Difficult Choices for a Small Business - GDPR Impact
22nd May 2018
We love what we do and are passionate about our work for our clients, however some days it's harder to stay positive than others. I wrote this during another late night work session after one such day, and share it as I think it's important to acknowledge that there's always another side to the story, and to show the tricky inter-relation of the personal and the professional. We firmly believe that spreading kindness and optimism is the best way to be.
The impact of the GDPR legislation has had difficult consequences for us as a small business. I don't like to take it personally, but the amount of effort it is taking to grasp this thorny problem has really been quite unexpected, and some of its repercussions have made for difficult conversations and some very bruised feelings. It has made us pause for thought and wonder if we've been taking the right approach to our business across the years.
GDPR - increased business risk
As you'll probably already know, GDPR means that we as a web development business are now cast in the role of Data Processor for all our clients; from those we just manage emails for, to those we set up and run entire business administration systems for. So we're now obligated to step up our data protection stance for every client account we manage as we are jointly liable with our clients for any personal data on all the systems we provide to them to run their business. We've spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can fulfil our obligations and also calm many of our clients' fears.
Kindness and support
Over the years we've only charged for work we've been asked to do for our clients and avoided "retained" monthly support contracts as many of our clients couldn't afford them. Often, because the "work" was maybe answering "quick" questions on the phone, re-sending instructions for email services, providing telephone training for some of the system, answering strategic and technical advice questions and basically doing the hundreds of thousands of little pieces of support that come to us every day, we didn't charge anything for it. It was too labour-intensive, or felt difficult to charge for every 5 minute conversation, 30 minute email, every hour of phone or in-person advice. We wanted to support our clients, and help them as much as we could.
Every client without exception has had hours of free support of this kind from us over the years.
As the business owner this has been a cost to me, personally, in kind and in cash. I've subsidised the growth of many of our clients' businesses, helped them avoid expensive mistakes, encouraged them and been a sounding board for their ideas. I've paid my staff to provide this service and taken no fees myself and not passed our costs on to our clients. Quietly and in a spirit of kindness I've allowed this service culture to be central to our work at Alacrify.
The results have meant many lean months, where we've been tied up with lots of this kind of unbilled work. It's meant making choices about difficult priorities and managing expectations. It's meant long, long days with the extra (out-of-hours) late nights and early mornings to ensure the billable work is also completed. Family life has been impacted.
An impossible position
And so after years of this approach to support we have arrived at the point at which we have to deal with the enormous amount of work required for GDPR compliance, and the impact of this approach to support has now become untenable. There is SO much to do, and there are only two of us here most of the time to do it. We simply can't afford to provide all the support necessary for GDPR without receiving some recompense for our work.
The problem is we've made a rod for our own back. Theexpectation is that we do these things for free.
If we are to do that though, the amount of work needed is so colossal that we will simply go out of business. It is already taking up about 60% of our normal working week, in and out of office hours, to manage it, and it is easy to see it filling every waking hour. Without some income from this we will go bust.
A change of approach
So this time we've written to our clients and shared this dilemma, and explained that we need to raise a small charge to each of them to help us cover the work involved in complying with GDPR, in proportion to the complexity of the services we provide to them, and bearing in mind that GDPR is not a choice of ours, but a new shared risk to both us and our clients together resulting from EU and UK legislative changes.
The feedback and hostility we've had to our suggestions from some of our clients has been deeply upsetting.
All our previous (decades sometimes) of free support have been forgotten in favour of complaining about paying for an hour of our time to help get our client's GDPR compliance in order. The hours of listening, advising, fixing, improving, supporting, enhancing, encouraging and more, all free of charge, are completely ignored, in favour of abrupt, personally attacking comments and responses accusing us of being grasping and unjustified and unprofessional in our proposals. Dozens of hours of email and telephone time have already been clocked up in finding a professional, mature and measured response to these comments.
So I am left feeling bruised, and questioning whether there is a place for kindness in business. Am I naive after 30 years of self-employment and running a company to still feel that it's good and important to help other people, sometimes for no reward? Is commercial work a place that should be impersonal and emotion-free, solely about money and hard-nosed contracts? Should I abandon any compassion, personal care and generosity in what we do?
At the moment I don't have an easy answer to this and I'm worried that there will be difficult times, painful conversations and some very hard decisions ahead.
P.S. As I said abvove, this is post is very uncharacteristic for the type of writing we post on our news at Alacrify, and I have thought long and hard about whether to post it at all. We prefer to be positive, encouraging and celebrate the best of things. It's not the whole picture however, and on this occasion I hope that sharing this will provide a small glimpse of the many personal costs of running a small business, and the thousands of tricky decisions that owners make every day to create something of value and that makes a difference in the world. Jon Sloper
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