Partners not Vendors

Partners not Vendors

I was in a meeting the other day with a client, a long time client who’s become a friend as much as a business associate. They introduced me to a new coworker as a vendor – something like “a fantastic vendor for design and software.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable description of our relationship, but I also felt somewhat offended by that term. I’ve been trying to think through why – why does it bother me for someone to describe me as a vendor?

A vendor is a person or company that provides products or services for a fee. And I mean, yes, that’s exactly what we are, exactly what I am in this context.

But that description feels insufficient for how I think about our clients.

Dunbar’s Number

There’s a concept I learned in an anthropology course many years ago. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it’s the idea that there’s a natural limit to the number of people you can maintain stable relationships with. Maintaining a stable relationship in this context doesn’t just mean you know their name. You know how they relate to each other, and you have some closeness.

Robin Dunbar defined it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”  For Dunbar, that number was about 150 people.

Since he first proposed this limit in the early 90’s, there has been some debate about the exact number, and it certainly fluctuates between people – even among phases of an individual’s life.

But the general idea feels true to me. There’s a limit on how many people you can hold in your brain and think of when you read a relevant news article, how many people you can remember the details of their family, their hobbies, etc.

There’s a limit on how many people you can care about. When I choose to work with someone, I’m choosing to care about them. I’m hoping they’ll become somebody I’d want to join if I bumped into them at a bar.

People I Want to Work With

When I’m interviewing people, candidates often ask me about my goals for Simple Thread over the next few years. It’s a good question to ask if you find yourself in an interview with one of the founders of a small company. I give some thoughts on growth and tech and team composition or whatever aspects might affect their role, but my answer always ends with the same goal.

My primary goal for this business has always been to be a place I would want to work.

That means several things, but the most important aspect is that I get to work with people I want to work with. And that’s the area we’ve been most successful over the years.

Our team is awesome. Our clients are awesome.

There’s no one on our team that I dislike working with. There’s no client I interact with where I dread calls with them. I enjoy working with literally every single one of our employees and all of our clients.

In my experience, that’s extremely rare, and it’s a dynamic I try extremely hard to protect.

There are highly-skilled people we haven’t hired and highly-lucrative clients we haven’t pursued, because in the vetting process, we got red flags that they’d be bad to work with. I’m 100% sure we’ve made some mistakes in judgment over the years, but in general, I’ll gladly sacrifice short-term profit for long-term stability and a pleasant work environment for myself and our team.

This isn’t purely about having fun or being a nice place to work. It’s part of our long-term approach to business. We put a lot of effort into keeping a healthy work-life balance and having a sustainable pace on projects. Likewise, if we have a team that’s excellent to work with and clients who are excellent to work with, we’re betting that our team will be happier and deliver better results.

We’re betting that good people will love to work with good people, and over a long enough timeline, that will result in a more successful business as well.

People I Want to Care About

So, when we choose to take on a client, it’s about much more than money or the transaction between a vendor and client. I’m choosing to care about them and their business. I’m choosing to care about their career trajectory, their family, their hobbies.

I want to share their pain when the business does poorly and celebrate their success when it does well. When they’re going through a rough time because their kid or husband or dog is having a problem, I want to know. Maybe I can help. Or maybe I can just lend an ear. For me, that’s what being a human is all about.

That’s what it means to truly enjoy the people you work with, taking the good and the bad. It’s not just about laughing at their jokes and appreciating their everyday kindness. That’s great, but that’s surface level stuff. It’s also about being there in hard times, supporting them when they desperately need a friend. Anyone can be pleasant when things are good; you learn their true mettle when times are rough.

When I choose to work with you, I’m choosing to care about you – for you to be part of my Dunbar group of people I maintain stable relationships with. I don’t admit people into that group lightly, and they don’t leave quickly.

That means we might stop working together for a while, because you don’t need our services. That’s fine. I still care and want to see you succeed. You’re still in my group of people I’m happy to bump into at a bar.

Vendors Come and Go – Partners Last

That brings us back to the original point. I think the term “vendor” bothered me, because I consider myself a partner to our clients.

Partners are united in a common interest, an ally, and that’s how I view our clients – as business partners. My goal is not to extract as much money from you as quickly as possible. My goal is to build a relationship and help you achieve your goals for as long as I can be useful.

I am also a vendor, and there are times when I will recommend a client use our design and engineering services, our product discovery, devops, etc. I’m proud of our team and think we deliver excellent value within our scope of services.

But I’ll also tell you when I think you don’t need us. Start with a spreadsheet or Airtable and see if this idea has legs. Don’t jump straight to building software before you know you have buy-in from key stakeholders, product-market fit, etc.

I want to know your context, understand your problems, and help you solve them. When I find someone who’s excellent to work with, I want to become your partner, someone that you can trust to have your best interest in mind and help you think long-term.

Simple Thread might be your vendor one year and not the next, but once we gain each other’s trust, I am your steadfast partner.

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