we needed to keep working. Anyhow, we didn’t do that; we genuinely spoke about it, genuinely toyed with it, and it seemed like a nonsense thing to do. I sent my co-founder out and told him to go and visit the client’s office, which was just 15 minutes away. My co-founder arrived at the office, he went in, and he was like…
Morgan (Host): By the way, this sign-up, our COVID era where everything is increasing, hiring people anywhere in the world. It’s powerful to actually work with people in the same city because every once in a while, a situation like this happens where you actually need to go to their physical building, and that’s really that’s powerful. And you can’t do that if their building is in Madrid and you’re not in Madrid.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Exactly, I mean. Being able to wander over, bumping into people-type stuff as well, and being able to go to someone’s office and have a meeting with them or drop-in, or serve notice, all that kind of stuff like there are situations in which that genuinely matters. And also, I am absolutely clear that we would have been hampered and possibly to the extent that success would have become a failure in terms of the troubleshooting if we hadn’t had all been in one physical space together.
Morgan (Host): That’s another advantage of everyone being together.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, that’s right. Small differences make all the difference when you’re trying to squeeze every piece of value out of something because it’s a major crunch.
Morgan (Host): I love that phrase, “Small differences make all the difference when you’re trying to squeeze value out of something.” How likely are you on it?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Going back, when my co-founder arrived at the office, he went in and found out that everyone was missing; there was no one there. Even by physically visiting the office on a Monday morning, I won’t be mistaken by this; it was definitely a Monday morning because my co-founder was around, and he was able to go for me because I was trying to, like, wrap up and talk to the client. So he went to the agency, who was their appointed rep for dealing with us.
This isn’t in a sequence with what I learned, but I learned, sometime later, quite a while later, because I wound up working on a different project with someone who happened to be working in that company previously. So I was friends with the agency, and the client’s rep was actually in the office, and my co-founder went over. The next thing that happened was the ridiculous thing ever; he hid under the desk. The client’s rep hid under the desk!
Morgan (Host): No way, seriously? It’s like right out of a movie!
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): It’s insane! So literally, all my co-founder was trying to do was like, “Look, just tell us to stop work. Send us an email, a text message, tell me in person, like literally we just want someone to say stop work. Because we are legally obliged to keep working with best efforts to fix your site until you do.” Like at this point, we’ve been asking them for like an hour remotely interest. So yeah, the guy was so scared of us. I still don’t quite know exactly what they were scared of.
Morgan (Host): Was your partner like a 6foot bodybuilder?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): No, not even likely. He was robust in conversation, so there was a level of intellectual intimidation that might have been felt, but definitely not physically. He was, you know, no, not at all. Not even vaguely. It’s like yeah, on the slight end of the scale. Anyhow, like fast forward to the hour where we finally get the stop signal from the client. Then we sent an invoice in like, half a day later, because we would have been time cheating like crazy anyway, so it was very easy to do.
Then we got the “Sorry that builds unreasonable we’re not going to pay.” And so it became pretty clear that money was the issue, but it’s just weird. Why didn’t they tell us immediately to stop? Like how does it not tell us to stop helping them with the billing situation? But reading between the lines, the client was intransigent, the actual client in the media company. At this point, like I literally would have been out of pocket because I’d make commitments to pay other people bonuses, on staff, I was paying significant sums of money per hour to really good consultants because, as I said, we would do everything we could to build and then they agreed and allowed that.
So I was paying significant rates and making a little bit of profit on top of that, I guess, for the people. But we literally wouldn’t have even been able to cover like half of the bills that we would have got if we’d have treated other people fairly. So we either would have gone to finance and said, “I’m really sorry, we’re reneging on our contracts as well enough, not something I was prepared to do,” we would have been subsidizing their action. And the irony is, I assume what happened was that on Monday morning, the client worked out the amount of money, talked to the finance, and got told, “What on earth are you doing? Talks to the agency and was told, “Yeah, we’re pretty sure we know what’s going on, and we think we can fix it now.” I think that was what happened.
By the way, they didn’t actually fix it. Instead, they messed it all up. I’m pretty sure it could have been fixed back then, it just got us working for another couple of hours, or we could have supported that. There was no conversation around that we just thought of it, But it was pretty much there, so I assume that someone else got involved, and that person got told of whatever. So what actually eventually happened was that we spent like two-three weeks’ time; if you have to force a client to pay, it’s pretty nasty, and they will never work fine again, might have wider implications. If you can find a better solution, we worked really hard for about two weeks, but there was no budging on the amount anywhere near what would even allow us to like breakeven on the project.
And we’ve busted a gut on that project. Actually, one thing I didn’t mention on the Monday morning while we were waiting for them to turn out, like the vibe until then, obviously things really changed when they started kicking us out, but like we were really on a high. Everyone was tired but elated like that joy of doing hard work that you’re not sure you’re going to succeed, and the joy of working really tightly in a small group, really jolly, and working incredibly efficiently. One of the team members, one of my staff members, even said, “My god we need to make a t-shirt.” Like literally, the vibe out of the weekend was like, “We need to celebrate this by having some physical memorabilia.”
And then, like an hour later, we’re like sending people over to try and find people hiding in the movie. It’s completely crazy. But in the end, we literally just sent a note with the invoice, the contract, and a cover note to the CFO of the media agency. They were like a broadcaster, and they were a pretty big company. It’s not the BBC, but a large broadcasting company. And we had no communication except like literally, I think within two working days, there was a, “You should have received the money.” After that, we never spoke to them again.
Morgan (Host): I didn’t understand
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): We spent two weeks trying to get an agreement with a client who hired us.
Morgan (Host): Oh, I see you went over his head to the CFO.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): We just wrote a letter, a legal-looking letter not from a lawyer, but a very matter of fact. “Please note the contract attached, please note our timesheets.” Like a few bullet points, you know we produced twice-daily updates, we fulfilled our work completely, and we even took a risk by stopping when we thought we were being told to stop. We basically just said very clearly, “There was no breach of contract.” We attempted to negotiate something to try and retain good faith with the client; It doesn’t look like that’s possible. We’d like to get paid in full, please. There was zero communication, except that we had been paid, like two days later.
And it was quick, really quick, really, really quick. The full amount just dropped in our bank account, and there was a reply saying, “You’ve got your money.” That’s all, and after that, I never spoke to that client again. That was our story, completely nuts. But you know, it’s why you go through the effort. Like what are the lessons? Number one. It’s why you go through the effort of doing a bit of contract work, right? Because everything can look great, you can do everything right. If we didn’t have a word of proof of the contract, we probably wouldn’t have gotten paid at all.
Morgan (Host): And by the way, in these cases, contracts are even more important than relationships because often like you’re friends with someone and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I know he’ll never stiff me.” But like even if your friend has the best intention, but the people behind your friend, who knows what they would do.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yes, and unless your friend is the only decision-maker and it’s just them, then even that’s not enough. I definitely had that lesson before, and that was actually probably my first business lesson. It was when I correctly judged someone’s intentions and did not judge that they were being dishonest with themselves about how likely they were to be able to stick to an agreement. So he’s basically one of the co-founders of the business that I helped, and it was a marketing business.
He was one of the first clients that I worked with when I was just coming out of university, starting out in the industry. I am pretty good at judging a person’s character, and at that moment, I was pretty confident that I judged his character and read it correctly. He was genuinely honest; I was investing a lot of time helping them how to do digital because they had no idea, completely clueless because, at that time, it was still very early in the internet days. And they were like, “Look; If this goes well, we’re gonna want to start an agency; you clearly know way more than us, which is why we’ll get you onboard as our junior equity partner.
Then I was thrilled because to drill them like that could be quite cool considering that I just graduated from a university and doing my own thing. It would be much nicer to have a full agency and all the rest of it. And what was predictable was that the company, as opposed to the individual who did not see the value of it, essentially milked me to get bootstrapped, to know what are the things that they should do and how to start it, then, of course, they would hire someone who’s maybe not as good or whatever, but like you’ve learned what you need to do to decide to do it.
You learned what you need to do to get going. You might not do as well, but you would still get a 100% of the pie. No, we’re not going to give 20% to this person, so we can just say, “There’s no contract.” And he was very, very apologetic, but actually, it was predictable that that was gonna happen. So yeah, when you sign the contract, it’s not just about whether or not you trust the person. If you do not know what the situation will be and you do not know who else will be involved.
Morgan (Host): That’s a great lesson. Do you have other lessons from the situation before I jump in?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Probably the biggest one, the phrasing for it is something I actually got from an MBA a few years ago; I didn’t see them already because I unplugged them already. But definitely, do you want to have an international look anyway.
Morgan (Host): On my podcast, no one’s allowed to plug themselves, but you’re allowed to plug other people/
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): That’s fair. But one of the rockstar teachers ran a negotiation course, and his mantra was, “Expect variance.” In fact, the mainstay of the course was every week; we would practice negotiations with each other, so each of us were given roles to play and was given information so we could see the difference between a negotiation where everyone knows the fact or negotiations where only some people knew the facts. It’s a class of a hundred people, so usually, there were paired negotiations, so they knew, in each class, they would get to see the range of outcomes when the same identical negotiation happened 50 times, right?
Because you get people paired up 50 pairs. And it was just like, “Wow,” like you’d get negotiations where people would literally, and it’s weird right because everyone on the course was super smart, but for whatever reasons, I was mentioning charts about the psychology of it, but people would literally agree to a deal that was worse than walking away., right? Unlike in real life, to set the scene and set the roles, you would be given explicit payoff numbers. You know, if you walk away from a deal that’s gonna cost you $6,000 to buy from somewhere else, or you can buy it from this person. But people are paying 7000. Yeah, and there’ll be like one person out of the 50. But when you look at the graph, and we’d all go like, “What happened there?” So yeah, that happened to post the project.
Morgan (Host): To tie into that, I heard you saying something about the wording of the contract?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): No, just like I would never have been able to predict it. You couldn’t make that up; you really couldn’t make that up. If you’d have asked me half an hour before to come up with 20 ways, you know, positive and negative four range to come up with 20 ways in which the next two hours could go on this project.
None of them would have said the “Client will refuse to tell us to stop work but will kick us off the servers.” Like you know, that would have been like guest 2000s. Like, you know, maybe not even, right? You just can’t guess it. There’s something I don’t know how actionable that is—something about being Zen or being open to the fact that weird things can happen.
But that could be positive as well, right? Where you can get these crazy things, you can jump off and come out of the blue. But yeah, just be aware that you will not guess everything, and you will not like stuff that will blindside you; that was one. And then the other one was really surprising, not surprising on one level, but surprising on the extent to which it was such a joy and so productive, unbelievably productive, to narrowly focus on one thing for a tight period of time. So that was something that I think most people know. But experiencing it
Morgan (Host): On that, I think this is part of the magic of startup land like you start to first get a lot of joy by just focusing on one problem.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, although there’s every risk if you’re in a startup that it’s hard to focus on only because they’re becoming so many different things. It depends on which phase you’re in, etc. Learning there is like, it’s easy to forget how bad or it’s easy not to be in contact, like not to realize how valuable that focus is to make it happen.
So now, I try and do things like blocking out time, paying a lot of attention to context switching costs, and putting time in my diary to focus on one thing for half a day or changing where I am so I don’t have all the physical distractions. So none of that is new to most people, but experiencing it that purely definitely kind of reinforced something that I kind of knew but didn’t know enough to really do it as much as they did after
Morgan (Host): Here are some minor questions that might help us get some other learnings. At what point did they go incommunicado? Was that on Sunday afternoon?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): During Monday morning.
Morgan (Host): So you received no responses throughout the whole week?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): That was the first time when something from them was expected, and it didn’t happen. We sent our report on Sunday evening, but we weren’t getting back an email saying, “Thank you very much.” So we didn’t get a reply, and that was unexpected. So the client’s rep was on our site on Sunday; everyone led on a high; I assume they then spoke. I mean, who knows, right?. I’m guessing they and the client spoke on Monday morning. I don’t know if something happened between everyone leaving on a high on a Sunday evening and are sitting around waiting for them to turn on a Monday.
Morgan (Host): By the way, not a lesson, but I’m really curious. The site ended up launching just as unscalable as a fiasco?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): It didn’t launch. You know what? I don’t know if I checked; I wasn’t even interested enough to remember or didn’t check, but it didn’t launch on Monday like it was supposed to; it was only launched a week or two after that.
Morgan (Host): By the way, another lesson is to get payment, go right to the top.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, but there’s a more general lesson out of that, which, I think a lot of people have learned one version of, maybe not as clearly, is to know what the escalation path is. You have to know what you would do if you didn’t get the response that you’re looking for. So you can do that with email; you send someone an email. Why do you have to boomerang it?
Because you know now when would you reply or follow up If you didn’t get an email, it’s the same because otherwise you just keep coming back, and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’ll wait a bit longer. Oh, okay, I’ll chase them again.” So know what the path will be, assuming you never get a satisfactory reply. And that does mean giving them some time. That doesn’t mean some escalation, right? Now some escalation with the same person.
Morgan (Host): I like your phrase the “Escalation path.” And like planning out events, especially when your clients forget to pay you.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): So I now do that, like if there’s an email that’s important and it doesn’t drop, I always decide at what point will I take action if I don’t get a reply or a satisfactory reply. An even pure version of that; some hadn’t realized this until one particular incident. Another startup grew, we were helping out for a while, we were chasing a huge US publishing company for payment on something.
They accepted it, and there was no dispute that we would do the payment. They were literally just saying, “Oh, we’ll pay you next week.” or “There’s a pay run.” Like all these different delaying tactics, as we later found out with the case and we’re talking about, I think, four or five months overdue before we finally told them that this was ridiculous and we needed to escalate. And that was the first time we were like, “Okay, what does that actually mean?” We were looking for a US lawyer because a UK-based company wasn’t trivial. We got that lawyer to send them a letter, and they paid straight up, no argument. We later found out, “Oh, yeah, that company? Oh, yeah they have a reputation of not paying until they receive a legal notice. It’s part of their script to never pay unless they receive a lawyer’s letter.”
Morgan (Host): No way, that’s part of the company’s script?
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Unless you’re a preferred supplier like they give anything about, right?. They literally have a reputation. We were new in the US, and it was our first time working in that kind of company. And it’s like, this company has a reputation. And they didn’t even care. it’s like effectively they’re saying, “If you’re not sending a lawyer letter, that just means you don’t really care if you get paid, so we’re not going to pay you.”
Morgan (Host): That’s incredible for me. I never thought of this as being a part of a company’s scripts. Now that you mentioned it, I can totally see that sort of way of thinking like you know that old saying, like, “if you know who the sucker is, it’s you.” I can totally see people having that same sort of thought, like, of course, they’re not serious enough about getting their money if they’re not doing this.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): And you know what, it’s the same thing, expect variance, right? For every one of those companies, as a company that has a 30-day term, but we paid you within a week because it makes no difference to your small companies and us.
Morgan (Host): Because this is now being recorded for the record, we will not mention here that there might be very different levels of variants, averages, and different geographic locations.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Yeah, some cultures definitely do it more than the others.
Morgan (Host): Culture may or may not be a factor, but we will not speculate on that today. I’m trying to think from your stories there if there are any other lessons. By the way, I also remember the lesson from the beginning, like how urgency is like that alone. Yeah, I think I think this is a great story, and we got a whole bunch of great lessons today.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): You’re welcome. I’m glad that you enjoyed hearing the crazy…
Morgan (Host): excited about being active in the agency world than you were a couple of years ago.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Well, yeah. It was a sad ending, but like it happens. Maybe not quite like that, but not every project turns out okay. And we got paid, so it’s okay.
Morgan (Host): Yeah, you went straight to the top. Actually, by the way, before we wrap up, I think one other lesson might be dealing with bigger companies, the role of the middlemen, because what I felt that happened was that the frontline person needed you and hired you. The top person at the end would pay you, but then there are these middle managers who are like, “That’s above budget on Monday morning, and it’s not worth it or something.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Maybe, I suspect that either the person who hired us was disingenuous in the beginning and just assumed that it would be an amount that they could stomach. They didn’t do the math until Monday morning; maybe they took a weekend off. They’re receiving all the reports, their client rep was receiving all the reports, and they just didn’t do the math, or she didn’t tell him. Because they refused to say things like we would have very happily worked through a budget. Maybe that would have meant it wouldn’t have worked, but that’s totally fine, right? They refuse to give us a budget to work to or a cap or a trigger point to stop unless we get the okay.
Morgan (Host): To tap into that for a second, it actually feels like a reflection for a second. it feels like it’s not just that they’re like, “Oh, that’s too much.” because there’s something deeper, because if it was like, “Oh, this is expensive, like please stop.” Like he wouldn’t have hidden under his desk, he would have told you. But the ghosting and the hiding under the desk, like that, only happens when he knows that he’s going to try to wiggle out of paying you. So there’s probably the realization that like that like fuck, I shouldn’t have authorized that. They’re going back in there. They’re not even going to pay, which is what motivated the desk hiding.
Manar Hussain (Interviewee): Maybe the person, the client’s rep, maybe he did have a budget that we weren’t told. I don’t know; I have no idea, I literally have no idea.
Morgan (Host): This was fantastic! I love the story; I’m happy that there’s a happy ending, and you’ve paid. Thank you for coming on. If you think of any other stories, come back another day. Bye-bye everyone, thank you for watching.
This transcription belongs to Episode #3, please watch the complete episode here!