Rules Of Engagement

My flight’s landing into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas last week was aborted at the last minute.


Not an oxygen-mask-deploying, Denzel-Washington-piloting, grown-men-sobbing (hey, I never said I was brave) abort, but scary all the same.

We were coming in for what seemed like a normal landing on a beautiful, clear day.

Suddenly, with the runway already visible, the plane abruptly changed its mind and steeply banked upward for several minutes, going back up through the clouds.

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We eventually leveled off, circled around and landed normally.

As the pilot later explained, there was another plane on the ground that had not quite cleared the runway in time and so he was required to pull up and try it again.

Rules are important. Not arbitrary rules, but rules that matter.

The trick, of course, and particularly if you own your own company, is distinguishing between the two.

Unlike when you’re an employee, where they literally hand you a manual of guidelines on your first day of work, there are few things regarding work as a solo that are written in stone.

Pay your taxes; don’t cheat people; no running with scissors. After that, it’s pretty much wide open.

Do you need a business plan? Lots of people say yes; I’ve never had one.

Should you charge a fee when you refer business to somebody else? It’s your call.

Do you give away free advice to those who want to “buy you coffee and pick your brain?” And, if so, how much and under what circumstances?

The list goes on and on.

All that said, there is one rule that I strongly suggest you follow: Develop a list of rules that you follow.

Not other people’s rules – your rules.

Policies and principles that govern the way you work, particularly as it relates to interactions with other people and companies.

It need not be fancy. Just take out a piece of paper and start writing (click here for some examples, courtesy of past participants in my One Year Program).

Why bother? I can think of at least two reasons:

  1. It will help you think clearly when you’re not thinking clearly.

    Let’s say, for example, that you prefer to get a deposit, up front, before beginning work with a new client. You’ve been burned before by nonpayment and you don’t want it to happen again.

    But it’s been a slow couple of months and you’re feeling kind of desperate. A company shows up and wants to hire you, but … they’d like to start right away and pay you “in about a month.”

    Depending on your frame of mind, you may agree, even though your more rational self knows that it probably won’t end well.

    If, however, you’ve got a rule – a written policy – that says, “I require a 50% deposit up front for any work with a new client,” you’ll find it much (as in, waaaaay) easier to stand by it, regardless of how the wind is blowing in your brain on that particular day.

  1. It will make you powerful.

    “Clients pay us, so we should do whatever they say, whenever and however they want it done, right?”

    Wrong. In fact I’m pretty sure what you just described is a thing known as “a job.” (ewww)

    You don’t have a job; you have a business, a profession, an expertise that they need.

    Believe me, if your clients could solve their problems without going outside the company, they would. It’s easier and less expensive. When they come to you, it’s because they can’t do it themselves.

    That’s an important insight (which is why I shared it with you). They’re not doing you a favor by hiring you – it’s an even exchange. Their money in exchange for the value you provide. Everybody wins.

    But that’s easy to forget. Especially, again, when things don’t appear to be going so well with your business. That’s where your list of rules comes in.

    You get to make them up; you get to put them in place; you get to decide who you’re going to work with and how. And … who you’re going to walk away from. Like I said, powerful.

Here’s the bottom line. You don’t need a single client or a day’s worth of experience as a business owner to decide how and under what conditions your company is going to work.

But until you take the time to make some rules, somebody else is going to make them for you.

How about you? What are your rules of engagement? Share your favorites with us below.

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6 thoughts on “Rules Of Engagement

  1. Peter Cohen

    After one bad experience, I too follow the “50% up-front” rule you mentioned. To be more specific, I don’t deliver anything until I collect 50%.

    Two others I try to follow:

    1. Don’t provide references to just any prospective client that asks for them. I want to be sure the prospect is seriously considering my services before I put them in touch with one of my reference accounts.

    2. When taking on a client under a retainer, specify at least one particular deliverable every month: a study, a paper, a set of interviews, a newsletter, etc. Or if there’s no written deliverable, establish at least one regularly scheduled meeting in person or over the phone. This gives me at least one defined opportunity to show my value to the client every month.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Those are great Peter. #2 in particular is really interesting, since the retainer thing always has the “what have you done for me lately” question hanging over it.

  2. Charles Alexander

    My rules:

    1. I bill at the beginning of each month.
    2. Newsletter videos will be the videos that come from my library. I charge extra to create a new one. They cannot be over 120 seconds. Ever.
    3. I never play poker with a guy named after a city.

  3. Jon M

    Hi Michael

    I’m on the other side of the fence at the moment – the person hiring likeable experts. I’ve been drafting an article about what I am looking for in a contractor. I wondered if this is the sort of thing you want to share with your readership?

    My basic gist is that when I get a person in to do some work for me I want to learn from them. I want them to explain what they do and why. That makes me more likely to go back to that person. It also means we can work more closely together in future.

    An example: I’ve used freelance video producers for a number of years. My favourite contractor is the one who has taught me the most about filming and editing. I haven’t reached the point where I can do it on my own. I don’t think I ever will, and certainly not to the standard he can do it. By teaching me what he does he has made me realise just what he does and made me want to hire him for future jobs to make sure that what gets done is up to the standard we have set. When we work together I know the kind of thing they need in terms of shooting angles, cut-away shots, locations and so on, so his life is easier too.

    The reverse of this was a contractor who was very good and delivered a good end product but was hard to work with. He gave the impression that finishing my project wasn’t a priority and my deadlines didn’t matter to him. Not helpful when I have other people asking when the film will be ready. The upshot was I used him once and never again.

    I can think of similar contractor relationships with designers, copywriters etc and it all comes down to the same thing – how well can I work with this person, will I learn something (not to rip them off, but to understand what I am paying for), will using them mean that I deliver a really good product to my boss? Price is important, but not as important as those other things. I would prefer to use a more expensive contractor who I trust and who takes my project seriously, than someone who is cheap and unreliable.

    I may be alone in this, but I imagine many people feel the same way.

    Thanks again for all your wisdom. I do enjoy your emails. I think I have been receiving them for almost a decade now.

    Best wishes


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Jon!
      And thanks for sharing that, very helpful.
      I find my clients tend to fall into one of two categories: those who want to learn along the way; those who want as little to do with the process as possible because they are busy with other things (and often have no interest in how the cake is baked – they just want cake!).


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