In Doubt About Client Competition? Just Ask Them

Should you work for competing businesses?

If your immediate answer is “Legally, I’m technically not doing anything wrong” you should probably consider how you’re using technicalities to avoid the ethical minefield you’re dancing across, not to mention the risk to your reputation as a trustworthy professional.

You won’t find any legalese to address this question because there isn’t any – there are no laws on the books that state employees, consultants or freelancers may or may not work for more than one company, even competing companies, at any given time.

That said, while it’s perfectly legal for you to work for competing companies it’s also perfectly legal for one or both of your clients or clients to fire you. This is to say nothing of the precedent it sets – if your (former) client knows you’re capable of working for a competitor without disclosing that fact upfront, what else might you be capable of? Look forward to referrals from that client drying up.

That said, it’s often not a cut and dry situation when it comes to whether or not your customer considers a certain business a direct, tangible competitor, or even if your client has a problem with you working for them in the first place. Especially if you own multiple businesses or provide different services.

Fortunately, there’s a solution as old as time itself: Asking. You don’t even have to make a big deal about it.

One of my earliest customers is one town over from another business in the same industry that I’m in talks with as of this writing. My customer is in a very localized business and I didn’t expect there to be a competitive issue, but I figured a brief text exchange was warranted.

There you go: Asked and answered, question settled. As a bonus you got to see me agreeing to partake in some wannabe espionage on behalf of my client’s actual competitor.

I’ve heard some other solo developers say this is not something you should even bother to bring up. I fundamentally disagree with this idea. In all likelihood, for one thing, you don’t know nearly as much about your client’s business as they do and you’re subsequently not in a position to to overrule their judgment on who is and who isn’t a competitor.

The prospect of getting one extra client in the localized area is also not worth the perennial low-key fear that you’ll eventually be found out. Even if there’s a 99% chance your current client won’t have any problem, there’s no sense in taking the risk.

Another counterargument I’ve heard is that clients don’t get to dictate terms of your business to you why is why it’s not not worth asking about competitive issues. Except…yeah, they do. You’re already agreeing to put in a certain amount of commitment to a particular client just by working with them and working with a customer is a two way street. You have expectations of them and they have expectations of you, and it’s completely fair for them to be aware of any potential conflicts they have when they’re giving you money.

So when in doubt, just ask. It takes five minutes and it’s not worth the trouble down the road. In all likelihood you’ll probably get a green light anyway.