We just lost our biggest client

… and it was the best thing that ever happened to us

Imagine you’re a small start-up struggling to pay your bills and keep your doors open.

Then imagine that the project of your dreams comes along. With a vast scope and infinite runway, it brings the promise of consistent, significant income every month.

It sounds like a dream, right? But for us, it became a nightmare.

Massive projects can become all-consuming

When we embarked on this new project we allocated the requisite team members to it, but over time – and without realising it – more and more team members (and hours) gravitated towards it. At first we didn’t notice; and when we did start to notice, it was easily justified by saying “yeah, but it is our biggest client, so what’s the harm?”.

The harm is that we started Empire State to work with as many interesting people as we could, and to be involved in as many amazing projects as would have us.
The variety and diversity of challenges in a start-up was the reason we’d left our various corporate callings in the first place.

Over time we started to lose touch with this; to lose touch with what we set out to accomplish. We cancelled meetings with potential new clients. Add another thing you did, starting with We… We shifted everything to meet the needs of our single biggest account.

Even big clients must be handled as clients

When big clients demanded more attention, more face-to-face time and more communication priority, we let it slide. They were our biggest clients. They were our priority. They deserved it. Right? Wrong.

It is a slippery slope, and before we knew it we were in multiple WhatsApp groups, constantly on video calls and being pressured to be available 24/7 in ways which broke rules we’d put in place for our clients. And ourselves. And our sanity.

Just because a client has a big project and a lot of money to spend, it does not mean that they own your business. Shifting all your focus to one project is a very big risk that seldom pays off.

Good things come to an end

In the life of a start-up, stability has a certain allure. It makes it easy to be less hungry. It makes it easy to become complacent about growth. It tempts us to betray our values. 

Most dangerously though, the ability to seemingly endlessly pay the bills and thus to remove all financial pressure glosses over the fact that your ability to survive is now increasingly tied to one client – and that all good things must come to an end.

The client didn’t do anything wrong

So if another client walked through the door tomorrow with a massive scope, a seemingly endless runway and the promise of consistent, significant monthly income, would we turn them away? Absolutely not. It isn’t the client’s fault that we allowed them to pervade every aspect of our business.

Looking for these sorts of relationships will allow growth, expansion, learning and financial security. However, not repeating a few of the mistakes we made this time around will guarantee a different outcome – one which may not necessarily be successful, but will certainly see improvements and provide us with further opportunities to learn.

How to stop big clients from taking over your life

  1. Agree on a road-map early on and be honest about what is doable. Do not fall into the trap of saying “yes” to everything just to secure the project.

  2. Set boundaries and stick to them, remembering that big clients are still clients. They should be treated in the same way as any other client. Do not compromise your values for them.

  3. Do not over commit and allow other projects to suffer. If the project team needs to grow, look to hire-in or seek external help and let the client carry the risk.

  4. Don’t forget why you are here and what you set out to accomplish. Even in a start-up environment, money isn’t everything.

In conclusion

I am by no means saying that a big client with grand visions and deep pockets cannot be a dream come true for your business. It can. It has been the launch pad for many successful companies.
But you do need to be careful what you wish for. If you take on a big client that you are unprepared to handle, and don’t set the right boundaries early on, your dream may morph into a nightmare – just like ours did.

Sometimes, late at night when the pressure is on and the bills pile up, it may seem worth it – but compromising on the core values of your business will not bring you the happiness and stability you seek.

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