I’ve had successful deals and not-so-successful ones. I’ve been screwed in deals: Non-payers, joint ventures who disappear, investments that don’t materialize. It’s insanely frustrating when it happens and every time it does happen, I get really angry — as much at myself for not seeing the warning signs as the person or company that screwed me over.
And yet, I do more deals because I know that the majority of deals turn out okay; that a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch; that, on balance and in the long-run, I’ll still be better for having done deals. I also view the bad deals as a type of education, which helps me find better deals in the future.
Note: I should note here that when I talk about getting screwed on a deal, it’s not always the case of a nefarious business partner who wants to win while you lose. Sometimes, and this has been the more frequent situation for me, you can get screwed on a deal when you work with one or more well-meaning business partners who innocently don’t value you or your time or efforts or skill as much as they should. There isn’t a dark purpose here; they just don’t realize what you bring to the table.
If you do deals, or want to do deals but are a little cautious rigtht now, here are a few tips that can help you avoid getting screwed in a deal:
1. DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE
Don’t just jump blindly into a deal with someone who contacts you. Look into it first. Consider two things: The people involved in doing the deal, and, the upside (and downside) potential of the deal itself. This requires research — the one dreaded, arduous task that most people desperately want to avoid. Fortunately, I enjoy it and have found that a few minutes or hours of research and help to save or even make thousands of dollars. Research will help you understand who you are working with, and it can give you a dose of realism about the project’s potential. Due diligence won’t eliminate every instance of potential screwing but it will help you go into the deal with your eyes wide open to what the real potential is.
2. START SMALL
This is a tactic that I’ve adopted in the past few years: Don’t jump in with both feet, especially when working with someone you’ve never worked with before, or in an industry or business model you’re not familiar with. Rather than going all-in on a huge deal, start small. Work on a small aspect of the deal so that you can measure results and get into a rhythm with the person you are working with. Rather than co-authoring a book or building a massive business with someone, start on an ebook or blog just to test the waters.
3. GET IT IN WRITING
When you work with someone else, it helps to get the details in writing. Even if you forgo more formal, legal documents, it’s still helpful to know what each of your expectations are going in and what goals you have to work toward. On a couple of successful deals (but ones that had the potential to go south), we had information in writing that helped us to evaluate the progress of the deal as well as the expectations of each party and we relied on that to measure how we were doing and to hold each other accountable. When things started to go awry, we had a written document we could go back to and have a positive conversation about.
4. KEEP LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN
This one probably shouldn’t need to be said but it is a way to avoid getting screwed in a deal. There are actually two aspects to this: First, open communication between all parties helps to ensure that you are frequently and positively talking about the deal and nothing gets hidden away. Second, the act of communication, itself, is a way to keep a pulse on the deal. If communication suddenly dries up or becomes very one-sided or tense or accusatory, that’s a pretty significant warning sign.
Which leads me to the next point…
5. WATCH FOR WARNING SIGNS
When I look back at some of the earliest deals I’ve been screwed on, I laugh at myself for not seeing the warning signs earlier. There are all kinds of warning signs in a deal but often they are: Delays and rescheduling, actions without explanations, multiple excuses piled on top of each other, inaction, the conversation shifts to accusation, and blaming others. Sure, some of these might pop up once in a while on their own and you need to judge whether they are legitimate (i.e. there really was an unavoidable delay, perhaps because of a technological issue) or whether they are part of a larger problem. One or two of these things, once in a while, is usually okay. But the more these things happen and the more frequent they happen, the more likely you are about to get totally screwed in the deal. The trick is to see that tipping point as quickly as possible — to know when it’s no longer a one-time-problem but before it becomes a persistent problem for you.
6. BE INDISPENSABLE
Deals are done by people who want to succeed together. Implicit in that assertion is that each party believes the other person is a key part of the deal and has something to contribute. As long as you are indispensable to the deal, it’s not likely that you will be screwed. The moment you no longer contribute the value that the other person in the deal believes you offer, you risk becoming pushed out of the deal. In one deal, I bought a website. The person I bought it from was incredibly helpful and proactive… until I released the money from escrow. Once that was done, the project ground to a halt and although I now owned the website, the communication dried up. I still had the asset I purchased (which is why I used escrow) but I was left to do a lot more of the work afterward. That’s just one example using money to illustrate indispensability. You might be indispensable in other ways, such as in your network or the content you create or the way you can rehab a property. As long as the other person sees you as absolutely essential, you’ll probably not be screwed in the deal.
7. IT’S OKAY TO SAY NO TO CUT YOUR LOSSES
A few year ago, I put together a deal with someone in which I would do some consulting for him and his network. In a number of ways, the deal started to go south. I tried to end it once and was talked out of it. But I knew that I was about to get totally screwed on the deal so, even though I had invested some time into it already, I cut my losses and moved on. Saying no can (and should) happen before the deal even starts. But it’s hard to say no when someone is really selling us on a deal and waving promises of untold riches and fame in front of our faces, it can be hard to say no to a deal. And if you agree to a deal but later find out it’s going bad, don’t try to stick to it through to the end. Get out while you can. It will be painful but it’s better in the long-run.
8. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Instinct is that mysterious voice in the back of your head that tells you that something is about to be wrong. I don’t understand why it’s there. I don’t understand how it knows. I don’t understand why it’s so often right. But it is there, it knows, and it’s often right. So if your instinct starts to tingle and nudge you away from the deal, listen to it. I have never ever ever ever regretted following my instincts. I have frequently regretted ignoring them.
9. BUILD CONTROL INTO THE DEAL
This is the one that has the best opportunity of eliminating the chances of you getting screwed in a deal. It’s also (in my opinion) the hardest to do. Not surprisingly, it’s the one I’m the worst at. When you control the deal, you ensure that even if you do get screwed, you come away with a benefit. In a real estate deal, perhaps it’s a contract on the property or ownership of the property itself. In a business deal, perhaps it’s the intellectual property or the patent or the website or the cash flow that you own.
I love doing deals. I love that rush of putting something together with someone else and watching it grow. But once in a while, a deal comes along that goes south. They happen. It’s the cost of putting yourself out there. But if you can implement some of these ideas when you’re first putting a deal together, you’ll be less likely to get screwed.